By Richard Abraham,
They’re not very hard to spot. Just look for the dozens of enormous Eritrean flags fluttering in the muggy air in downtown Richmond along the road race course at the World Championships.
Look a little more closely and you’ll find there are Eritrean flag-themed scarves, T-shirts, drums, beanies, and even woolly jumpers numbering in their hundreds, all belonging to the vast number of Eritrea fans at this year’s Worlds.
“We think there will probably be double this number, if not more, come the weekend. There will be thousands of us!” Dawit Haile, fan and officer for the Eritrean national federation, told Cycling Weekly.
“These people have all had to take the day of work to come here.”
The Dutch are well known for their (often boozy) enthusiasm for cycling but this year they are yet to descend on the world championships. It would be a very long, wet drive in a motorhome.
Instead it’s Eritrea’s supporters who are rivalling the home team USA in terms of numbers, and who are unparalleled when it comes to noise and energy levels.
“If they [our riders] win, great, but if not we’re still proud,” added Haile.
Cycling is a national sport in Eritrea (thanks partly to the legacy of a short period of Italian colonial rule) and the nation’s fans made a name for themselves at this year’s Tour de France, where they turned out en masse to support MTN-Qhubeka riders Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus.
This Friday it was Kudus who was the centre of attention, with hundreds of fans crowding around the team’s rented van after the U23 men’s road race, where he came 11th, and benevolently (but firmly) demanding selfies.
The reason for the transatlantic support network is the large Eritrean diaspora in North America, with many living in Washington D.C. or along the east coast within striking distance of Richmond. That said, some had travelled from California and Canada.
Eritrean loves their cycling. #Richmond2015 pic.twitter.com/YG9Swtv3IT
— Luke (@LukeTheCycliste) September 25, 2015
It’s a community with a strong sense of national identity, and one that is extremely well-connected by social media. That network is handy for buying and selling items of green, red, blue and gold clothing, too.
"Eritrea has 9 tribes, but one heart." ❤️ #Richmond2015 #UCI2015 pic.twitter.com/duGulesWjD
— VPM (@myVPM) September 25, 2015
It’s also one with a strong sense of pride: for its country and for its professional cyclists.
Team Eritrea fans are everywhere at #Richmond2015 pic.twitter.com/b54BGCKQS0
— Link Elmore (@linkelmore) September 25, 2015
Teklehaimanot and Kudus received an open-top tour through the streets of the capital Asmara when they returned home after the Tour.
Most of fans in #Richmond2015 today is surprisingly from Eritrea.Shall we buy some flags for sunday @zdenekstybar ? pic.twitter.com/TRWHMwByJE
— Radka Maurova (@RadkaMaurova) September 25, 2015
They and their teammates can again be proud that, so far in this year’s world championships, they’ve got the best fans by miles.