Eritrea’s Cycling Powerhouse: Brief History

Eritrea’s Cycling Powerhouse: Brief History
By Amanuel Alazar

The first bicycle was introduced in Eritrea during the Italian colonial time (around 1905); however, it didn’t take long before it became part of Eritreans’ daily life as a means of transportation and a vehicle of competitive sports. Bicycle race in Eritrea started in 1936 organized by the Eritrean Cycling Commission (Commissario eritreo del ciclismo). On the 21st of April that year, the first bicycle race, composed of Italians only, was held. Later Eritrean cyclists were allowed to compete and several of them got the chance to participate in several Olympic competitions.

During the time of Ethiopian occupation [1952-1991], several Eritreans participated in five Olympic bicycle races representing Ethiopia. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics is of particular notice because the entire Ethiopian cycling team was composed of Eritreans. The fact that 19 Eritrean cyclists were able to take part in five consecutive Olympic races is a huge testament to the cycling talent Eritrea had. Asmara’s cycling circuit was topnotch. Here is a sample of Eritrean cyclists who participated in the Olympics under the Ethiopian banner between 1956 and 1972:

• 1956 (Melbourne, Australia) – Tsehaye Bahta and Mesfin Tesfay;
• 1960 (Rome, Italy) – Alazar Kiflu and Giovanni Matusalla;
• 1964 (Tokyo, Japan) – Fessehatsion Ghebreyesus, Salambini Carmelo, Solomon Embaye, and Yemane Negassi;
• 1968 (Mexico City, Mexico) – Salambini Carmelo, Fessehatsion Ghebreyesus, Yemane Negassi, Tekeste Woldu (Gigante), and Mehari Ogbamichael;
• 1972 (Munich, Germany) – Tekeste Woldu (Gigante), Fessehatsion Ghebreyesus, Russom Ghebremeskel, Mehari Ogbamichael, and Sulieman Abdulrahman.

After independence, Eritrean bicycle racing took off from zero but with a big momentum. Even though the Ethiopian invasion of 1998-2000 had its impact, it was not long before Eritrean cycling started to get noticed all over Africa. It started in 2006, when team Eritrea scored a huge victory by winning the gold at the Anoka Championship in Kenya. This reintroduced Eritrea to the world of cycling.

Starting 2010 Eritrea rose to the top of African cycling championship. In that year, at the Tour Rwanda, Eritrea made history, by sweeping all the gold medals of the tour. No country had done achieved such a victory before that. In 2011, when Eritrea hosted the African Cycling Championship, not only did Eritrean cyclists won again, but the multitudes of Eritrean fans that lined up on the streets to cheer their cyclists demonstrated that Eritrea indeed lives and breathes cycling. U.C.I’s President Pat McQuaid was in Eritrea witnessing this. In this championship, Eritrea won the African team time trial, Daniel Teklehaimanot won the African individual time trial, and Natnael Berhane won the African Road Race Championship.

The same happened the next two years. In 2012, in Burkina Faso, Eritrea again won the African team time trial championship, and Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane also repeated their victories in the African individual time trial championship and African Road Race Championship in that order. In the 2013 championship held in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt), Tesfom Ogbamariam won the African Road Race Championship, and Daniel Teklehaimanot the African individual time trial championship and Eritrea was again the African team time trial champion. This means Eritrea was crowned champion of African cycling for four consecutive years proving that it is indeed Africa’s cycling powerhouse. In the 2014 championship, however, the South Africans, in a championship that took place in their own country, managed to snatch victory from Eritrea for the first time in five years.

At this time, there are 3 professional Eritrean cyclists: Merhawi Qudus, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Nathnael Berhane. Out of the trio, Merhawi Qudus has already been nominated to race in the Tour de France. This will be a new chapter in the 70-year old history of Eritrean cycling. Eritrea, for the first time, will be participating in the world’s major biking race. We are hopeful this is just the beginning of bicycle racing in Eritrea. It is the hope of every Eritrean that in the near future there will be several more professional cyclists that would make name for themselves as well as Eritrea.