Eritrean Cycling Sports History Is Black History at Its Finest

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Thousands lined up on the streets of Asmara to welcome the victorious cyclists. They competed in Egypt’s 2022 African Continental Road Cycling Championships and returned home with seven gold, six silver, and two bronze medals.

On the backdrop, the 21-year-old phenom Biniam Girmay made history by being the 1st African to win gold at Gent–Wevelgem. After his win, Biniam was eager to return home to Eritrea to celebrate with his family and fans after shocking the cycling world with one of the most memorable victories in the competition’s history.

For years, Eritreans have celebrated victories won by young Eritrean riders that have become global stars like Daniel Teklehaimanot, Biniam Girmai, and others. The world is surprised by the landmark achievements of Eritrean victories in Africa, Europe, the USA, and worldwide. These Eritrean achievements are seen as a victory for African Cycling.

In an interview with Girmay, a Western journalist said, “Biniam hailed a landmark moment for Eritrea and Africa after winning the silver medal in the U23 men’s road race at the Union Cycling International (UCI) Road World Championships.”

Biniam Girmai earned the silver medal at the U23 World Championships in Leuven after an exciting sprint finish. With his success, Biniam Girmay made history and became the first Black African rider to earn a medal at the World Championships, the first African rider to do so since 2013. Girmai’s achievements ended on a historical note. Because, on December 14th, 2021,  Girmai received the award for the “Africa’s Cyclist of the Year” by a jury presided by a 5-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault for the 2nd year in a row.

Biniam Girmay’s story is not an aberration. Eritrea loves cycling and has competed at high levels for generations. Eritrean love cycling for sport and their daily lives.

The history of Eritrean cycling dates back to the mid-1930s. Eritreans started to use bicycles and the cycling sport 1935/36 and identify this period as “Nel Trenta-Cinque,” or 1935, signifying the year Italy invaded Ethiopia. Eritrea was under Italian occupation for nearly six decades. Hence, it was not easy for the Eritrean people to overcome the obstacles posed by the Fascist discriminatory laws. It is surreal that Eritreans competed in the cycling events organized by the Italian colonizers.

Many attributes describe Eritreans. The struggle for Independence showed Eritrea’s determination, bravery, resilience, grit, resourcefulness, and ability to finish no matter the obstacles or the price they had to pay. These gallant historic riders, referred to as the first generation, were the leaders that showed resilience and dedication and overcame the oppressive measures of the colonizers.

Eritrean cycling history is not known in Black History. However, like their Black counterparts around the globe, Eritreans faced incredible adversity and hardship, yet they came out victorious. These include Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera: the first black athlete to compete at the France 1900 Olympics. John Taylor: the first black athlete to win a gold medal as part of the US relay team in athletics 1908 London Olympics. Perhaps the most storied black athlete, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals during the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, crushing Hitler’s myth about White Aryan supremacy.

Eritrean athletes must be seen in this light because of their monumental achievements during World War Two, during turbulent global conflicts while under oppressive colonialists. Eritrean cyclists fought hard and demonstrated they were capable against the Italian colonizers.

By doing so, they proved that black Africans are not inferior. Eritrean cyclists scored huge victories when Gebremariam Gebru won in 1939, and Weldemichael Asgedom (nick-named Berbere) won in 1946 over the Italian colonizers. These victories paved the way to more successes.

Eritrean Olympians, Tsehaye Bahta and Mesfin Tesfai, were the first black Africans to compete in the the1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. The competitive nature of Eritrean athletes that started with the “First Generation” continued during the oppressive Ethiopian colonial periods from 1960 until the mid-1970s when the struggle for the Independence raged throughout Eritrea. In the 60s and 70s, these cyclists were household names for their incredible international achievements. Eritrean cyclists competed against elite European athletes and made headlines in the Olympics from 1960 to 1972.

In 1972, five Eritrean riders stood first and won a gold medal in the All African Games in Lagos. The early sixties and until the mid-seventies were the first golden era of cycling in Eritrea. The fourth-generation Eritrean Cyclists are having extraordinary success globally. Eritrean cycling professionals are highly sought after, and many have joined different European and Asian cycling clubs. They have broken ceilings, competing and achieving success.

Eritrea has a new generation of men and women cyclists, the “Fourth Generation,” who managed to introduce Eritrea on a global stage in significant numbers and ways that placed Eritrea at the highest of stages bringing Eritrean communities together wherever they go.

Eritrea has produced more than twenty-five pro cyclists who have joined leading professional clubs in Europe and globally. The struggle for Independence isolated Eritrea from international sports and sports in general. However, it also made Eritreans hungrier.

Women in Eritrea have always made a significant contribution equal to men on many fronts and excelled in many areas. Eritrean women have made tremendous progress in overcoming substantial barriers and limitations. Eritrean women cyclists have also made a remarkable contribution to the sport. Eritrea has produced skilled and competitive women cyclists. The talent l level is world-class in both men’s and women’s athletes.

Since Independence, 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. Two Eritrean female cyclists, Yohana Dawit and Mossana Debesay have joined professional clubs in the USA and Italy.

Merhawi Kudus, Natnael Berhane, Biniam Girmai, Daniel Teklehaimanot, and many others are showcasing their unstoppable talent and exposing their roots, telling a remarkable history of cycling in Eritrea.

Based on its history, because of its resilience, competitiveness, skills, and can-do attitude, Eritrea will continue to produce stars that compete at the international cycling stages for generations to come.

This article is inspired by the article below written by Aklilu Lijiam and repurposed to highlight his message.

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