By Patrick Kane | Virginia Commonwealth University,
Members of the Eritrean National Cycling Team didn’t have to wander far from the 2015 Road World Championships course to feel right at home. Four cyclists from the team, along with members of the delegation accompanying the team, were welcomed by about 30 members of the Eritrean Student Association for a meet and greet at the University Student Commons on Tuesday afternoon.
“Eritrea is a small country to begin with, so we’re all a really close community. Our adviser [Ghidewon Abay-Asmerom, Ph.D.] is one of the main people organizing team Eritrea’s stay in Richmond,” said Iman Nur, president of the ESA and a senior information systems major. “We just thought it would be an awesome opportunity to have the cyclists come in.”
Among the riders was Merhawi Kudus, who is one of only two black African cyclists in history to enter and finish the Tour de France. Kudus placed 76th in this summer’s tour riding for the MTN Qhubeka team, the first African team.
“Those of you who have watched the Tour de France, his face was on TV a lot. He was the youngest rider of the Tour de France,” Abay-Asmerom said.
Daniel Teklehaimanot, an Eritrean cyclist who wore the coveted King of the Mountains polka dot jersey (representing the best climber) for several days in the Tour de France, was the other ground-breaking black African cyclist.
“We are proud of them,” Abay-Asmerom said.
Here in Richmond, Kudus placed 21st of 50 riders in Tuesday’s under-23 men’s time trial race.
The cyclists shared their thoughts about the Richmond course and Southern hospitality.
Kudus said he has enjoyed the course in Richmond, especially the broad roads on much of the course.
“I’m a climber, so I really like the hills, so the hardest is the descents,” he said.
Yonas Tekeste said Richmond and Morocco, where courses go through ancient towns, have been his favorite places to race.
Amanuel Gebregziabher suffered a technical issue and could not compete in the time trial, but will race Friday. “I haven’t yet raced in Richmond, so I’ll give you an answer after I compare it to what I saw in Brazil,” he said, speaking through a translator.
Mekseb Debesay, the fifth cyclist on the national squad, was resting up for today’s men’s elite time trial event. He placed 51st of 70 riders.
Eritrea has a rich history of cycling dating back to the era of Italian colonial occupation, said Asmerom Habtermariam, president of the Eritrean Cycling Federation. Italian officials built sporting fields and hosted competitions – including bicycle racing – in their garrisons.
“Eritreans were limited to being spectators. They weren’t allowed to race and ride, because of racist policies of the colony,” he said, speaking in Tigrinya as Abay-Asmerom translated.
Once integration of sports began, they were soon outracing the Italians. Today, bicycles remain an important means of transportation for people and commerce.
“If you take Daniel Teklehaimanot, the King of the Mountains in the Tour de France, he was a farmer’s kid,” said Habtermariam.
The federation’s efforts to grow the sport is paying off, he said.
“Right now, we’re talking about 3,000 riders. We have a consistent source of riders who are up and coming. Cycling is still growing,” Habtermariam said.
As the cyclists enter the last few days of racing in Richmond, they will see friendly faces and flags in the crowds.
“We’ve been trying to get to all their races, cheering them on,” Nur said.