The Road Ahead
Ethiopian cyclists are breaking onto the international scene. But it’s only the beginning.
The sun shone brightly on the streets of Mekelle, which lay quiet on a sleepy Saturday morning in June 2013. The morning chill bit as I got on my bicycle and headed south to the town of Alamata, a 175-kilometer pull over smooth tarmac roads that wound amid the peaks of northern Ethiopia, skirting the arid lowlands to the east. The ride offered everything: steep climbs around hairpin switchbacks, delirious white-knuckle descents, and roadside camel trains ambling along under bluebird skies.
On the way out, I fell in with a group of local cyclists. A pair of elite riders on quality road bikes led, trailed closely by a few up-and-comers. In the rear rode teenagers on cheap, ill-fitting mountain bikes, pedaling furiously and trying mightily to keep pace. This is how it starts, I thought. Find a bike — any bike — and pedal like hell.Maybe someone will notice and give you a nicer bike. Then you’ll be on your way.
The strong lead rider rode for a team in South Africa, and it was clear that he could blow this ride apart at will. Named Tsgabu Grmay, he was a success story in Ethiopia at the time — and even more so now.
Today, the 24-year-old Tsgabu rides in Europe for Lampre-Merida, an elite team currently ranked ninth in the world. In May, he became the first black African ever to ride in the Giro d’Italia. The Giro joins with the Tour de France and the Vuelta de España to form the prestigious Grand Tours of cycling, celebrated multiweek races that represent the pinnacle of the sport.
At the 2015 Africa Continental Road Championships in February, he also qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. And he wasn’t alone. On the women’s side, Hadnet Asmelash, a 22-year-old with hardly any international racing experience, burst out of nowhere to claim a qualifying spot as well. Together, they will be the first Ethiopians ever to ride in the Olympics.
Anyone familiar with Ethiopia’s distance-running prowess might be surprised to learn that its cycling lags so far behind. After all, the same qualities that make Ethiopia an ideal training ground for runners — high altitude, favorable weather, challenging terrain — are perfect for cycling. And the physical and mental strengths that make Ethiopians standout runners translate easily to the bicycle.
Over the past few years, the number of cycling competitors and races in
Ethiopia have grown steadily, as has support from local sponsors. Tigray
Region in northern Ethiopia, for example, now boasts five cycling clubs, having added three since 2011 alone. The clubs provide riders with equipment, coaching and salaries, and riding with one represents the best chance most will have to realize their talent. And Ethiopia has plenty of talent.
“These kids have massive potential,” says Jonathon “Jock” Boyer, coach of Team Rwanda Cycling. Boyer was the first American ever to ride the Tour de France, and he’s been working for years to build and promote cycling in Rwanda. He first noticed Ethiopian cyclists during the Tour of Rwanda, where he found himself impressed by their displayed strength. He later visited Ethiopia and tested a number of riders on an ergometer, which measures a rider’s power output.
“We tested 120 riders, men and women,” he says, “and half of them tested at the international level.” But Boyer is quick to acknowledge the obstacles these riders face. “The lack of good bikes is hurting them.”
Brent Copeland, coach for Lampre-Merida, agrees. “The biggest problem is the economic challenge,” he says, adding that Ethiopian riders also need more international race experience. To succeed on the highest level, African riders must learn to ride in tight groups, especially down the daredevil descents of the European road circuit.
“It sounds easy,” Copeland says, “but when you’re riding down a narrow road with 200 riders, all going 60 kilometers an hour, it’s really difficult to stay up front.”
Indeed, Tsgabu remembers the shock of competing in Europe for the first time. “It was a difficult moment,” he says. “It was raining, cold, fast, and I thought, This isn’t cycling.
“But over time it got better,” he adds, “and I got some good results and I began to think, Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can be a professional. Maybe I can change my life.”
European riders get started with the sport early — there are international racing opportunities for children as young as 8 — and quality equipment, coaching and racing opportunities all lie closely within reach. These things, considered necessities by most, remain luxuries in Tsgabu’s view; he didn’t get his first bike — a well-used mountain bike — until age 16.
“For European riders it’s normal to have the best. For me, it’s different,” he says. “But the door was opened and now I have the best bike, the best team and good races. It’s easy for me now.”
It’s somewhat of a paradox that, for someone coming out of Ethiopia, the highest level of competition is actually the easiest; the obstacles of access and economics finally disappear, and the only barrier remaining is the limit of your talent — a ceiling Tsgabu has yet to reach.
A visit to Tsgabu’s former team and Hadnet’s current sponsor, the Trans-Ethiopia Cycling Club in Mekelle, shows how far the sport has come in Ethiopia — and how much further it has to go. The team’s walled compound is a cycling oasis amid a dusty, buzzing neighborhood teeming with tuk-tuks, vendors and kids playing soccer in the street. Bikes line the porches of the single-story dorms, and cycle shorts and jerseys hang from lines strung among the trees.
The club sponsors 22 riders — 18 men and four women — and when I visited, most lazed about the compound, recovering from their morning ride. The quarters were spare, with little furniture beyond the metal-framed beds lining the walls. The bikes themselves appeared as the only indulgence, and even they had all seen better days.
“The standard of bicycles is poor in our club,” admitted club manager Eyasu Weldetensae. “The purchasing system is not good. It takes over a year for one shipment of bicycles. While we wait, we are repairing what we have.”
The bikes — all made of lightweight carbon fiber — can crack in crashes, and they’re difficult to repair. For most people on carbon bikes, a cracked frame is a junked frame. But every bike I saw showed signs of having cracked and been glued back together, some in multiple places.
“It’s not pretty but it works,” said Gebregiorgis “Gege” Adhana, a bike mechanic who lives and works in Mekelle. Gege has been the mechanic for the Ethiopian National Team for the last 17 years, and he studied bicycle repair at the World Cycling Center in Switzerland. He shuffled around his bike shop, walled in zinc sheeting and floored by dirt.
His workspace was a menagerie of chain links, gearing, oily cloths, and plastic jugs full of nuts and washers. On the walls hung an array of salvaged bike parts, which Gege had gathered over time to use in future repairs. “I keep everything I find,” he said. “You never know.”
The shop glowed as a triumph of ingenuity, but the bare shelves were hard to overlook. The lack of quality bike supplies in Ethiopia was taking its toll and, feeling the economic pinch, Gege was considering closing his doors. But despite his difficulties, he remained optimistic about cycling in the country.
“Coaches are still searching how to coach,” he said. “Riders are searching how to ride. We are struggling day by day to learn.”
The challenges are obvious, but everyone holds hope for the future. There’s a general feeling amid the country that Tsgabu and Hadnet’s success will unblock a sense of possibility for the sport and prove it worthy of attention.
“Cycling is just starting now,” Tsgabu says. “Maybe we can be like the runners. It’s the same breathing, the same endurance. We just need the bikes and the encouragement.
“Now I’m here, but other people can be like me,” he adds. “Why not? They can be better.”
Asked if she felt like a pioneer for her country in the sport, Hadnet replies no. “I haven’t achieved anything yet,” she says. For Hadnet, getting to the Olympics marks an important milestone, but one day winning at that level remains the true prize.
Such humble ambition is another trait these riders share with Ethiopian runners, all striving to overcome modest beginnings and find success in the biggest arenas. For Hadnet and Tsgabu, and the riders in their slipstream, events like Rio in 2016 are not just the culmination of something great; they are the beginning of something greater.
Eventually the road forked, and the group and I parted ways. They rode on in a tight peloton, over a hill and out of sight, while I stopped to rest on the outskirts of a village. A crowd of people materialized. A man looked up the winding road and back to me, smiling.
“Where are you go?” he asked.
“Alamata,” I said. The group gave a collective nod. They knew I yet faced a long, hard way. I got on my bike, and they all began clapping in time.
As I picked up speed, young boys ran alongside, barefoot escorts who leapt and squealed. The desert landscape of rocky bluffs and jagged peaks took my breath away, and the road unfurled gently before me, asking to be ridden. I made my way toward the mountain, feeling daunted but hopeful, just as I felt for the country’s cyclists and their journey ahead. And I knew that theirs, like mine that day, would be as difficult as it was beautiful.