A dark colonial past brought bikes to Eritrea, but a passion for two wheels quickly gripped the east African nation.
Football reigns supreme in most African nations, but not in Eritrea, where cycling has become the country’s sporting obsession. “Cycling is definitely our No.1 sport,” said Desiet Kidane from Eritrea after completing the time trial element of the women’s combined team event with Danait Tsegay (ERI) at Bosques de Palermo on Saturday. “I’ve loved it ever since I was a little girl, we all do. We have so many great cyclists to look up to in our country, like Daniel Teklehaimanot.
“They are our role models. Daniel is a hero to kids in Eritrea, the same way footballers might be in other countries. I love him. To see him competing in the Tour de France is amazing. He’s probably the most famous Eritrean in the world. Others, like Merhawi Kudus have followed. We had the posters on our wall, we watch our riders on TV. And many of our athletes are going on to be professional riders now. It is great.” said Kidane, 18.
The two-wheel boom in the east African nation can be traced back to Benito Mussolini: In 1935, to satisfy the Italian dictator’s empire-building, thousands of Italian workers and soldiers entered Eritrea in preparation for a second invasion of Ethiopia. Many brought their bicycles with them, and they soon became popular with the locals, who established their own clubs.
Luul Zecarias (ERI), president of the Eritrean National Olympic Committee, said: “If you look into the history, it all began with the Italians, and so Eritrea just has this long culture of cycling, ahead of any other African country.
Everyone wants to be a cycling champion in Eritrea.Luul Zecarias President of the Eritrean National Olympic Committee
“It comes from our colonial past, but we have made our own success of the sport. We have some good runners, good athletes, but cycling is our No.1 sport. People love to cycle, it is a great place to ride a bike, and they love to watch the sport. Everyone wants to be a cycling champion in Eritrea. It has been shown that when there is a big cycling race on, our crime rates actually drop. The riders are our superstars.”
There is just one problem for many residents: actually affording a bike. Kidane, 18, said: “Bikes are expensive and that can be difficult for many Eritreans. My father is a shopkeeper and he worked very hard to save up to buy me one. I’m so happy he did. It’s so nice to be here at this Youth Olympics.”
The Buenos Aires 2018 format - mixing mountain bikes with road racing - has, however, caused a little difficulty: “We haven’t got any mountain bikes with us,” said team coach Shewit Tesfagebriel Asgodom (ERI). “We’re going to have to look into hiring some.”