When it comes to cycling, history is on the side of Eritreans. Cycling is considered a national pastime in the country and almost every Eritrean grows up riding a bicycle. Today, most kids growing up want to be the next Daniel Teklehaimanot or Merhawi Kudus.
This week the Africa Cup is the only cycling race that matters. The competition has captured the imagination of the sporting public in the country and the continent.
The competition, which is the first of its kind, is being held in Asmara, Eritrea, from November 21st to 25th. The competition, sponsored by Eritrea and recognized by Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), officially opened on Tuesday night with a ceremonial dinner. Ministers, international diplomats, and other distinguished guests were in attendance.
The President of the Eritrean Cycling Federation, Mr. Tewolde Yohanes, praised the UCI and the Confédération Africaine de Cyclisme (CAC) for providing Eritrea with the special opportunity to host the inaugural edition of the competition. Ambassador Zemede Tekle, Eritrea’s Commissioner of Culture and Sports, stated that the competition will help enhance the growth of cycling across Africa and that Eritrea was highly proud to host the first edition of the competition. Also speaking, Mr. Mohamed Bashir, a representative of the CAC technical delegation, noted that while cycling encompasses nine different competitions, Africa has only hosted the African Championships on a regular basis. He added that with the introduction of the Africa Cup, riders from Africa can now compete regularly and he went on to thank the ECF and the Commission of Culture and Sport for their efforts in organizing the competition.
The dinner ceremony, held in Asmara Palace, featured a photo exhibition with pictures from different eras of Eritrea’s cycling history. These included pictures from the 1940’s, the first female rider Hiwet Gebre, Tekeste Weldu (Gigante), the 1970’s, and Daniel Teklehaimanot’s recent heroics at the 2015 Tour de France. There was also a cultural show by the cultural troupe Miras (Legends), who performed numbers from six different Eritrean ethnic groups. This was followed by the official unveiling of the competing teams, which are Benin, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Seychelles, and Eritrea.
The competition began on Wednesday at noon, with team time trials (TTT) on a route around Tseterat and Tsaida Cristian. The route, which is 18 kilometers long, started with the women’s TTT. The route is considered ideal for riders, since they see the bare, winding roads of Space, Enda Germen, and Qushet as an irresistible challenge. In the TTT, the winning team is determined according to the time of the fourth-fastest rider. In order to increase the chances of winning, teams try to keep the gap between the first four riders is small and they also utilize the “slipstream” technique.
As the competition began, all eyes were on the Eritrean riders. It was unsurprising, then, when Eritrea’s women’s team, represented by Zinab Fistum, Diana Dawit, Adiam Tesfealem, and Tigsti Gebrehiwet set a blistering pace early on. With the wind in their face, teams Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa were already playing catch up to the Eritreans. Going at a speed of approximately 42 km/hour, the Eritrean team crossed the finish line in a time of 25 minutes and 20 seconds. Ethiopia finished eight seconds behind, and South Africa came in third 19 seconds behind.
“I feel like it is a dream,” said Zinab Ftsum, captain of the Eritrean women’s team after the first stage. She added that “teamwork” was crucial to the team’s success.
Up next, the men’s TTT. The men had to complete two laps on the same circuit. The race, which featured Eritrea, Benin, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Rwanda, caught the attention of the fans that were dispersed across the entire 18km long circuit.
Once again, the Eritrea team dominated proceedings, clocking a time of 2o minutes and 20 seconds on the first lap and finishing the race with a time of 41 minutes and 36 seconds. Remarkably, at times they reached speeds as high as 52 km/hour. Rwanda finished 2 minutes behind and Ethiopia finished in third place with a time of 44 minutes and 59 seconds. Egypt, Nigeria, and Benin took the remaining spots.
Stage two of the competition continued on Friday morning with the individual time trials (ITT). The ITT is often described as the “race of truth”, the ultimate test of an individual and bike against the clock. No room for errors. The round requires cyclists to be extremely aerodynamic while maintaining a steady rhythm of pedaling and power output. Many young cyclists tend to overexert themselves early on, slow down in the middle, before being almost out of energy towards the end. Such was the case in Friday’s race.
The race, as with previous day, began with the women’s under23 and elite ITT. The racers ride the entire way individually, with no teammates next to them and slipstream to help against the wind.
Eritrea’s Adiam Tesfealem was the fastest women’s rider in both the under-23 and elite categories. Pedaling at 42 km/hour, she finished the stage in 26 minutes and 16 seconds. Ethiopia’s Mihret Asghede and Liezel Jordaanof South Africa came second and third, respectively, in the elite category, while Ethiopian riders Mihret Asghede and Birhan Fikadu took second and third place in the women’s under-23 category.
The men’s race had a total of 17 riders. On a day featuring pleasant sunshine, Eritrea’s riders made light work of a demanding course and they dominated the final podium, finishing in first, second, and third place. Sirak Tesfom took the top spot in the men’s elite category. By the midpoint, it was already apparent that he was virtually in a race of his own. He reached speeds as high as 54km/hour and obliterated the competition. Sirak Tesfom finished the stage with a time of 42 minutes and 50 seconds while Aron Debretsion finished one minute and 28 seconds behind. Daniel Habtemichael took third place, finishing one minute and 41 seconds behind Sirak Tesfom.
In the under-23 category, Eritrea once again dominated, winning first and second place. Daniel Habtemichael took first place and Henok Mulubrhan, his teammate, was in second. Rwanda’s Moise Mugusha showed great heart to finish in third place. Both the team and individual time trials have given fans a great show and they have provided a snapshot of what’s still to come in the competition this weekend. While there’s no doubting the quality of Eritrea’s great riders, the likes of Rwanda and Ethiopia can give them a run for their money in the upcoming stages of the competition.