By Fikrejesus Amahazion (PhD),
WITHOUT question, the Tour de France is one of sport’s toughest ordeals and the ultimate test for professional cyclists. It was created in 1903, as French cyclists, the national sporting press, and the cycling industry organized modern cycle road racing as a sport and spectacle. By 1919, approximately one-third of the country’s population would watch at least some part of the Tour (Goldblatt 2006).
Cycling quickly became amongst the most popular sports in France, and the Tour soon developed to gain popularity and preeminence across the world. This year’s edition of the Tour adds another special chapter to the race’s long, storied history as it involves the participation, for the first time, of Eritreans. Yet, Eritrea’s Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus not only carry the flag of their nation but, as the first black African athletes in the Tour’s history, the hopes of a continent.
Cycling in Eritrea, like in France, originated on a foundation of exclusion. In the late 1800s, France was experiencing rapid social, political, and economic changes, and during this period, sport represented “a marker and indicator of the transformations occurring in society, culture and the economy, as well as in politics” (Holt 1981). Cycling was restricted to the bourgeois and aristocracy; however, as bicycles became more affordable, cycling spread to the working and lower classes.
In Eritrea, the first sighting of a bicycle was in 1898 in Massawa, having been introduced by the Italians. By the 1930s, clubs were being organized, and on April 21st 1937, the first race took place in Asmara. However, during this period, Eritreans were barred from races and clubs due to the segregationist policies of fascism. Not to be denied, Eritreans soon created their own competitions and formed their own clubs. Then, in 1939, a special “trial of strength” was organized by the Italian colonial administrators; Eritreans and Italians would compete together in the same race.
In Mussolini’s Italy, sporting success was to embody the greater glory of the fascist nation-state, and the joint Eritrean-Italian race was expected to display the superiority of the colonial master. Instead, like Jesse Owens’ destruction of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda about Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Munich Olympics, Eritrea’s Ghebremariam Ghebru won the race and shattered colonial myths about Eritrean inferiority.
Even as Eritrea began to undergo large-scale socio-political developments and decades of war (1961-1991), the country’s love of cycling and passion for racing failed to diminish. During the 1970s, notable Eritrean cyclists included Abraham Teklehaimanot, Zeregaber Gebrehiwet, and Yemane Negasi (Tesfagiorgis 2011). After independence, cycling in Eritrea grew even further. Dozens of new teams, with boisterous fan clubs were formed, and hundreds of cyclists began to compete in challenging, technical races.
In 2001, the Zur Eritrea (Giro d’Eritrea or Tour of Eritrea), a 700-mile race competed across ten stages, was re-launched (the inaugural edition was run in 1946, with five stages and thirty-four riders). The Zur Eritrea and other local races, involving a high calibre of competition and numerous challenges, have been vital stepping stones for Eritrean cyclists who have gone on to conquer and dominate African cycling. Evoking memories of some of the greatest dynasties within world sports, Eritrea has won the last five African Continental Cycling Championships (an unprecedented feat in the competition’s history).
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ALSO READ : Tour de France 2015, Great Moment for Eritrea and Africa
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Eritrea is a country of nine ethnicities, three working languages, several main religions, but one true sporting passion – cycling. With cycling growing across Africa, the question of a first black African Tour champion is shifting to “when” and not “if”. As Teklehaimanot and Kudus compete alongside the world’s best in France, they carry the dreams of a nation and the hopes of a continent.
|History of Cycling race in Eritrea|
|1910 :||Bicycle was introduced to Eritrea by an Italian soldier|
|1936 :||Cycling Commission of Eritrea dominated by Italians was founded|
|1937 :||The first cycling race event was in Asmara, Eritrea|
|1937 :||Eritrea's indigenous cycling team was founded supported by local folks|
|1939 :||Eritrean cyclists were allowed to participate with the Italian cyclists in local events|
|1939 :||Eritrean Ghebremariam Gebru won the first cycling championship cup in Eritrea|
|1946 :||First Tour of Eritrea cycling championship was conducted|
|1951 :||Cyclists from Eritrea founded team named "Africa"|
|1951 :||Weldemicael Weldemariam (Berbere) from Eritrea won annual championship event|
|1952-1966 :||Annual events of cycling races were held with tough rivalry & competition among local & Italian cyclists in Eritrea|
|1956 :||Two cyclists from Eritrea participated in Melbourne Olympics|
|1960 :||Two cyclists from Eritrea participated in Rome Olympics|
|1964 :||Four cyclists from Eritrea participated in Tokyo Olympics|
|1968 :||Tekeste Weldu (Gigante) was Eritrea's first cycling professional to race international|
|1968 :||Four cyclists from Eritrea participated in Mexico Olympics|
|1972 :||Two cyclists from Eritrea participated in Munich Olympics|
|2012 :||Daniel Teclehaimanot from Eritrea participated in London Olympics : a rebirth of cycling sport in Eritrea|
|2013 :||Natnael Berhane from Eritrea was the first African to win Tour of Turkey|
|2014 :||Natnael Berhane from Eritrea becomes the first African to win Tropicale African Bongo 2014|
|2015 :||More than 16 Eritrean cyclists have gone professional
|July 4th, 2015 :||Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus becomes the first Eritreans as well as the first black African to compete at the Tour de France|
|.... ( courtesy of Ambassador Estifanos @AmbassadorEstif )|