The answer is not a lack of talent, as Eritrea’s long history of producing worldclass cyclists attests.
On the 17 May, Eritrea made headlines for all the right reasons. Sprinting to victory on Stage 10 of the Giro D’Italia, Biniam Girmay became the first Black African cyclist to win a stage of the prestigious Grand Tour.
Scenes of Eritrean fans erupting in celebration went viral as citizens of all political persuasions announced their immense pride. Biniam became a national hero and was invited to an audience with President Isaias Afeworki. The international cycling community heralded a “new era” for African cycling. Biniam said: “For me, for my nation, and also for Africa, it means a lot to have this medal”.
Biniam’s success comes against a backdrop of enormous challenges in Eritrea. Despite the rapprochement with Ethiopia in 2018, citizens continue to leave in large numbers as compulsory national service remains in place and the country still lacks international investment. Nonetheless, Eritrea continues to produce world-class athletes, with Biniam just one example.
The lack of Eritrean – and other Black African – athletes in major international races, including notably the absence of any Black riders in this year’s Tour de France, therefore cannot solely be pinned on conditions “at home”. Responsibility for why so few cyclists from Eritrea, South Africa and Rwanda – to name a few cycling powerhouse nations in Africa – make the international stage lies elsewhere.
Cycling in Eritrea
The first ever bicycle to reach Eritrea was reportedly a military bicycle sent to the Italian garrison in Asmara. Competitive races followed in the mid-1930s, albeit along segregated lines. The Italian-run Eritrean Cycling Commission organised races for Italians, while Eritreans organised their own competitions with contestants using bikes acquired through their Italian employers.
It took until 1951, after the end of Italy’s colonial control, for this segregation to be dropped. That year, the infamous Eritrean cyclist nicknamed Berbere, in a nod to the hot chilli, beat his Italian opponents in a rare race with both Italians and Eritreans on the start line. Berbere achieved celebrity status in the county, as have many cyclists since.
During Ethiopia’s colonisation of Eritrea from 1951 onwards, basic survival – let alone recreation – became increasingly hard. Ethiopian authorities saw the bicycle as a threat and banned it from main roads in Asmara so secessionists could not use it as a getaway vehicle after drive-by attacks on Ethiopian forces. The Eritreans who did continue to race internationally did so under the Ethiopian flag, as the colonising force denied the existence of an independent Eritrean identity.
Eritrea gained de facto independence from Ethiopia in 1991. People speak of the era that followed as a golden age of competitive cycling in Eritrea, even if this did not yet translate into international recognition. Contrary to the claims from a cycling coach at the world governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), that Eritreans did not know they had “interesting qualities” until recently, the cycling scene in Eritrea recognised its potential decades ago. Yet hopes of breaking into international tours were delayed again when the border conflict with Ethiopia ignited in 1998. Domestic priorities shifted and Eritrean soldiers were known to target cycling events in Asmara to round up youth who were not already at the frontline.
Despite that conflict formally ending in 2002, Eritrea’s competitive riders still face several barriers. Some are not unique to the country. The significant personal expense of cycling, for example, is a challenge in many places, though it is compounded in Eritrea by the government’s tight restrictions on imports and the country’s struggling economy, which the ruling PFDJ has long sought to blame on international sanctions.
Other difficulties are more specific to Eritrea. They include significant performance pressure, as cyclists whose performance declines risk being enrolled into military service; limited access to many technologies needed to train at the highest levels, not least anything internet-based; and uncertainty about whether cyclists can accept international invitations because of tight, and seemingly arbitrary rules, on passport renewal and exit visas. More recently, Eritrean cyclists have also been banned from international races because there is no Covid-19 vaccination programme in the country.
Barriers to breaking through
Within African, Eritrean cyclists – male and female – have long dominated continental cycling alongside their South African peers. Yet despite consistently impressive results, they are rarely offered contracts by the top UCI WorldTeams who race in the European Grand Tours. A major exception was South Africa’s Team MTN-Qhubeka (later Dimension Data for Qhubeka), which helped Daniel Teklehaimanot to the polka dot jersey in the 2015 Tour de France. According to the Eritrean sports reporter Amanuel Alazar, that team “should be commended for the role they played in making a lot of African riders’ dreams come true”.
For the most part, however, young African cyclists face many intersecting challenges in securing top tier contracts. Experienced voices in professional racing like Robbie Hunter have railed at length about this issue, highlighting that even when African riders register impressive wins – such as Biniam’s early victory over the largely undefeated Remco Evenepoel as a junior – WorldTour teams remain reluctant to sign them up.
Some possible reasons for these teams’ reluctance cannot be overcome by the cycling community alone. For instance, the UCI cannot control the fact that some governments of countries where training camps and races are hosted will see Eritrean riders as asylum flight risks and deny them visas. However, the world governing body could be a more vocal advocate against racialised immigration policies. It could also do much more to support African racing. In 2019, just 3% of UCI road races were in Africa, giving cyclists on the continent far fewer opportunities to gain UCI points and prove their talent in official races. Moreover, just 7 African athletes were given additional support at the UCI World Cycling Centre compared to 17 of their European peers.
Other barriers are more engrained. As Hunter argues, many international teams are only slowly recognising that cycling is not the preserve of white athletes in the Global North. Whether consciously or not, they still prefer to recruit European riders, who benefit from an “affinity bias” whereby they are seen as more predictable and easier to manage. Several Eritrean riders have told us of being made to feel like a burden by the teams that do sign them. They report receiving lower wages to compensate for the supposed challenges of supporting them, and risk being dropped for being “difficult” – in a common stereotype levelled at minoritised groups – if they speak up against unfair treatment.
If Eritrean cycling then has been “running out of steam”, as some have claimed, it is likely to be more a reflection of a lack of visibility and support than declining talent, passion or drive.
Hope for young Eritreans
Biniam’s own successes were arguably delayed by these dynamics. Despite a strong track record in African races, he only drew WorldTeam attention following his silver medal in the U23 World Championships, when he was signed by Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux. Drawing on his experiences representing young cyclists, Hunter says a European competitor would have received offers sooner and with less impressive results.
The response to Biniam’s historic win this May nonetheless shows why it is so important to call out these racialised barriers, not least for the health of professional cycling, which should be a race among the best global talent. It is hard to justify calling many of the top teams “WorldTeams” when whole swathes of the globe are under-represented.
For the future growth of the sport within Eritrea too, young riders need hope that their hard work and talent can be rewarded. Biniam’s victory has shown that Eritreans can compete with the best and win, confirming that the lack of representation has little to do with any lack of ability. As Alazar has commented, “What message does Biniam’s win send to those young riders? In the next 5-10 years, these wins could multiply.”
Success in sport is also coveted by young Eritreans as one of very few ways to travel legally. While exit visas for educational scholarships are extremely limited and restricted to state-sanctioned schemes mostly to the Gulf States, India or China, athletes face fewer barriers. They are supported by the government to compete internationally and while some use it as an opportunity to seek asylum abroad, the majority embrace it as an opportunity to come and go from Eritrea in a way generally denied to their peers.
When Daniel Teklehaimot donned the polka dot jersey at the 2015 Tour de France – and Merhawi Kudus became the youngest rider in the race the same year – they were part of history in the making. Seven years later, history was made again as Biniam won a stage in the Giro. In between those events, however, there was no increase in the representation of talented Black African cyclists at major tournaments, and some even claim a “disturbing step-back“. How much then should we celebrate moments of “history in the making” when they are so few and far between and largely reflect the fact that investment in African cycling lags so far behind that in Europe?
The only way in which Biniam’s success will actually be part of the “up and up within the European peloton” is if widespread biases in international cycling are confronted so that riders from Eritrea and elsewhere in Africa are given opportunities and support at the same level as their talents.
Dr Georgia Cole is a Chancellor’s Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on refugees, displacement, and Eritrea. Temesgen Futsumbrhan Gebrehiwet is a Research Fellow in forced migration studies at the University of Oxford.