Cycling in Eritrea: The Legacy of Resilience, Competitiveness, and Skill
By Aklilu Lijam
On September 24, 2021, Eritreans all over the world celebrated a significant sporting victory. This victory was achieved by a young rider and a rising star by the name Biniam Girmai. As one of the European journalists reported, “Biniam hailed a landmark moment for Eritrea and all of Africa after winning the silver medal in the U23 men’s road race at the Union Cycling International (UCI) Road World Championships”. However, this victory was not achieved overnight and had its roots in the love of all Eritreans’ cycling sports. For generations, Eritreans’ love and embracing of “the machine” for daily activities or competitive sports has been going.
The tradition of competitiveness and scoring persistent victories that started with the “First Generation” is now more than ever glittering with the new generation known as the “Fourth Generation.” Due to the extraordinary success of Eritrean cycling, professional Eritrean cyclists have joined different European and Asian cycling clubs, unthinkable some twenty to twenty-five years ago. The roots of such success lie in the determination of the Eritrean people in general and the cyclists in particular, who confronted Italian, British, and Ethiopian colonial rulers to respect their rights and their right to participate and compete in the cycling contests organized in Eritrea and for just and equal treatment during the competitions.
All the cyclists, from the first generation to the current young riders, have paid dearly to the success stories we are enjoying and boasting about now. If we look back at Eritrean cycling history, the Italians first introduced cycling to Eritreans. In 1898, the Italian soldiers brought in the first bike, used for postal services. However, cycling as a competitive sport was first introduced at the beginning of the 20th century. Thus, a 120-year-old heritage with “the machine” both for means of transportation and competitive sports has developed a proliferating passion for the sport. The result is that Eritrea is keeping on producing some of the best cyclists in the world.
The Eritrean people embraced this “new machine,” and it did not take long before it became part of their daily life as a mode of transportation and means of competitive sports. The bicycle, which, when introduced into Eritrea, was nicknamed Arebya Sheytan (the Devil’s Chariot), has since then shed its derogatory name because Eritreans learned how to use it, tamed the machine, and learned that if used correctly, it could be beneficial. Thus, it did not take time for the bicycle to become many Eritreans’ best friends, including children.
It was in 1935/36 that Eritreans, for the first time, were able to use the bicycle in a competitive sport. This is the time known as “Nel Trenta-Cinque,” which marks the Italian invasion of Ethiopia from their bases in Eritrea and Somalia. Eritrea at that time has been under Italian occupation for forty-five years. Therefore, it was not easy for the Eritrean indigenous people to overcome the obstacles of the Fascist discriminatory laws and compete in any of the cycling events organized by the Italians. However, as we refer to them in the Eritrean cycling competition, the first generation, therefore, showed resilience and dedication or used the Tigrinya word “HABBO” to overcome the obstacles imposed by the Italian colonist. They fought hard and were able not only to be part of the sporting events but showed their skills to beat the Italian colonists and prove that black Africans are not in any way inferior.
The huge victories scored by Eritrean cyclists Gebremariam Gebru in 1939 and Weldemichael Asgedom (nick-named Berbere) in 1946 can be sighted as good examples of the significant achievements by the indigenous people that paved the way to more successes. In the international cycling arena, the two Eritrean Olympians; Tsehaye Bahta and Mesfin Tesfai set the ball rolling when they became the first black Africans to compete in the Olympics of 1956 in Melbourne, Australia.
These legendary names in the Eritrean cycling history were followed by the 2nd generation of riders, which became household names, and as they are many, it isn’t easy to list their names in this article. These riders made headlines in the Olympics from 1960 to 1972, showing their skills competing with the elite European riders. Five of these riders were able to stand first and win a gold medal in the All African Games of 1972 in Lagos. Despite the hardships they were facing by the Ethiopian colonizers, the “Third Generation” was also able to achieve historic victories in the domestic and international stages achieving galvanizing successes.
Then we have the new generation, both men and women, known as the “Fourth Generation” who managed to influx the global stages in significant numbers by first attending the UCI based training centers in Switzerland and then showing their competitiveness and skills to join famous professional cycling clubs around the world. Thus, Eritrea produced more than twenty-five pro cyclists who have joined leading professional clubs over the past decade, mainly in Europe.
Eritrean women cyclists have also shown outstanding efforts and managed to overcome significant barriers and cultural stigma. As a result, Eritrea has produced skilled and competitive women cyclists. The level and potential of talent are genuinely world-class. In the past ten years, several Eritrean women cyclists were able to join the UCI World Cycling Centre (WCC) in Switzerland and the Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC) in Rwanda for intensive training. Since 2016, two Eritrean female cyclists Yohana Dawit and Mossana Debesay, have joined professional clubs in the USA and Italy.
Therefore, Biniam Girmai in the world championship has managed to showcase the roots and the remarkable history of cycling in Eritrea. Once again, Biniam was able to endorse the Eritrean legacy of resilience, competitiveness, and skill. With these qualities, Eritrea will continue to produce stars that compete at the international cycling stages.