By Kimberly Coats,
MOSANNA Debesay, a young twenty-one year old woman from Asmara, Eritrea, comes from a long line of cyclists, heroes of the sport of cycling in Eritrea.
Her older brothers are Frekalsi Debesay, who currently rides for MTN Qhubeka and recently won a stage at this year’s Tour of Amissa Bongo (Gabon) and Mekseb Debesay who took 2nd in the recent Eritrean National Championship ITT and 4th in the Road Race in Asmara.
Mosanna is from a cycling family dynasty in this country whose number one sport is cycling. Mosanna finished 2nd in the ITT at the Eritrean National Championships and 3rd in the Road Race. Mosanna’s journey through the sport of cycling has been much different than Rigat Tekle’s.
Rigat Tekle is head of Women’s Cycling in Eritrea. She is in her early 30’s and has always loved racing bicycles. Rigat is passionate about helping these young women have opportunities not afforded to her just a short decade ago. When Rigat began cycling her mother did not support her decision to ride a bicycle. Her mother believed riding a bicycle would damage her opportunity to marry. Rigat stated, “it was like I was no longer a virgin”. Rigat rode anyway.
Today Rigat is married and the mother of a young child. Her mother is now supportive. Rigat now helps woman have the chance she never had. She helps grow the sport of cycling in Eritrea via the Federation. Mosanna can thank her brothers and Rigat.
There are 62 registered female road cyclists in Eritrea with countless more on mountain bikes. Recently, all six regions of Eritrea received 10 new Giant bicycles for their women’s programs. I met two of the regional federation employees…both women, one Muslim. There is a women’s cycling movement in Eritrea, which is overcoming the cultural and religious obstacles to women cycling.
The Eritrean Cycling Federation recently organized the first ever CycloFemme ride in Eritrea. It was launched by men for women in Eritrea. We are making progress.
The women’s national championship road race down the main street in the capital city of Asmara was held immediately after the juniors and before the elite/U23 race. The streets were already packed with fans. The women’s race fielded 33 cyclists from the various six regions. One thing, which glaringly stood out, was the lack of women spectators. Rigat said it was just the way it is. The older generation of women simply does not understand why girls ride. As I walked through the crowds what I did notice was the younger generation watching. There were girls watching. These girls want to be the next Mosanna.
We are working to make their dreams a reality. One of the biggest obstacles, not only in Africa, but worldwide, is the scarcity of women’s races. This year there will be a one day race for women in conjunction with the Tour de France after a 5 year absence. It’s not the 10 day stage races of the 80’s and 90’s but it is a start.
The UCI is committed to women’s cycling, it is on their radar and they are working to add more races and Africa is an exciting venue for them. Africa is a developing continent for cycling and women’s cycling is an integral part of that plan.
We have already begun working on the logistics, sponsorship and funding to launch a 2015 Women’s Tour of Rwanda 4 day stage race. We will also look to do the same with the Tour of Eritrea in the early months of 2015. These two events would be the premiere women’s cycling races in Africa. In February 2015, the African Continental Championships near Durban, South Africa will most likely host the largest contingency of women cyclists in African history.
For the first time, two junior Rwandan women will be racing at the Youth Olympics in Beijing in August 2014. Clementine and Benithea recently qualified after racing in the African Youth Games in Botswana in May.
Women’s cycling in Rwanda and Eritrea is on the move. It is time to give these women the support they need to own Half the Road in cycling worldwide.