History of Eritrean Cycling - Eritrean Aspirations for Dignity and Independence

Articles - General

An elated Eritrean wrote this poem after Daniel Teclehaimanot got to the podium in the Tour de France, wore King of the Mountain jersey, and kept it for four days in the summer of 2015.

Let’s invite the Eritreans

Let’s give the Eritreans some cards

Let’s invite them to the great race

To the Tour de France

The King of all cycling contests.

Of course, they will have little chance

Against the Contadors, the Greipels, and the Froomes of the game

As everything is stacked against them

It will be the swift-footed racing against the lame.

It is true – they are the champions of Africa

But what good can come out of the Dark Continent?

Only poverty, war, misery and sorrow

A success story?

Not from the Africa we know.

The Eritreans have little chance,

the organizers repeated;

After all, they are from Africa

And the dark continent’s perfect replica.

In addition, the organizers agreed

They are from a poor country

Never heard of before

With no cycling history

A country of no consequence!

A country in the troubled Horn,

Where terrorism is a thorn in Africa’s sides

And where famine claims lives by the thousands

A region ravaged by drought and worn-down.

Thirdly, the organizers listed

One very difficult hurdle.

The Eritreans have no experience,

The Tour de France people decided

At the end, they will have to slink away

Licking their badly bruised wounds.

***
Surely, these are not the Eritreans,

a commentator gasped

How come then ...?

His words died on his lips.

In complete disbelief, the organizers gaped

As the Eritrean trailed the best of the bunch behind

Leaving them panting, sweating, tired and exhausted.

Daniel, a man of few clear words and plain

Heard what the organizers said.

“Go and read the wise Aesop again,”

He suggested,

“And learn a lesson from the boasts of the hare.”

The 2015 Tour de France was a great moment, which filled the Eritrean people with pride, one that showed to the world what an Eritrean cyclist can do. It parallels the joy and pride the Eritreans felt in 1948 when Weldemichael Asghedom, nicknamed Berbere (whose story Haddas Eritrea carried several years ago), and another Eritrean named Gherezgiher Weldetatios beat Italian cyclists in the heart of Asmara, when they were allowed to compete against them for the first time. [Berbere, the Italian coach then admitted, was such a strong competitor that he was like berbere, red pepper, the spice Eritreans use in their daily diet, but too hot, for the Italians’ liking.]

The poem, however, doesn’t encapsulate the feelings the Eritreans experienced at the time only, but also can express the feelings they experienced whenever they defeated their oppressors in the game in the past. It describes the Eritreans’ desire for respect and fair-treatment, based on merit, and condemns racist attitudes, which have followed Eritrean cycling from its beginnings during the late Italian colonial period until the present. A recent example is the racist remarks a Ukrainian cyclist threw at Natnael Berhane, a few years ago, and the comments by journalists, who have described Eritrean cyclists as the first Africans to achieve such a success, as if such successes are beyond the ability of Africans.

After Daniel has blazed the trail, a number of Eritrean cyclists have followed in his footsteps and are competing for well-known teams. Now, Eritrean cyclists have become cyclists not to be taken lightly in the international arena.

Due to the extraordinary success of Eritrean cycling, professional Eritrean cyclists are playing for different European and Asian teams, inconceivable some ten to 15 years ago. The roots of such success lies in the determination of the cyclists who confronted Italian, British, and Ethiopian colonial governments to respect their rights, and their right to participate and compete in the cycling contests organized in Eritrea and for just treatment during the contests.

However, few have the tortuous and difficult path Eritrean cycling has taken in the past, and the many challenges it had to overcome to come to this level. Many fail to understand that the popularity of the sport has its roots in the support it enjoyed from the Eritrean population in its difficult and trying earliest days. To understand the basis of its popularity it may be necessary to get to its roots, and understand the political context that shaped the reactions of the Eritrean people as they experienced racism and oppression, and how the game channeled their feelings against their colonizers. They need to recognize the fact that as in football, cycling was a game through which the Eritreans tried to show their identity as a people, and convince their colonizers that they deserved to be treated as a people, worthy of self-government.

The Italians (who introduced the bicycle to Eritrea in 1905) used it for postal exchange at the time. However, it didn’t take long for the Eritreans to adopt the machine, and make it part of their daily life, using it for sporting competition. In their 80-year cycling history, they mastered the tricks of the game and have made themselves Africa’s cycling giants. Eritrean cycling developed to such an extent that Jock Boyer, an American cycling coach and former Tour de France racer (https://www.theglobeandmail. com/world/article-the-bicycle-horn-of-africa-how-cycling-became-a-part-of-eritreas/) speaks of Eritrean cycling not as a game, not as a sport activity, but as a culture. “Eritrea is the only African country that has such deep roots in cycling. It’s a deep-seated culture. Every young kid in the country has tried cycling to see if they can make it onto a team. They’re highly motivated and dedicated.”

The cycling culture which Jock Boyer speaks of developed not only because Eritreans loved the game but also because it helped them make political statements about their identity, their aspirations for independence as a people different and separate from their colonizers be they Italians, or Ethiopians, and their desire for respect as human beings, and against discrimination due to the colour of their skin or their political stance. Reading the history of Eritrean sports, and especially Eritrean cycling, tells this story of Eritrean resistance to occupation and oppression.

Sport in Eritrea, in general, and cycling before 1991, in particular, was closely associated with the political conditions of the various periods, in which Eritrean cyclists competed. The cyclists reflected the feelings of the Eritrean people which, in turn, mirrored their stand against oppression and their political aspirations for independence.

During the Italian colonial period, Eritrean cyclists, contrary to Fascist propaganda, proved that black people were not inferior and were capable of extraordinary cycling feats. They showed that they did not lack cycling skills and fitness during the British period.

Similarly, during the Ethiopian occupation cycling contests between Ethiopian provinces (of which Eritrea was made one in 1962) mirrored the struggle waged in the field between the Ethiopian occupation army and the fighters.
In an interview by Asmait Futsumberhan (www.tesfanews.net/tekeste-weldu-jegante-eritrean-cycling-legend), Tekeste Weldu, an Eritrean cycling legend who was born in the late 1940s and began competing at 12, shares the feelings (with other Eritreans) that urged him in his cycling contests in the 1960s, and underlines the role the feelings played in the game, and how they influenced the cyclists’ determination. It is important to note that Tekeste Weldu expresses such feelings more than 20 years after the defeat of the Italians by the British in 1941 and the end of Fascist rule in Eritrea.

“Back when I just started to take interest in cycling and started to watch the races, there was a guy named Kahsai Lemlem. He is probably the only one who was black to participate among the Italians at that time. I recall a specific game; I saw him cry when he finished third following two Italians. At that moment, I promised to myself and friends that I was to compete among the Italians and win. That was a promise I didn’t want to break.”

Such attitudes among Eritrean cyclists (about their capacity) did not begin to develop in the 1960s but much earlier, in the late 1930s. In 1939, an Eritrean cyclist named Ghebremariam Ghebru defeated several Italians in a special race organized by Italian colonial authorities three years after cycling races started in Eritrea, which, at first, allowed only Italians to participate. That victory “shattered colonial Italian myths about Eritrean inferiority”, and confirmed what the Eritreans saw on the ground.

But Italian attitudes about white superiority were indefensible and went against the reality on the ground. In ‘Mussolini’s colonial race laws and state-settler relations in Africa Orientale Italiana (1935-1941)’ Guilia Barrera, an Italian researcher, shows why Mussolini was compelled to issue the race laws of the 1930s. Barrera states: “Another important factor that encouraged the Fascist government to issue race laws was the large percentage of working-class settlers. The regime had conceived of AOI as an outlet for Italian unemployed workers and landless peasants. While agricultural settlement by and large failed ... the empire did attract thousands of unemployed workers. In 1935, Mussolini shipped 50, 000 Italian workers to Eritrea, to prepare the infrastructure necessary for the invasion [of Ethiopia]. Moreover, demobilized soldiers provided a large percentage of Italian settlers, and we know from reports regarding soldiers’ reallocation that most of them found employment as unskilled workers. Proletarian settlers could become an asset for Mussolini when he boasted that Italy was a ‘proletarian nation’; but when rhetoric gave way to reality, workers instead became a source of embarrassment. A number of sources report that Africans, seeing the Italians performing manual labour, commented that ‘Italians brought their white slaves with them’.... Italian working-class settlers made racial hierarchies dangerously unclear: the more the class blurred the divide between the colonizers and the colonized, the more race laws needed to clarify this divide.”

Eritrean cyclists saw Italian cyclists in this light.