He is one of the cyclists that have made their country’s name shine in the cycling world. The Professional Cyclist, Natnael Brhane, not only did succeed in making his dreams come true, he also became an inspiration to young Eritrean potential athletes to follow the virtuous line of Eritrean cycling. “I believe that the Eritrean cyclist possesses a great potential, a potential that would make Eritrea stand out in the cycling world. And I work to set a good example so that many of the great talents would be provided with a platform to have a chance”, says the two-time champion of Africa. Besides earning many titles to his name, Natnael recently became the Champion of Eritrea 2019, adding more honor and also responsibility as he will be participating at the grand tour –Tour De France 2019 — which is going to start on the 6th of July. He has the best African cyclist’s record, registered in 2016 in Qatar. The Eritrean professional road racer currently plays for the French Cycling Team, Cofidis. Getting hold of him on his busy schedule as he prepares to leave for the Tour De France, Q & A talks to Natnael about his expedition as a professional athlete.
- The rise of the star
I am a person who didn’t have the support of the family at the beginning. My parents never knew that I was into cycling, even when I was contesting at mountain biking. I don’t know how I was influenced to get in to cycling, but I remember that I developed an unconditional love for it. Of course, I lived in a neighborhood where many of the cycling contests were held. Besides, there were many cyclists in my neighborhood, which encouraged me to get into cycling. My family heard my name on the radio when I used to win contests, but they didn’t know that I was the Natnel who was winning the races. Now, they are my biggest fans. My mother tells the story every time she meets people going through the same path.
- The hurdles and opportunities, the long road to become a professional cyclist
The only Eritrean who had the opportunity to go to the UCI before me was Daniel Teklehaimanot. However, when I was presented with the chance, I set up my mind to believe that I had to accept and go through whatever obstacles that may come my way, if I was going to succeed in making my dream of becoming a professional cyclist come true. And, as I had anticipated, that journey initiated my career. Here, we didn’t know the proper ways of being a professional athlete. Everything is connected: how you eat, sleep, recover, etc. The lessons shaped me to think and breathe like a professional. By the way I would like to mention that we have a young female cyclist, Desiet Kidane, who is taking lessons at UCI. This makes me very happy.
Becoming a professional cyclist sure has ups and downs. One of the biggest challenges we have been experiencing is racism. That is something that tags along everywhere. I can have the potential to lead a race, but there is no European cyclist that would want to work for my result, or even be given the chance to lead a race. But this is something that I have to go through to be successful. In 2015, there was an incident many media outlets talked about. During a race, one of the contenders insulted me with an offensive word and threw something at me. But I just didn’t care and carried on with my game. The thing that he threw ended up hitting another contender and it caused a lot of problems. The guy who was hit heard what he called me and told the authorities. They were surprised to find out what he told them was true. That kind of behavior could have made him suspended from competing, but I didn’t sue. This is just a simple example of what we go through as African professional cyclists. That is why I push to work hard, so that we would be recognized for our talents and many Eritrean cyclists would be presented with a chance to be the best they can be in cycling.
- A two time Champion of Africa, still making a head way across the globe
Over the years, I have participated in many contests such as World Champion, Tour de France, Jero de Italia, and Tour of Turkey in addition to local tours. These are just few of the major races I participated in. I have been fortunate to win in many races: I won the Tour of Algeria 2012. Again, one of the biggest races in Europe, Tour Turkey 2013, I was able to win the stage race and receive the yellow jersey, making me the first African to win in a European race. At Tour Gabon 2014, I became the first African to ever win the stage race. But that wasn’t the first time to make history there; I had also participated in Tour of Gabon in 2011 with the National Team where I won I stage. I also finished 2nd to the yellow jersey in Tour of Rwanda 2 0 1 0 . During t h e interview, after receiving my award, I told them that I dreamt of becoming the first African to win the race. The dream came true in 2014 and that was one of my happiest moments. Besides winning twice the Eritrean champion 2015 and 2019, becoming a two-time African champion 2011 and 2012 is what I consider to be one of my best accomplishments. Whenever I watch the video of the African Champion 2011, I still get emotional. Hosting the game here puts an immense responsibility on the contenders. Not only that, but mind you, it wasn’t just a race that cycling fans watched, it was a championship the whole country anticipated with passion. To see the whole country rejoice for winning the title meant the world to me.
Also, talking of the recent championship of Eritrea 2019, it was an excellent r a c e . Every one prepared well and s h o w e d a great competency. It was one of the best races I have ever been to. Of course, I prepared well and worked hard to win the title. If you have a big contest planned right after a competition, it motivates you to work hard on it. That is why, becoming a champion was important for me since I am going to take part in Tour de France 2019. While on topic, I would like to express my appreciation for Robel Tewelde who won third place, for his skills and proficiency. I believe he did well and he deserves support.
- Preparing for Tour De France 2019
Winning the championship has its honors and responsibilities. To participate in one of the biggest cycling races wearing a customized shirt with my flag, besides being the only Eritrean and few of African contenders, is going to make me feel honored and would make me carry a great burden to keep up the good work. This is also a great inspiration for the young Eritreans who have a great talent for cycling. Let me tell you something. I didn’t have the big dreams to be in big races such as the Tour de France; all that I cared about was to get to the first division just like the senior cyclists. But now, these kids have icons to look up to that were able to participate in international races and who managed to win many titles. This will make them upgrade their potential to get there. So, I have trained well and I am ready to be at the Tour de France. My first week will focus on working for the team result. Afterwards, the second and third week, I will be sprinting to get in rank. This is what I am working on, and I hope that I would come out as one of the winners.