By Aklilu Lijam,
CYCLING is one of the most popular sports in Eritrea. It is the national sport, practiced and followed with exceptional passion. Everywhere you go there are people on bicycles; from old men in suits pedaling through the capital (Asmara), to youngsters on their ‘Cross Country’ mountain bikes.
As one journalist put it “Eritreans have had cycling in their blood”. But it is the obsession with racing that is most remarkable. Weekend races in Asmara and through other cities (Keren, Masswa, Mendefera etc.) attract tens of thousands of spectators. In Asmara alone, an average of twenty thousand paying spectators attend the race lined in the streets of ‘Enda-Mariam’ or ‘Monopolio’ shouting ‘Forza!’ and ‘Bravo!’ cheering for the riders and the teams they support standing on their feet for long hours.
Cycling in Eritrea, especially after independence (May 1991), has shown remarkable growth in terms of quantity and quality. At the present time, it is estimated that there are more than 3,000 registered competitive riders throughout the country. We have more than 1000 of them in the capital Asmara and the top clubs like EriTel, Asbeco, Adulis, Debub, Mereb, etc. have their own fan clubs, which is unthinkable in most African countries.
In its history Eritrea was able to produce many legendary riders who represented it in many major world and continental events like the Olympics, World Championships, African championships etc. and these riders have scored significant victories.
The legend continues and currently we have several famed riders who have joined well-known professional clubs in Europe and Africa and representing Eritrea in the world stage. Today, the country boasts several professional riders who compete internationally. Among these are: Daniel Teklehaimanot, Merhawi Kudus, Natnael Berhane, Mekseb Debesay and Meron Russom.
This outstanding achievement of these cyclists is not attained simply overnight but is surely the outcome of collective endeavors of: first the riders themselves, the local cycling clubs, the Eritrean National Cycling Federation (ENCF), the relevant sport’s associations (inside and outside Eritrea) and the government institutions, which extended their consistent support for the growth of this sport.
As a former Secretary General and President of the Eritrean National Cycling Federation and one of the initiators and organizers of the ‘Zur Eritrea’ (Tour of Eritrea) in May 2001, I will give big credit to the ENCF for introducing the Tour of Eritrea which paved the way for our riders to get prepared at the national level in order to be ready and competitive at the international stage.
The ENCF played a pivotal role by introducing and organizing tough and challenging races like the Tour of Eritrea which greatly contributed to this extraordinary level our riders have reached at the present time. It made them ready for such highly contested events as the Tour de France. It also made it possible to be among the few selected riders to represent their country and the African continent on cycling’s most global stage.
— Team MTN-Qhubeka (@TeamMTNQhubeka) July 3, 2015
Eritreans finally made a spotlight and made it to the list of MTN-Qhubeka club representing Africa in the Tour. They are ready to show what they are capable of doing on the world stage of cycling. Finally we now have all over the international media the vibrant and current news echoing loudly: “Two Eritrean Riders to Lead African Team at the Tour de France”, “Eritrean Cyclists pedal country and the continent onto world stage”, “Daniel Teklehaimanot among top 5 climbers to watch at the Tour de France”, “Merhawi Kudus the youngest African rider in the race”, etc.
In the Tour de France official website there is a column that indicates the “Great Moments” in the history of the Tour. These Great Moments in the history of the Tour are labeled by rider, by year and by country informing readers with all kinds of records set on the Tour. For the purpose of this article I hereby would like to list only some of the interesting ones as an example:
1903 Great Moments:
Premier Tour de France: The first champion of the Tour was Italian-born French cyclist by the name of Maurice Garin. After having completed the event circuit at an average speed of 25 km/h, he was rewarded with prize money of 6,075 francs, a handsome purse for the era.
1969 Great Moments:
Return to brand-name teams: The national team formula was scrapped and the reversion to brand-name teams was made permanent.
1992 Great Moments:
High five for Indurain: The Spaniard Miguel Indurain became the first rider to win Le Tour five times in a row.
2001 Great moments:
A sixth green jersey for Zabel: The German Erik Zabel, winner of twelve stages of le Tour, is best remembered as the record-holder for the most Green Jerseys won.
Now the question that comes to our mind will be: what will be the next Great Moment in the history of the Tour de France? What will the official website of the Tour de France label as 2015 Great Moment? The answer we (Eritreans and Africans) would like to hear is that “Cyclists from Eritrea made history by being the first black Africans to participate in the Tour”. Or “The first black African from Eritrea won a stage in the Tour”. Or “Eritrean cyclist became the first rider from Africa to be the best climber in the Tour 2015”.
Regardless of what the official website of the Tour de France will write as a Great Moment in the history of the Tour, both riders from Eritrea, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus; have already made history not only for their country but for their continent by taking part in this world class cycling race. ‘Viva’ Eritrea!! ‘Viva’ Africa!!