Without question, the Tour de France is one of sport’s toughest ordeals and the ultimate test for professional cyclists. It was created in 1903, as French cyclists, the national sporting press, and the cycling industry organized modern cycle road racing as a sport and spectacle. By 1919, approximately one-third of the country’s population would watch at least some part of the Tour (Goldblatt 2006). Cycling quickly became amongst the most popular sports in France, and the Tour soon developed to gain popularity and preeminence across the world. This year’s edition of the Tour adds another special chapter to the race’s long, storied history as it involves the participation, for the first time, of Eritreans. Yet, Eritrea’s Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus not only carry the flag of their nation but, as the first black African athletes in the Tour’s history, the hopes of a continent.
Cycling in Eritrea, like in France, originated on a foundation of exclusion. In the late 1800s, France was experiencing rapid social, political, and economic changes, and during this period, sport represented “a marker and indicator of the transformations occurring in society, culture and the economy, as well as in politics” (Holt 1981). Cycling was restricted to the bourgeois and aristocracy; however, as bicycles became more affordable, cycling spread to the working and lower classes.
In Eritrea, the first sighting of a bicycle was in 1898 in Massawa, having been introduced by the Italians. By the 1930s, clubs were being organized, and on April 21st 1937, the first race took place in Asmara. However, during this period, Eritreans were barred from races and clubs due to the segregationist policies of fascism. Not to be denied, Eritreans soon created their own competitions and formed their own clubs. Then, in 1939, a special “trial of strength” was organized by the Italian colonial administrators; Eritreans and Italians would compete together in the same race. In Mussolini’s Italy, sporting success was to embody the greater glory of the fascist nation-state, and the joint Eritrean-Italian race was expected to display the superiority of the colonial master. Instead, like Jesse Owens’ destruction of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda about Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Munich Olympics, Eritrea’s Ghebremariam Ghebru won the race and shattered colonial myths about Eritrean inferiority.
Even as Eritrea began to undergo large-scale socio-political developments and decades of war (1961-1991), the country’s love of cycling and passion for racing failed to diminish. During the 1970s, notable Eritrean cyclists included Abraham Teklehaimanot, Zeregaber Gebrehiwet, and Yemane Negasi (Tesfagiorgis 2011). After independence, cycling in Eritrea grew even further. Dozens of new teams, with boisterous fan clubs were formed, and hundreds of cyclists began to compete in challenging, technical races. In 2001, the Zur Eritrea (Giro d’Eritrea or Tour of Eritrea), a 700-mile race competed across ten stages, was re-launched (the inaugural edition was run in 1946, with five stages and thirty-four riders). The Zur Eritrea and other local races, involving a high calibre of competition and numerous challenges, have been vital stepping stones for Eritrean cyclists who have gone on to conquer and dominate African cycling. Evoking memories of some of the greatest dynasties within world sports, Eritrea has won the last five African Continental Cycling Championships (an unprecedented feat in the competition’s history).
Eritrea is a country of nine ethnicities, three working languages, several main religions, but one true sporting passion – cycling. With cycling growing across Africa, the question of a first black African Tour champion is shifting to “when” and not “if”. As Teklehaimanot and Kudus compete alongside the world’s best in France, they carry the dreams of a nation and the hopes of a continent.
Credit: Chris Keulen. Giro d’Eritrea. Cyclists pass a Bedouin camel caravan, on the road between Barentu and Keren in central Eritrea, 26 November 2009.
Tribute Song to Eritrean National Cyclist Team: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpxFdn6dL6M
Red Bull’s Patrick Seabase – Visit to Eritrea: Asmawa – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSU_TJE58kk