Eritrea’s rising success in world pro cycling food for thought for Kenya

Team Israel Start Up Nation's Christopher Froome of Great Britain competes during the fourth stage of the 73rd edition of the Criterium du Dauphine cycling race, a 16km time trial between Firmigny and Roche-la-Moliere on June 2, 2021.
 

Photo credit: Alain Jocard | AFP

What you need to know:

  • I think cycling’s true potential in Kenya is enormous given the country’s obvious strength in endurance running.
  • We just need to look at the successes of our Horn of Africa neighbours.
  • Kinjah once said that there were even stronger young riders than Froome in the group he used to train back in the days.

Eritrea, like other African nations, has its fair share of problems.

Amidst rampant poverty, its government is extremely repressive. This explains why many times we read of numerous members of Eritrean sports teams declining to go back home after representing their nation in international competitions, and instead seek asylum.

It has been the norm rather than the exception for members of Eritrean football teams to disappear (read fail to go back home) after playing in the Cecafa tournaments hosted in Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere.

But reading literature on the history and culture of Eritrea paints a picture of a beautiful people and country.

The capital city Asmara has exquisite, admirable Italian architecture, a result of many years of colonization by the European country.

Eritrea was part of the ancient kingdom of Aksum that existed between 100 AD and 940 AD. Aksum is believed to be the home of the Queen of Sheba and the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

Honestly, I only got to know these facts as I was researching for my column today.

What I know as a fact is that Eritrea has had a tradition of producing great long distance runners.

Just to pick a few; the best known and most illustrious is undoubtedly Zersenay Tadese.

He held the world record in men's half marathon from 2010 to 2018. He is the 2007 World Cross Country Champion. Remember his storming run in sultry Mombasa in 2007?

Tadese claimed bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, becoming the first Eritrean Olympic medallist. He followed this up with four consecutive World Half Marathon Championships victories from 2006 to 2009 .

Actually, he holds a record five World Half Marathon titles after his last triumph in 2012.

In 2009, Tadese became only the second man (after Paul Tergat) to win three World Championship medals over three different surfaces in the same year, claiming World Cross Country bronze, 10,000 metres World Championship silver, and gold at the World Half Marathon Championships.

There is also Mebrahtom Keflezighi who acquired American citizenship and went on to win marathon silver at the 2004 Olympics.

He is the winner of the 2009 New York City Marathon and the 2014 Boston Marathon.

Yonas Kifle represented Eritrea in four successive Olympics; in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.

He won bronze at the half marathon at the 2007 All-Africa Games, and the 2005 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships.

The list goes on, and on. Eritreans also excel in another endurance sport, cycling.

Talented Biniam Girmay, a member of the WorldTeam Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux, has lit up the UCl (International Cycling Union) races.

He is currently competing in the Giro d’Italia where he was recently pipped to second spot in Stage One of the Grand Tour event on Saturday by the winner, formidable Dutch rider Mathieu van der Paul of the Alpecin-Fenix team.

The 22-year-old Eritrean finished second in the 2021 World Championships Under-23 road race, becoming the first African medallist at this event.

Girmay won this year’s Trofeo Alcúdia in Spain on January 27, becoming the first African to triumph in a one-day classic event.

He followed that with victory at the 84th Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields one day road race in Belgium on March 27, and is clearly one of the hottest young cycling prospects in the world.

Another hot Eritrean cyclist is Merhawi Kudus, a member of UCI WorldTeam EF Education–EasyPost.

He is one of the first two black Africans to race in the Tour de France, in 2015 alongside his compatriot Daniel Teklehaimanot, another accomplished pro cyclist.

Kudus, 28, won the Tour de Rwanda, arguably Africa’s biggest cycling race, in 2019 and finished fourth in the 2017 Tour of Oman.

Natnael Berhane, 31, is a two time (2011, 2012) African champion and winner of the 2013 Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey, an eight-stage race. The Eritrean veteran has competed professionally for a decade.

Considering Eritrea’s exploits in the world of cycling, why has Kenya also not produced world-class cyclists yet we also have the genes and the altitude that predisposes us to excel in endurance sports?

Our most famous and successful cyclist, who is no longer ours, is Chris Froome, a four-time Tour de France champion and seven-time Grand Tour winner.

He once impersonated a Kenya Cycling Federation official to register his name as a competitor in the 2006 World Championships Under-23 race in Salzburg.

The rest as they say is history, as Froome changed citizenship to British to enhance his professional career.

The only other elite Kenyan cyclist of note that I can fish out from the back of my mind is David Kinjah, who, incidentally, mentored Froome in Kenya.

I rarely come across information on competitive/professional cycling in Kenya to the extent that I wonder if it even exists.

The National Olympic Committee of Kenya talks about diversifying our sports and improving chances of winning more medals at the Olympics.

I think cycling’s true potential in Kenya is enormous given the country’s obvious strength in endurance running.

We just need to look at the successes of our Horn of Africa neighbours.

Kinjah once said that there were even stronger young riders than Froome in the group he used to train back in the days.

Food for thought.


Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.