TOUR of Turkey victor Natnael Berhane says that it would be a dream come true if he were to become the first Eritrean cyclist to ride the Tour de France in 2015 with his new team MTN-Qhubeka. The South African-based team are looking to become the first African registered team to make it to the Grand Boucle and Berhane hopes to be one of the luck nine selected if they earn a wildcard.
“I have been dreaming about that. I hope that I will be able to be part of the team and that I can be in good shape,” Berhane told Cyclingnews. “This year I wasn’t able to but next year it is a big goal for me to ride the Tour de France.
“It is quite hard to think about finishing well as a GC rider but I want to improve and I want to be able to do something like get in the breakaway or maybe win a stage. I hope next year that my dream will come true.”
Along with the Tour de France, Berhane is also targeting success at Paris-Nice and the Eritrean National Championships, where he hopes to defend his time trial title, and a return to the Tour of Turkey.
Berhane turned professional with Europcar in 2013 and immediately began to show signs of potential with a stage win and second place overall at the Tour of Turkey – he would later be awarded the victory when Mustafa Sayar was banned for using EPO. He went on to become the first African winner of the Gabon race La Tropical Amissa Bong, beating Luis Leon Sanchez by a single second.
The 23-year-old made his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España as one of three Eritreans in the race – Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus competed for MTN-Qhubeka. It didn’t go as well as he had hoped after he fell ill during the race and he eventually completed the three weeks over four and a half hours behind the winner Contador.
Berhane hopes that the success of he and his compatriots will mean more professional teams in the future. “Maybe we can also have a professional team like MTN-Qhubeka,” he said. “For African riders it is very important for MTN-Qhubeka to ride in the WorldTour races and maybe sometime we can have another African professional team. If we can get a lot of African riders then we can do that. I hope I will see it soon.”
Berhane did have something to take his mind off things when MTN-Qhubeka boss Douglas Ryder approached him about a potential move to his team. The 23-year-old snapped at the opportunity and the deal was officially announced at the beginning of October. Berhane describes the move as like ‘coming home’ but says his two years spent at Europcar will prove invaluable as he targets some big goals in 2015. “I am so happy, I can’t tell you,” he says.
“I feel very comfortable because they deal with a lot of African riders. So for me it is very nice to be with this team,” continued Berhane. “I enjoyed my time at Europcar. I did a lot of WorldTour races and I think that over the next few seasons that experience will help me.”
The last two seasons haven’t been plain sailing for Berhane who, like many of his fellow African riders, has struggled with visa problems that has made racing in Europe a difficult task. Prior to his performance at the Tour of Turkey, Berhane risked being sent home until the race organisers came in to save the say. With more than half of their roster coming from the African continent, MTN-Qhubeka are well versed in negotiating the pitfalls of visa applications, another reason to make the move.
Berhane is a quietly spoken and a man of few words but when asked about the problems he endured he had plenty to say. He recalled one particular incident from the beginning of this season. “When I arrived in Langkawi this year, I had to stay in immigration for 24 hours and they told me that I should go to Singapore or something but eventually the organiser came to get me after 24 hours and took me to the hotel. I’m going to race, not for a holiday,” he laughed wryly.
“For months I had problems. The team would tell me that I was going to a race but I couldn’t get a visa and so I stopped racing. They have a lot of problems with African riders. I hope that in a few years things will change but there are a lot of visa problems.”