Ethiopian cycling

     To date, only one Ethiopian has reached the highest level of cycling: Tsgabu Grmay. Tsgabu is 29, he has been riding in the World Tour for 6 years and has finished the 3 Grands Tours. As almost all Ethiopian cyclists, he was born over 2000m above the sea level in the region of Tigray: north of Ethiopia, bordering Eritrea. Cycling is already well developed locally in Tigray and there seems to be a lot of talent in the region: this year Mulu Kinfe Hailemichael joined ProConti team Nippo Delko One Provence, Negasi Haylu Abreha and Hafetab Weldu are in Continental teams, Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru is riding for WCC Women Team, Selam Amha Gerefiel will represent Ethiopia in the women's road race at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and there are much more very promising young riders.

     Ethiopian cycling has a great potential and even if cycling is not as much developed in Tigray region than in Rwanda or Eritrea, it is far more advanced than in most of African countries. 

     In this article, we will present you the situation of Ethiopian cycling, its evolution in the last years as well as its difficulties, the structures which contributed to this development, and we will introduce you some of the young promising riders of the country. 

Evolution of cycling in Ethiopia

     Ethiopia is the second most populous African country, and among the poorest of the continent. Several different local languages are spoken in Ethiopia and very few people learn English. Running is the main sport in the country - Ethiopian are among the very best on marathons - and football is also very popular even if the Ethiopian team is not so good. Cycling is not a popular sport in the whole country, but it is in Tigray region where there have been local races for a long time. The culture of cycling in Tigray probably comes from Eritrea where it is the sport number one. "We are close to Eritrea, we speak the same language, we share many cultural things and I guess cycling is also coming from there." Tsgabu Grmay told us. Cycling in Eritrea was introduced by Italians during the colonial period and it started in Tigray shortly after. Tigray is a 5 million inhabitants mountainous region, the main cities (Mekelle, Adigrat and Axum) are between 2200 and 2500 meters above the see level. Cycling is a big sport in the region, there are many riders and quite a lot of local races, "that's thanks to these local races that I started cycling and I'm here today"​ Grmay says.

     Cycling was developed locally in Tigray for long, but Ethiopian riders were very rarely riding outside of Ethiopia. In 2007, Soloman Grmay, Tsgabu's brother, was the first to go to the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland, after a good year in the World Cycling Centre Africa in Paarl, South Africa. Tsgabu followed his brother's footsteps 4 years later, and then became the first Ethiopian to join a UCI Team when he signed for MTN - Qhubeka in 2012. "It all started from there" for Ethiopian cycling, as Jean-Pierre Van Zyl, director of World Cycling Centre Africa, says. Tsgabu stayed 3 years with MTN and then joined Lampre - Merida for 2 years. In his first year with Lampre, he already rode both Giro and Vuelta. For his second year, he made it to the Tour's team selection and less than 2 weeks after reaching Paris, he was flag-bearer at the Olympic Games in Rio. Tsgabu rode for Bahrain Mérida in 2017, Trek - Segafredo in 2018, and is now with Mitchelton - Scott. He rode a total of 8 Grand Tours including 3 Tour de France. The success of Tsgabu Grmay is of course a big inspiration for all Ethiopian riders. Jean-Pierre Van Zyl, who's very very close to Tsgabu since he helped him during his firsts years at the World Cycling Centre Africa, explains that "he has a huge influence on the young: because he has made it to the World Tour level, they all believe they can make it. Maybe he is not a Tour de France champion, but let me tell you he has the dedication and the work ethic of a Tour de France champion; he is as humble as he was when I met him the first time. I can only speak very highly of him... There are many other World Tour athletes who went to the World Cycling Centre and are these big stars, winning big races, and never remember where they come from. But Tsgabu always remembers where he comes from, which little valley he comes from, where he was just a normal average boy, he tells this story and that's what makes the others athletes believe they can do it; and not only the Ethiopians: he does that at every African Championships, he speaks to everyone, he is a very big figure in Africa." Tsgabu also noticed a change of mentality for the young riders since he reached the highest level of cycling: "Even if they don't say it, they think it is possible because they see people like me and Mulu who were born there, grew up there, start cycling there and made it to the level where we are. It's a big change for the mentality, everybody wants to do Tour de France and believe they can do it. I always like to train at home with my family and friends, and also I am always happy to help the young guys and to inspire them. I think I did a lot of mistakes, so I have to share my experience so that they don't do the same mistakes that I did."

If you want to learn more about Tsgabu, we recommend you the following articles and video: VeloNews' article (2018) - CyclingTips' article (2018) - Mitchelton - Scott's video (2019)

     Shortly after Tsgabu Grmay became the first pro cyclist from Ethiopia, "a wave of first generation athletes that actually paved the way for Ethiopian cycling" arrived, relates JP Van Zyl, and many joined the Dutch-based Continental team Marco Polo Cycling Team for a year or two. From 2014 to 2018, Eyerusalem Kelil rode for Italians UCI Women teams. In 2015, 5 Ethiopian cyclists were invited for 4 months in Spain thanks to Mikel Gurrutxaga's project: Ethiopian Cycling Academy. They got the opportunity to train, learn Spanish and compete in Europe. The following year, 3 of them signed in Spanish Continental or amateur teams; Hailemelkot Hailu and Temesgen Buru stayed a few years in Europe. Here is a video about Ethiopian Cycling Academy (2015). Since 2017, Hafetab Weldu is riding at Continental level, he had very good results in 2018 with NTT Continental. Last year, Million Beza and Mulu Kinfe Hailemichael were riding with NTT Conti and this year it's Negasi Hailu Abreha who represents Ethiopia in the U23 Team of NTT. In 2020, Mulu Hailemichael signed with French Pro Continental Team Nippo Delko One Provence and he has a very good racing program. Temesgem Buru, Redwan Ebrahim and Hafetab Weldu are in the Continental South African Team ProTouch. Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru is the only woman in a UCI Team this year, she is riding for the World Cycling Centre Team and is doing very well.

     Ethiopian cycling seems to progress well in both men and women categories, which isn't always the case in cycling developing countries. "Honestly it is not hard to be a female cyclist in my country, Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru says. We have lots of women cyclist in my region, it is like a culture.  We have strong women but unfortunately they do not get the opportunity to race in Europe." In Tigray, male and female cycling is really close to each other, but the ways to find a team in Europe are more limited for women as there is not big race like Tour du Rwanda where the female cyclists could show themselves to the world. Van Zyl adds that "Ethiopian females are training a lot with the males which automatically give them a very high level. They have given them a lot of races in Ethiopia and they are led by examples. it's a fair and a unique situation in Ethiopia."

Tsgabu Gramy in Tigray - Ethio Cycling Holidays

Difficulties for young Ethiopian riders

     The first difficulty a potential Ethiopian rider has to face is of course money: in a country where feed the family is often a challenge, it's not an easy choice for young to buy bike equipment and to take the time to train every day. Cycling is a very expensive sport, "for running you only need shoes - you can even run without shoes - while for cycling you need all equipment (bikes, helmets, shoes, cleats, all this stuff...), it's so hard to get them, it's so expensive." Grmay says. This already stops many young boys and girls from doing cycling.

     The national cycling federation is of course not among the richest one in the world either, but JP Van Zyl considers they are "doing the best they can with the limited support they do get from the government or from local sponsors. They always try to help the athletes wherever they go." However, someone else told us that the federation is sometimes also "unresponsive and incredibly bureaucratic." There are many local races in Tigray, but the national team does not participate in a lot of international races, and never outside of Africa, many opportunities are lost for the riders. But that is something we can easily understand considering that they are dealing with a very small budget, and Ethiopian cycling federation seems to work quite well compared to most African countries' ones. Tsgabu Grmay noticed that they "are also working a lot to develop cycling in other regions" than Tigray, where the sport of cycling is almost non-existent today.

     When an Ethiopian manages to join a team in Europe for the first time, the hardest could seem to be done, but to adapt to European culture and racing is not something easy for a rider coming from Africa. The cultural shock is something they must be aware of when they come to Europe for the first time. But the most important is the communication: young Ethiopians need to learn English, French, Spanish or Italian to be able to communicate in Europe; all people we asked told us that it is the most important thing. If you only speak Tigrinya or another Ethiopian local language, it is impossible to communicate neither with your coach or teammates nor in everyday life in Italy, France or any other European country. That's why young riders have to learn at least one language as fast as possible, given that Ethiopia is one of the only African countries where very few people speak English, French or Portuguese. The language and culture are not the only things that are completely different in Europe and in Ethiopia: the races are not the same either. The nervous big peloton riding on small turning roads, the very technical downhills, the cold and the rain are all things that an Ethiopian rider only discovers when he comes to Europe for the first time. "In Ethiopia, we have great weather, Tsgabu Grmay tells, 20°C to 30°C the whole year; when you come to Europe it is crazy that you can race bellow 0°C and with rain, snow, a lot of technical downhill, in a big bunch, on small roads... This is a challenge everybody faces in cycling but coming from Africa makes it harder." What makes it more difficult for African is that they usually start racing in Europe quite late. "As an African, you come very late in Europe, Grmay continues, you arrive in U23 category while they were all riding in the Junior category and before: they already know the roads, know how to race..." An adaptation time is needed, and the challenge is to adapt as fast as possible in order not to lose too many opportunities to make good results because the rider can't follow his rivals on the descent or waste energy because of bad positioning or of any other mistake. Hailemelkot Hailu, who raced 4 years in Spain but never turned pro, told us that "what kept me from going further is my age, I long remained unexperienced in cycling, whether in how to ride or even in nutrition, no one has guided me. It is when I travelled to Spain that I learned all and my performance has increased exponentially, but it was already too late for me."

     Another issue Ethiopian have to face is visas to get to Europe. "It is difficult for all African riders to get the correct visas, says Kevin Campbell, manager of NTT Continental Team. Eritreans and Ethiopians historically have had it more difficult because of the fact that many refugees in Europe are from these regions. If the correct procedures are followed then it is possible to get visas, but the regulations and requirements can slightly different in each country. Some EU countries are also more accessible than others." But even if the procedure is long, strong teams like NTT Conti and the World Cycling Centre have no problem to get the good visas on time, "Our team is now able to obtain the necessary visas because we are registered as a Continental team in Italy" Kevin Campbell confirms. The problems with visas are for smaller teams or for the last-minute requests. Tsgabu Grmay relates that he has always managed to get visas on time since the beginning of his career: "I was okay because I never miss any race, any training camp or any other opportunity. Of course, I have always to go to the embassy and present papers to apply, but in Ethiopia all embassies were helping me and supported me, so I would like to say thank you to them."

     It's also harder for Ethiopian, as well as for African riders in general, to find a good team in Europe. There are many reasons for that and we have already mentioned some (language barrier, the time needed to adapt to European racing style, visas...). We can add that many teams have sponsors who are targetting some specifics countries, or rich countries in general. Also, a lot of managers don't want to take the risk to hire a rider who has not had the usual European early-career, they prefer to take riders coming from the best development teams or from the amateur team they are used to work with. The first contract isn't always the hardest to get, because the rider usually has only a short time to adapt and confirm his potential. Hafetab Weldu is one of the riders who had been riding for NTT Continental Team (which only have U23 riders), wasn't resigned when he wasn't a U23 rider anymore (in 2019), and did not find any other team. But if some riders hadn't met the expectation during their years at NTT Conti, that wasn't the case for Hafetab Weldu who had had a very good 2018 season: he finished 5th in the final general classification of the Giro Ciclistico della Valle d'Aosta Mont Blanc (only 2 riders from the Top10 of this race aren't in World Tour or Conti Pro level today, including Hafetab). His results were good but not good enough to join the World Tour Team NTT, and no team gave him an opportunity at first. He then signed a contract with German Continental Team Bike Aid in March 2019 but the race program was far from what he had with NTT Conti. This year he signed with the South African Continental Team Pro Touch. If you want to learn more about Hafetab Weldu, we recommend you this article on    Cyclingnews also recently published a good article about the difficulty for African riders to find a World Tour team.

     We mentioned many challenges an Ethiopian rider has to face, but Tsgabu Grmay believes that "the big key to answer these challenge is to work hard and believe in yourself, for me that's the hardest thing." He believes that the difficult racing conditions African riders discover for the first time when they arrive in Europe can be answered by a really strong mental, "the riders can do it, so you have to believe you can do it. That's what always motivates me, if I see someone does it, I have to learn to do it too, I never give up." Grmay adds that "it's not easy for sure that a guy from Ethiopia comes to race in Europe, it's a big challenge... it's hard to explain but you can really pass it by mental side. And there are also so many people that can help, that's what I met in my career: so many people around me helped me and guided me, I would love to thank them because without them I wouldn't have made it here. I guess many Ethiopian or African riders who will come to Europe will also get help from European people to get used to the culture and all these challenges. But the main thing is mental, it depends on your mental to survive or go forward."

Ethiopian national team -@cyclingphotorwa

     Late 2018, a Continental Team called "Nice Ethiopia Cycling Project" was planned to be launched the following year by the Swiss Jacques Jolidon with Ethiopian riders including Hailemelkot Hailu, Temesgem Buru, Redwan Ebrahim and Negasi Abreha and some family members and friends of Jacques Jolidon. For people who already knew the Jolidon family, it was not a surprise to learn later that the project had finally been abandoned and that Nice Ethiopia was just a ghost team. But for the Ethiopian riders, it was a huge disappointment: Hailemelkot Hailu was riding in Spain with Caja Rural Amateur in 2018 and he chose not to re-sign because the opportunity to join this Continental Team with a good race program and a salary was great for him. When the project was abandoned, the riders just received a message to inform them that the team where they had signed would never exist... "That literally ruined my career" thinks Hailemelkot Hailu, it was too late for him to go back to Spain or find a new team.

     In 2016 and 2017, a UCI 2.2 race was held in Tigray region: the Tour Meles Zenawi. The 2016 edition was dominated by the Ethiopians and won by Tedros Redae ahead of Alem Girmay Abebe. In 2017, the race was won by the South African Willie Smit who signed for Katusha - Alpecin a few weeks later. The goal was to make the race grow, but finally the second edition was also the last one. JP Van Zyl who was an adviser for the race, explains why it did not continue: "It's funding. I think we don't always understand in Africa how difficult it is to get money and to get sponsors. The same sponsors pay every year and every year but they only have so much budget. Ethiopian Airlines always sponsor but they have other sports and other sporting events that they also support. So once again, it comes down to funding." You can watch the episode of African Cycling Revolution by the Olympic Channel about Ethiopia which was made during the 2016 edition of Tour of Meles (subtitles available).  Willie Smit, the winner of the 2017 edition, had made a video about the race on his YouTube channel.

     This year, in February, a new race called Tour of Tigray was created. It was not a UCI race but a UCI Continental Team was on the start: Team Bike Aid from Germany who is also supporting African cycling. The Kenyan Suleiman Kangangi from Bike Aid was leading the 6 stages long race until the second last day when he had a flat tire at the bottom of the last climb which made him lost a lot of time. It's Temesgen Buru who won the final general classification ahead of Negasi Hailu Abreha. The Ugandan Charles Kagimu was one of the teammates of Suleiman Kangangi, he tells us his first time in Ethiopia: "We arrived at the airport in Addis Ababa and continued to another domestic flight to the North where the race was to be held. We had a warm welcome and since we were there to do the first edition of the race which was also not a UCI race, it was impressive early on with the way it was organised. Tigray is the capital of cycling in Ethiopia and you can be surprised with everything cycling related in this region. A lot of things were motivating, including the crowds on the roadsides, the good weather and good roads and terrains made for a good race; despite the fact that we were racing against a number of good cyclists who were more than triple our team number and who also managed to win the race with what I can call poor and unfair tactics, including always being inactive but attacking whenever our team member especially the leader of the race had a mechanical problem. Overall, I liked the country and culture, which is completely different from the East African culture which I already knew and experienced very well. I hope the race can happen again next year and I hope to go back again."

Tour of Tigray 2020 - Mirre Korevaar Wijnja

Structures helping Ethiopian riders

     One of the most important structures that support cycling in developing countries is the UCI World Cycling Centre. The Centre is located in Aigle, Switzerland, and invites athletes from all over the world to give them an opportunity to learn and to race in Europe. Among all the riders who passed through the World Cycling Centre, some reached the highest level of the sport including men Christopher Froome (coming from Kenya), Andrey Amador, Shane Archbold, Petr Vakoč, Daniel Teklehaimanot, Eduardo Sepúlveda, Merhawi Kudus or Barnabás Peák and women Arlenis Sierra, Thi That Nguyen or Paula Patino. On a continental scale, the World Cycling Centre has satellites centres: in Africa, the only one is located in Paarl, South Africa, and is called World Cycling Centre Africa - a new one should open in 2022 in Cairo, Egypt. The aim of the WCC Africa is not only to select the most promising riders of the continent in order to send them to Aigle, but also to help all the national federations and African races to develop. Since it opened in Paarl in 2004, the director of the WCC Africa is Jean-Pierre Van Zyl, a former South African track cyclist. Tsgabu Grmay launched his career thanks to the WCC Africa and the WCC: at the age of 20, Van Zyl taught him the basics at the WCC Africa and then he sent him to Aigle where he had his first experience in Europe before joining team MTN - Qhubeka in 2012. Tsgabu is really grateful to the World Cycling Centre: "I am here thanks to them" he told us. The WCC Africa invites riders from a lot of African countries, JP Van Zyl explains how much Ethiopians come per year: "That depends, I normally invite 2 Ethiopian athletes - a male and a female - that are very talented for different training camps, to give more opportunities. They come to me for a set period and then, those ones I recognised that have really big potential, I will bring them back to stay with me on a more permanent base in South Africa before some of them go on to Switzerland. I actually give them the skills, give them the tactics and work with them as if they were going to school: try to teach them English and they need to learn French, etc... Trying to motivate them to understand that their future is in their own hands too, not only in the Ethiopian cycling federation, their coach, the World Cycling Centre, the UCI or the professional teams: the professional teams are not going to walk behind you and basically do everything for you, you have to do everything for yourself." Tsgabu Grmay and JP Van Zyl have kept he strong relationship over the years, Tsgabu is very grateful to JP for his help at the very beginning of his career and JP appreciates the humility and the kindness of Tsgabu. Tsgabu tells his first year with JP Van Zyl: "He was helping me a lot, teaching me a lot and was saying me from the beginning 'yes you can do it, you can reach the pro level'. I was dreaming bigger and bigger from that moment. He told me: 'I will send you to the World Cycling Centre in Aigle to learn more and maybe if you are good there, they will help you to reach a team'." Grmay was really motivated when he flew to Switzerland and all went well there: "They helped me, they found a team for me, they gave me the opportunity. I learned so much there, it was a really really big thing for me because when I came to Europe it was really challenging, so many things I mentioned in the beginning... I know how I grow up with so many challenges I had... I said to myself: 'there is no chance I can pass it, no chance I can change my life and become a pro'. I finally made it here but without them, it would have been no way. It was a really big opportunity to pass through UCI Aigle, you can see so many African riders who passed through the World Cycling Centre, it is really important. I would like to thanks them so much for giving us opportunities,  for what they are doing for African cycling: it will help so many people to change their lives and chase their dream like it did for me, Natanael Berhane, Daniel Teklehaimanot, Merhawi  Kudus, and even more, a lot of riders passed by the UCI World Cycling Centre and are racing in the World Tour. It's really a big opportunity they are giving us." A majority of Ethiopian cyclists we have already mentioned or we will mention later in this article have trained in the World Cycling Centre or the World Cycling Centre Africa. "You are right, Van Zyl confirms, a lot of the Ethiopian riders that are successful have passed through the WCC Africa; but it is their own commitment, their own dedication, and their willingness to listen and learn when they are at the Centre that makes the riders that are successful when they leave the Centre. We create and give them the platform to educate themself, to become autonomous when they leave. That is the goal and that has always been one of my key principles, when they arrive I say: 'You are here to get an opportunity, I can't do it for you, I can teach you but I can't make you do the homework, I can't make you listen and further your own education. When you leave here you will have the small tools to go into a cycling world where you can just be like a sponge and take all the information that you can, and stay away from all bad information.' It is like going to the army, where you get your first 6 weeks of basics." JP Van Zyl is "very grateful for the part and the experience that we have been with the African riders in general, it's such a beautiful journey, such a great full experience that we have, very grateful to work with these talented athletes. It's not really us that make them successful, they made themself successful, we are the lucky ones that can give them the tools."

A part of the 2020 men's WCC Team (the Ethiopian Hagos Welay is the second rider from the left - Richard Wooles

The women's WCC Team at the 2020 GP de Plouay (Ethiopian Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru is the second rider from the right - Manon Meillarec Photographie

Daniel Teklehaimanot, Natnael Berhane and Tsgabu Grmay at l'Etoile d'Or 2011

     Africa Rising Cycling has contributed to help so many cyclists from Africa in the last decade. Some Ethiopians - including Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru or Eyerusamel Kelil - have been invited to the Africa Rising Cycling Centre in Rwanda in the last years. They also help riders to find teams, as an example they are working with Team Pro Touch and they helped Redwan Ebrahim to join them last year. Kimberly Coats and Jock Boyer from Africa Rising Cycling were interviewed in the last Masaka Cycling Club Podcast.

     The Team NTT (former Team Dimension Data and MTN - Qhubeka) has also played a key role in African cycling growth in the last years. Many African riders passed through the team and today there is still 7 African in the World Tour team and 4 in the Continental Team. 6 Ethiopians including Tsgabu Grmay and Mulu Hailemichael have ridden for NTT in the last 10 years. The team is sometimes criticized for not being an African team anymore, as the number of Africans in the World Tour squad have dropped from 13 in 2018 to 7 in 2020. But if it is true that Team NTT can't be considered as a real "African team", it is clearly still a team that helps a lot African cycling: riders like Ghebreigzabhier, Dlamini or De Bod may not be in the World Tour without NTT, their U23 Team forms some of the best Ethiopians, Eritreans, South African, Rwandan or Moroccan riders, and without forgetting their precious help to Qhubeka. It is very hard to find sponsors from Africa, and Douglas Ryder - NTT team principal - had to make choices so that the team can survive. The future of Team NTT is still uncertain as they don't have a title sponsor for 2021 yet. If you haven't already, we strongly recommend you to watch this film about the story of Douglas Ryder's team from 2013 to 2020.

     We already mentioned that in 2015 Mikel Gurrutxaga had invited 5 Ethiopian cyclists in Spain including Hailemelkot Hailu who then rode in Spain until 2018. Since 2019, Hailemelkot is only riding locally in Ethiopia and with the Ethiopian national team (because of the ghost team Nice Ethiopia which had made him leaving Spain). But returning in Ethiopia, he also launched a new project with the financial support of Mikel Gurrutxaga: the Solidarity Cycling Project. The goal of the project is to teach to young Ethiopian boys and girls from Mekelle what Hailemelkot learned too late when he arrived in Spain at the age of 21. The young are offered bikes and Hailemelkot Hailu teaches them nutrition, race tactics, mechanics, languages, etc... "I long remained unexperienced in cycling; Hailemelkot tells. It is when I travelled to Spain that I learned all and my performance increased exponentially, but it was already too late for me. So, I do the same thing with young, in order that they will have a much better chance of being detected and going to Europe. We are lucky because the equipment is totally provided by Mikel, so the main problem doesn’t come from there at all, but from the food: the country is poor and the children arrive at the training without anything neither in their pockets nor in their bellies!" All the hard work and the training pays off: Maerig Kahsay of Solidarity Cycling Project won the only race they participated in this year. Hailemelkot knows that what he is doing is already very useful for these young boys and girls who can practice this sport poorly accessible in the country. However, he doesn't get support from the national cycling federation at all. "I don't think the government understand well the project, Tsgabu Grmay says. Hailemelkot is doing a really good job, we usually see this kind of project in European countries, not in Ethiopia, so what Hailemelkot Hailu is doing is amazing. These young people will come up with a good base and good mentality so they could take our cycling to another step. I really wish him best of luck and to get a lot of support because he deserves more, he deserves really big support from the government, even from the federation. The federation is working to develop the sport which is what Hailemelkot Hailu is doing alone, they should do what he is doing." Even if he is giving a lot of time for the Solidarity Cycling Project, Hailemelkot hasn't completely forgotten the possibility of becoming a professional himself: "I am doing a few races with the national team but it is not enough... Before the coronavirus pandemic, I did a very good Tour du Rwanda (he was 20th in the final general classification) and I had contacts with the Spanish amateur team Manuela Fundación (Manuela Fundación is a good Spanish amateur team, but the sponsor is known for having attempted to take over Mitchelton - Scott in June). Unfortunately, coronavirus came through and it was cancelled. Today, I still hope to be able to race in Europe again, I speak Spanish so I mainly search in Spain, but I love France and even if it is harder, I would love to race there. Even if it more complicated, I think that I could possibly have an opportunity in a small UCI Continental team, anyway I hope so." The fact that Hailemelkot manages to both race and train the young in the same time really impresses Tsgabu Grmay: "I don't know how he does it because I am a professional, I have a good name there and I can also handle the budget to do that, so I should also do this kind of things, but I am always focusing on myself... The fact that he can deal with the time, the focus and everything else is incredible. I'm happy, I hope he will continue and I hope the government will help him, it's an amazing project." Here is a video about the Solidarity Cycling Project.  If you want to learn more about Hailemelkot Hailu, had made an article about him in 2018.

     Last year, Tsgabu Grmay has helped to set up a new cycling tour company in Tigray: Ethio Cycling Holidays. Ethio Cycling Holidays is offering cycling holidays to international cycling tourists, and 30% of the profits of the company go to supporting young local riders through ECH cycling team. ECH Cycling Team has 6 riders aged from 16 to 17 who are offered equipment, training and races and who also work as guides for cycling tourists to earn money. The team is owned and managed by Tsgabu Grmay and it is Solomon Grmay, Tsgabu's brother, who is the team coach.

The riders from Hailemelkot Hailu's Solidarity Cycling Project, Hailemelkot is on the left of the photo on the bottom

Future and Covid-19

     The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the entire world and the entire cycling world as well. For Ethiopian riders who were riding in strong teams (World Tour and Pro Continental teams, but also NTT Continental and the World Cycling Centre), the impact was not really different compared to European riders because they had no problem to return in Europe after the lockdown. "I was back in Ethiopia during the lockdown and then NTT Continental sent me all documents for embassy so it was not difficult to come back to Europe" Negasi Hailu Abreha told us. It wasn't a problem either for Eyeru Tesfoam who is riding for the World Cycling Centre Women Team: "During the lockdown, I was back in home and I didn’t have any problem to re-enter to Switzerland because I have the Swiss permit." However, it was more difficult for Ethiopians (and non-Europeans generally) riding for smaller teams and for young riders not having team yet. They lost opportunities to race and so opportunities to progress and to show themselves to teams. Nobody knows for how long the pandemic will continue to have such a big impact on the world, everybody hopes that it will be finished shortly...

     Since Tsgabu Grmay reached the highest level of cycling, Ethiopian cycling has grown well. Maybe it hasn't grown as fast as some people would have expected, but it still has grown a lot. For all the reasons we mentioned in the beginning, developing cycling in a country like Ethiopia isn't easy and takes time. "You know, I am the guy that reached the World Tour and did the Tour 3 times, Tsgabu Grmay says, but I really believe Ethiopian cycling deserves more. Many people say that running and cycling are similar, I don't agree with that, it's different. For running you only need physical strength. But cycling is different: I can mention the weather, the position, downhill, there are so many technical things, you race on the flat with sprinters, crosswind, small roads... It's different than running. Of course, it's an endurance sport but if you are good at running - like the Ethiopians are - it doesn't mean that you are good at cycling. There are riders that will come in the future, what Hailemelkot Hailu does will help Ethiopian cycling and also the fact that cyclists are dreaming big now. For sure they can do better than what I am doing, and even more. I will share my experience go back to Ethiopia which can help a lot the young people, I think. I really believe Ethiopian cycling can be bigger and bigger but it's not like running where you can grow up peak very fast, it takes time and it grows up slowly. We need riders that are really good mentally and physically which is what we showed so with the experience we have and the help we get, it's possible for our cycling to be bigger and bigger which has just started now I guess." As Tsgabu mentioned, the development of cycling is long and solid foundations are needed: that's why projects that help and educate the young riders around 16 years old like Solidarity Cycling Project are so important. The federation also needs to have long-term goals as JP Van Zyl told us: "They need to have a structure, they need to be organized, they need to have a plan that is not only for the next 2 races: they need to have an annual plan, then they need to have a 4-year plan... We need to educate the federation on how to plan for championships with intermediates goals and how you reach the Olympic Games, what is the qualification criteria? If we have a structured plan on how we want to get to Paris at the Olympics Games, I think you will see Ethiopians everywhere and you will see some results. I think it's the willingness to accept the advice and to follow through with the advice, that's always important. We can help them." The federation is the basis of the system, in countries where it works well, it allows cycling to develop well, but in countries where it doesn't work well it's an important brake to the development. In Tigray, there are a lot of races, which is great, but the next step is to organise them all into a structured calendar. "The consistency and the way to organise races are there, JP confirms, we just need to keep motivating them and show them how to create a calendar that they follow. We need to have a national calendar and I think that's the secret, if we can get that and create that, then you'll see where Ethiopia is going. That's the only difference I find between Eritrean cycling and Ethiopian cycling. Eritreans have a lot more tactics because they race every single weekend." We also asked JP if a new international race could be held in the future, like Tour of Meles 3 years ago: "I don't know with covid, the future is pretty uncertain. Of course, we want to have an international race... if we can give them an education and a motivation, if we can support a regional race and educate organisers, I'm sure we can get a race; but you know with covid-19 nobody knows the future. Of course, as soon as covid is finished, we will work so hard to have a race because it's a very special climate and I think a very high potential for training camps for all international cyclists and athletes to train in the mountain in Mekelle."

     Jean - Pierre Van Zyl believes that, as a surprise, women's Ethiopian cycling could grow faster than men's Ethiopian cycling in the next years: "There are so many good Ethiopian girls! I think the future of African cycling is with the women, that's the next boom. I believe that African women will surprise the world in the next 4 years."

     Last year, Vincent Jacquet has replaced Frédéric Magné as the director of the UCI World Cycling Centre, JP Van Zyl told us that he brought new ideas for the WCC: "There is an all-new plan that has been put together by the confederation of African cycling, a brilliant plan and that will be revealed in the near future. Vincent Jacquet joined the WCC and has brilliant ideas for the youth, how to create opportunities for the youth, an all-new philosophy I think at the WCC for the future which will be very exciting but I cannot say more at this time."

     You have probably heard that NTT will not continue with Douglas Ryder's team in 2021 and that he hasn't found a new title sponsor yet. If the team would disappear, it would be a huge loss for African cycling. We already mentioned how important this team has been for Ethiopian cycling and African cycling globally in the last 10 years. While we are about to publish this article, the last rumors say that there may have a potential new sponsor, but nothing is sure yet. We will know if the team will continue or not in the next weeks...

Introducing some young riders

     After Tsgabu Grmay, Mulu Kinfe Hailemichael is the second Ethiopian rider to have joined a Pro Continental team. He was born on June 12, 1999 in Adigrat, the second biggest city of Tigray region. In 2018, at the age of 19, he finished third of Tour du Rwanda. The following year, he signed a contract with NTT Continental Team and finished 5th of the general classification of the Giro Ciclistico della Valle d'Aosta Mont Blanc by winning the Mountain jersey as well. After this good year, he was offered a 2 years contract by the French Pro Continental team Nippo Delko One Provence. He chose to sign in the French team together with the Eritrean Biniam Ghirmay; in Europe, the 2 Africans are now living together in a house near from Marseille (and they should be joined by Jakob Debesay next year). This choice to become professional already at the age of 20 wasn't what the manager of NTT Conti, Kevin Campbell, had recommended to him: "While we are certainly happy whenever any of our athletes are able to progress in their cycling careers, we are also aware that many cyclists reach for too much too soon. Mulu is a superbly talented rider but he needs experience racing at a high level in Europe. We would have preferred him to remain on or team for another season in order to improve his skills and to educate him on more about race tactics. Unfortunately for us, he decided to ignore our advice and he accepted the first professional offer he received, and we had to wish him well as he left our team." In 2020, Mulu Hailemichael had 31 races days including a stage win in Tour du Rwanda and a 15th position in the Circuito de Getxo (won by Damiano Caruso ahead of Giacomo Nizzolo) while he had worked for Biniam Ghirmay during the race. He is small and light (1.58m, around 50kg) so he should be a pure climber, but this year his best results were on hilly races.  Kevin Campbell describes him: "Mulu is an extremely talented young rider. He has plenty of ability, but as with most African riders, he needs to earn more race experience at the highest level. He is a very good climber and his small stature aids him in this field. He is a positive racer and with the right preparation and experience he can develop into a very capable cyclist." The fact that he is the second Ethiopian cyclist to reach this level is great news for Ethiopian cycling, as Tsgabu Grmay told us: "Mulu is the guy who proved that all is possible, not only 'Tsgabu', because as I was the only pro from Ethiopia, it was hard for me to explain to someone out there in Ethiopia that it is really possible. So when I saw Mulu made it I was so happy that another cyclist proved it is possible." Tsgabu also believes that Mulu Kinfe Hailemichael will achieve great results: "I really believe that he can do better than me in big races like Tour de France, Giro d'Italia... in long climbs. He has the talent and is really good with the mental, that's why I really believe he can do better than me and also he can inspire more riders in Ethiopia. I'm so happy that he is coming and for sure he will do great things." 

If you want to learn more about Mulu, you can read this article from Ciclismo a fondo (in Spanish).

Mulu Kinfe Hailemichael - Tour du Rwanda

Mulu Kinfe Hailemichael - Nippo Delko One Provence (left), Clémence Ducrot (right)

     This year, Negasi Hailu Abreha is the only Ethiopian riding for NTT Continental Team. He was born on May 9, 2000 in Mekelle, the biggest city of Tigray where Grmay is also coming from. Last year, he got a Top10 in the general classification of Tour de l'Espoir at the age of 19 and became the Ethiopia national champion in the Elite category. He was training in the World Cycling Centre Africa and JP Van Zyl recommended him to NTT Conti's manager: "Negasi has been with me for about a year and a little bit, Van Zyl says. Saw his potential, saw the ability that he has to read the race, obviously I believe in him; so I made contact with the Continental Team of NTT and spoke to the directeur sportif Kevin Campbell who is a directeur sportif that invests a lot of effort in continuing to educate the African athletes and understands the African way. So, Negasi went on to ride with him ... and on his first race he was on the breakaway with Natu - Natnael Tesfatsion - from Eritra who also passed through the centre. I'm happy with the progress they are showing and the commitment." Negasi Hailu Abreha's first race in Europe was the Tour Bitwa Warszawska 1920 in Poland in August, a flat stage race (with some gravel sectors) won by Oscar Riesebeek ahead of Senne Leysen. As Van Zyl said, he took a breakaway during the race and finished in the Top50 of the general classification as well. "It was a hard race, especially on the cobblestone" Negasi told us. "This was a race we entered him in purely to give him more experience, Campbell says, and he impressed us with his fitness and attitude to racing. Hopefully we will be able to plan a better race program for him in 2021 if the race season is not adversely affected by COVID again." Then, he rode a few races in Italia in Spetember and October and showed himself in some breakaways again. Kevin Campbell describes his new rider: "Negasi is another young, talented athlete. He also needs to experience more races in Europe. The race conditions, peloton size, standard of competition and weather are so different in races in Europe and the only way he will mature as a cyclist is to race and train in Europe." Negasi Abreha told us that he likes climbing but also time trial. If NTT Conti doesn't disappear, he will stay in the team in 2021, and probably in 2022 as well.

Negasi Hailu Abreha - ATPhotography (right)

     Eyeru Gebru Tesfoam is the only Ethiopian riding in a UCI Women's Team in 2020. She was born on December 10, 1996, in the city of Axum. "When I was young, Eyeru relates, I always had a lot of love for sports, especially cycling.  It was my dream. There was a cyclist from my city who inspired me a lot to start cycling: Hadnet Asmelash." Hadnet was one of the best women Ethiopian cyclists a few years ago but she never made it to Europe, she is Tsgabu Grmay's girlfriend. "My sports teacher in secondary school, 6 years ago, also assisted me in joining the sport of cycling." In 2015, she went to a training camp at the Africa Rising Cycling Centre in Rwanda. In 2016, she was chosen to go to the World Cycling Centre Africa and, as she was doing well, she was sent to the World Cycling Centre in Switzerland for the first time in 2017. Since then, she is riding for the WCC Team which became a UCI Team last year. She rode the Worlds 3 times (2017 in Bergen, 2018 in Innsbruck and 2020 in Imola). She also did the Tour Feminin de l'Ardeche - an important French stage-race - 4 times: in 2017 it was her first UCI race in Europe, in 2018 and 2019 she showed herself a lot in the breakaways and this year she was in the group who fought for the victory on stage 6 (she finished 6th on that stage and 22nd in the general classification). In 2019, Eyeru Tesfoam finished 11th of the Tour of Burgos and 18th of the Kreiz Breizh Elites while having worked for her teammate Teniel Campbell who won the race. "It was a good season for me and for my teammates, Eyeru tells; we learned, experienced and achieved good results together as a team." This year, she did well in Tour de l'Ardeche and she also took a Top30 in Giro dell'Emilia with very strong adversity. Eyeru is very good in the climbs, but she still has some difficulties in the descents; she is always a very combative rider. "I am a very focused and cheerful rider, she says, my teammates usually consider me as the “mom” of the team. My strengths are hilly stage races and I am also a strong climber, I love the mountains. My weakness is sprinting. I am grateful to the UCI WCC, because they gave me the opportunity to achieve my dreams, to race in Europe and to improve my performances!" Van Zyl describes Eyeru Tesfoam"As a rider, she's a little fighter. I think it's a great opportunity for her to be in a Women's Team. She's a great little climber. As a person, she's soft-spoken, she's gentle, she's motivated. You never have to tell her or reprimand her... I really think that the Ethiopian culture in general is very pleasant and they are kind people, but they have a very good work ethic. And that's what I can say about Eyeru, she has really a good work ethic and I hope she can go onto a World Tour team." Kimberly Coats from Africa Rising Cycling also knows her: "I know Eyeru well. She’s come to two of our camps in Rwanda at the Africa Rising Cycling Center. She’s a strong rider, smart and dedicated. I’m shopping around her CV for a team next year." Eyeru Tesfoam, with the help of Kimberly, is trying to find a World Tour team for next year but they haven't found anything serious for the moment... "What I like most about cycling is the racing and opportunity it gives to explore the world", Eyeru told us. Her dream in cycling would be to "be one of the best climbers in the world, to win world championships and be an Olympic medallist."

Eyeru Gebru Tesfoam - UCI

Eyeru Gebru Tesfoam in the breakaway - Tour cycliste féminin de l'Ardèche

     Selam Amha Gerefiel was born on December 21, 1996. She has already been chosen to represent Ethiopia at the Olympics Games in Tokyo next year. Last year, she won the time trial of African Championships ahead of Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru. She has trained with JP Van Zyl, he told us that "she is just exceptional, work ethic again, dedication: she goes to bed early, she listens to every single instruction that we give and when we give an extra-information she goes and she reads it, and she comes back, asks questions and wants to learn more. It's the hunger for information and the dedication that set the ones who do become successful - and of course communication."

Selam Amha Gerefield (left) - WCCA

Selam Amha Gerefield (on the front)

     Hagos Welay Berehe was born on October 22, 2001. JP Van Zyl believes he is a very promising rider: "He's just incredible, I think he has a huge future." In 2019, he won the time trial of the African Championships in the Junior category. Hagos is training at the World Cycling Centre in Aigle since last year, his coach there is the Canadian Richard Wooles. Richard told us that Hagos Welay Berehe has some of the best results in the WCC's tests over the last years. He is a pure climber, he weights 57kg: "he is very light and really really fast, Richard Wooles tells, we did tests here where World Tour riders had raced and he was faster than them." Indeed, on Strava Hagos has the KOM of the climb from Vionnaz to Revereulaz for almost one minute ahead the fastest riders of 2019 Tour de Romandie (Revereulaz was 5km to the finish in stage 4 of Tour de Romandie 2019). "He is very fast uphill and he can do it many times on training: 3 or 4 times the same climb." However, due to the pandemic, Hagos haven't had any race this year, so "he has huge potential but we don't know if he can race yet, in a bunch, with the stress... he's very young, he's 18." This year, his main goals were Tour de l'Avenir, Peace Race and World Championships, but they were all cancelled. Considering what Hagos Berehe had shown on training, Richard Wooles believes he could have done a Top10 on the mountain time trial of Tour de l'Avenir; Richard also thinks he would have done very well at the Worlds in Aigle - Martigny as he knew the roads and "had gone many week-ends to train on the course". As they had no races with the World Cycling Centre, some riders went back to race with their national team or their amateur or Continental team in Europe, but Hagos had no team since he has no results yet. Richard Wooles finds that Hagos is learning really fast, "he is learning very good, he seems to be ambitious, for his training and recovery he’s very serious; but also he is always smiling, every day always smiling always happy. When we were training while it was snowing, he was 'no problem, I just keep training' so he seems also very strong mentally." As Hagos had never learned English before, it was really difficult for Richard to communicate with him at the beginning: "Before he couldn't understand when you asked him questions, but now he is learning English very fast." At the moment, he is studying English 2 hours a day. "Hagos really only started to learn English 2 months ago when he came back for the second time. Before he hadn't learned, we did some training races in February and March and he really didn’t understand so much." Hagos Welay Berehe is very fast on training but he needs race experience, so the World Cycling Centre will help him to find an amateur team for next year. "I think he will find an amateur team, Richard Wooles confirms, we’re looking now with some people trying to help him because they see he has potential in his training. We are trying to get him with a team that can give him more races and the World Cycling Centre can pick him up for nations cup, Tour de l’Avenir and some other big races to help him." To conclude, Richard told us "I really hope to see him progress, we’ll try to help him for the next 2 years. Now he will go back to train in South Africa with JP and we hope he comes back to Europe next year and starts again."

Hagos Welay Berehe (with Richard Wooles on the right) - Richard Wooles

     Bizaye Tesfu Redae was born on December 5, 2002. He is one of the most promising young Ethiopians riders. Jean-Pierre Van Zyl introduces him: "He is a young little junior who has been with me since the beginning of last year and this year again. I had actually nominated him for a podium at the World Championships in Switzerland, he is really that good (The Junior World Championships were finally cancelled this year due to covid-19). For me, he is actually the best talent I've seen probably in the last 5 to 6 years out of all the athletes that have passed." Early 2020, Bizaye Redae have had great results in South African races, while he was racing against Continental South African teams as well as just retired former World Tour riders. In Cape Cycling Tour, he attacked several times in the last climb before being one of the only 2 juniors to finish in the front group. He had also done really well in the Tour of Good Hope - one of the most important stage races in South Africa - finishing 10th in the GC with 2nd, 3rd and 4th stage places along the 5 days long race; he also won the jersey of best Junior rider. Bizaye seems to have great potential, but as every Ethiopians junior, he still has a lot to learn and the most important are languages as Van Zyl reminds: "But once again the problem is communication: he needs to learn to communicate, so he needs to speak English, he needs to speak French; I draw that in their heads and I give them as much as I can just the basics but they need to go on and learn themselves."

Bizae Redae - Cape Cycling Tour

Bizae Redae (in the middle) - Tour of Good Hope

     Trhas Teklehaimanot Tesfay was born on January 5, 2002. She is also training at the World Cycling Centre Africa with JP Van Zyl: "She is a junior rider but she is racing with the elite women in some of our biggest races in South Africa" he told us. Trhas Tesfay finished in the women Top10 of all races she rode in South Africa. "She has massive potential, JP continues, and she's very light. She suffers on the flat, but as soon as it goes upfill she's doing very well."

Trhas Tesfay - Tour of Good Hope

We want to thanks Tsgabu Grmay, Hailemelkot Hailu, Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru, Jean-Pierre Van Zyl, Kevin Campbell, Negasi Hailu Abreha, Richard Wooles, Kimberly Coats and Charles Kagimu for their participation! We wish the best to all of them as well as to other Ethiopian cyclists. We hope that Ethiopian cycling will continue to grow in the future!

Follow us on Twitter @PelotonMag for updates about Ethiopian cycling and more

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November 30, 2018

© 2018 par PM

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