Road cycling is known as a sport dominated by white Europeans. If people were asked who is the best African cyclist, the most likely answer would be Chris Froome, Tour de France 2013 winner who was born in Kenya, then moved to South Africa but has represented UK for years now. Other than that, various (white) South Africans like Robert Hunter and Darryl Impey have been established names in the world of competitive cycling. North African countries (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria) have also performed well in continental competitions, but have made little mark beyond that. But more remarkably, new cyclists are emerging from less known countries like Rwanda and Eritrea. Ethnic African riders are participating Tour de France for the first time this year. At the early stages of he competition Daniel Teklehaimanot of Eritrea made history by wearing the polka-dot jersey, given to the leader of King of the Mountains competition.
The appearance of several international level African cyclists in recent years is not a coincidence, but due to various factors. The UCI African Tour was established in 2005. The tour consists of cycling competitions around the continent and provides aspiring riders a chance to compete internationally. Similarly important has been the World Cycling Centre (WCC) in Switzerland, where talented riders even from poorer countries can get highest level of training. Back in 2012 the centre trained eight African riders, among them Teklehaimanot. Furthermore WCC has one of its satellite centres in Potchefstroom, South Africa opened ten years ago.
Riders will need to find teams to compete at professional level. South African sponsored but Italy/UK based Barloworld team, formed in 2003 had number of South African riders on their roster. The young and still little known Chris Froome was part of the team in 2008 and 2009. Daryl Impey of South Africa, a future Tour de France stage winner and Yellow Jersey bearer also began his professional career with Barloworld. Robert Hunter, who in 2001 became the first South African to participate Tour De France, having joined Barloworld won a stage at Tour de France in 2007. The Barloworld team also featured Mauricio Soler from Colombia, who won a stage and the King of the Mountains race for Barloworld at Le Tour in 2007.
Barloworld was disbanded after the 2009 season, but by that time another South Africa-sponsored team, MTN, had joined professional cycling. The MTN team is actually registered in South Africa. The team roster consists a mix of African and western riders. The team is now known as MTN-Qhubeka, the latter part of the name comes from Qhubeka, a charity assembling bikes for cyclists in South Africa. They are not sponsors, but partners of the team.
MTN-Qhubeka received their first invitation to Tour de France in 2015. This marked also the first appearance of black African riders ever in this most celebrated in cycling competition, they are Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus, both from Eritrea. Eritrea is s small country ravaged by tensions with its neighbors. Why then good cyclists are coming from Eritrea? Cycling in Eritrea has a long history dating back to the time when it was an Italian colony in 1940’s. After gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993 cycling has steadily developed in the country. The main local cycling competition, Tour of Eritrea, was resurrected in 2001 after several decades of dormancy. Cycling in general is popular in Eritrea and coupled with mountainous topography is a good breeding ground for competitive cyclists.
Daniel Teklehaimanot was picked up by World Cycling Centre in 2009 after promising results at UCI Africa Tour competitions the previous year. However, his careers was nearly cut short after being diagnosed Tachycardia, but this was successfully operated in 2009. Three year later (2012) he joined the newly formed Australian team Orica-GreenEdge giving him the first opportunity to do the sport professionally but had trouble participating European races due to Visa problems. He joined MTN-Qhubeka for the 2014 season and made his Tour de France debut this year, having a promising first week by leading the King of the Mountains competition.
Apart from Teklehaimanot and Kudus, another Eritrean cyclist to note is Natnael Berhane, also riding for MTN-Qhubeka, who performs best as a sprinter. With these riders attaining such good level, it is expected that the sport will still grow in the country and we will see more cyclists coming from Eritrea in the future.
Surely challenges remain for African cyclists. Obtaining and servicing cycles and other equipment is expensive even at entry level. Moreover, road cycling is very technical sport compared to running, which means high level coaching is needed. The top talent should be identified at early age, in their teens. Teklehaimanot, for example, was 21 when joining the World Cycling Centre in 2009. This is too late for most cyclists. A solution would be locally based academies for young cyclists to provide best training and opportunities to enter high profile races both locally and overseas. This is where money is needed but isn’t easy to find.
Various African countries, especially Kenya and Ethiopia but also likes of Eritrea, Uganda have produced world-class long-distance runners. Are there any physiological traits which makes people from certain tribes so good runners that would also be a significant advantage in cycling and other endurance sports? The fact that good cyclists come from Eritrea indicates this could be the case indeed. The next step would be introducing cycling to communities producing good runners to identify any cycling talent out there. Surely they have a better chance to excel in cycling compared to the 90’s Nike-sponsored project of making Kenyan runners into winning cross-country skiers, which was as failed attempt as it sounds like (though did generate fair bit of media coverage at least).
Will Africans dominate world cycling in the future, like they do long distance running? The best estimate is no, but now that we know there is definitely potential, an ethnic African winning Tour de France or other major cycling competition may only be a matter of time.