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A Discussion with an Eritrean Cycling Legend

Eritrea is increasingly being recognized for its large number of talented cyclists who are blazing a trail of glory on circuits around the world. Cycling is not new to Eritrea and the country has a long record of producing gifted cyclists. Today, we speak with Mr. Yemane Negassi, a legendary cyclist, who has even participated in the Summer Olympics. After his great career, Mr. Yemane “stayed in the game” by serving as a technical supervisor for Eritrea’s successful national teams and President of the Cycling Federation of the Central region.

  • Hello, it’s great to meet you. Tell us a little about yourself.

It is a pleasure, really. I fell in love with cycling when I was just 14 years of age. When I was growing up, many foreigners, especially Italians, lived in the country and they were interested in racing bikes. Although I was interested, I never quite had enough money to buy a bicycle – I suppose no one did back then – so I used to pay 10 cents to borrow a bike for several hours.

I also had friends who would go on to become famous cyclists. We loved cycling and would often ride together. We bought our own T-shirts and started racing on our own in 1962.

  • Traditionally, there was a lack of opportunities for Eritreans to participate in races. How did you manage to get involved?

In races, there were usually only a few Eritrean cyclists participating. We participated in more than ten competitions. In many of the races, my friend Fitshatsion Gebreyesus would place highly or even win, leading us to buy him a new proper bicycle. After that, Fitshatsion began to win races and soon after, he joined one of the biggest cycling teams of the time, Asmara. I also saved up some money and went to buy a second-hand bike from an Italian. Even though the money I had saved wasn’t enough, the Italian man recognized my passion and love for racing and sold it to me for a cheap price.

After the Asmara-Dekemhare- Asmara contest that I participated in, I also made it to the Asmara Cycling Junior Team. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the length of the race, since I found it to be very short. The young cyclists were very passionate about biking; we had what it takes to make it to the next level. That is why we all worked so hard. We wanted to improve and move on to the next level, which we did.

  • You are one of the people who made it to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964…Tell us about that.

What a hassle I had to go through to get there! Although talented, I was very young and small in stature. I only weighed 49 kilos at that time. As a result, I wasn’t one of the people selected to participate in the Ethiopian Championships of 1964. That competition was where cyclists were nominated to participate at the Olympics. I was disappointed but my teammates were even more disappointed. They gathered up some money for me to go to Addis to be in the race.

It was a great competition and I won the 250km race, meaning that I was to automatically be one of the nominees. However, due to some misunderstanding and technical issues, I wasn’t on the list. I was furious and decided to head back home. But my bus broke down on the way back, and I met one of the people from the cycling committee. He convinced me to go back and race against those who were nominated to go to the Olympics. Fortunately, I was among the winners, and that is how I came to be selected to participate at the 1964 Olympics.

  • How were the Olympics?

It was a good competition, even though we didn’t have much training. We were the first Africans to participate in of the cycling races. We were competitive and recognized for our talents.

Four years ago, I went back to Tokyo upon the invitation our embassy there. I met with the Tokyo Cycling Federation and completed many interviews about Eritrea’s participation at the 1964 Olympics.

After the Olympics, Eritrean cyclists became more competitive and went on to dominate almost all the races in Africa.

I then participated in the Mexico Olympics of 1968 and Moscow Olympics of 1972, which were both very exciting and wonderful experiences. I was also the Eritrean national champion in 1967.

  • When did you stop racing?

Cycling wasn’t very active during from 1973-79 due to the political issues of the time. Not only was there no competitions, people weren’t allowed to ride their bikes in town. However, starting from after 1979, we had many races and the level of competition quickly grew.
I stop racing in 1981 and became a member of the sub-committee of the Cycling Federation. I also served as the technical advisor for the national team until I became the President of the Cycling Federation of the Central Region for more than ten years.

  • Looking at the current crop of Eritrean cyclists, what are your thoughts?

We came a long way to be internationally recognized in cycling. We didn’t have many opportunities or extensive support. Nonetheless, we had dreams. Dreams to make it to the biggest races in the world, and represent our country.
Today, I believe we are there. For sure, today’s athletes have opportunities and a support structure unlike their forefathers. But they work hard to bring out the best in themselves. They continue to make history, competing in the world’s biggest competitions and putting their country’s name on the international map.
We also have many more young talented cyclists who are just beginning their journeys. I think we have a bright future – especially if more opportunities are provided and more competitions are organized. We have great potential and can do much more.

  • Anything you want to remind our readers, Mr. Yemane?

Yes, please. Cycling is a sport requiring great discipline. It involves much hard work and dedication. But more than that, passion. If any cyclist is going to be successful, they should understand and value the need for hard work.

Also, we all should support and motivate our young athletes. For us to continue to flourish as a cycling nation or achieve even greater successes, athletes should be given more backing to develop and upgrade their skills.

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