African Riders Creating a Truly International Peloton
Posted On 26 Apr 2013
Last Tuesday, April 23, 2013, was a big day for the sport of professional cycling. Two magnificent victories were scored that day by men born in Africa. The win that received the most publicity came at the Tour de Romandie, a weeklong stage race on the UCI WorldTour, where Team Skys Chris Froome blasted the opposition in an uphill time trial in the Swiss Alps. But the other victory, on a mountain stage of the Presidential Tour of Turkey, was far more significant. It saw Natnael Berhane, from the Red Sea nation of Eritrea, become the first-ever black African to win a stage in an elite 2.HC-ranked pro race in Europe.
On a hot, rocky and windswept summit in the Toros Daglari mountains of southeast Turkey, Berhane, a 22-year-old rookie with Team Europcar, won the stage by out-kicking Kevin Seeldrayers, a seventh-year Belgian pro who has finished as high as 13th at the Giro dItalia. The stage win netted Berhane the race leaders turquoise jersey, and assuming he hangs on to the lead through the weekend, hell become the first African to win the overall title at a major European stage race.
Berhanes break-through success comes on the heels of two other significant victories for African cycling. Or, more specifically, for Africas first UCI-registered Pro Continental team, MTN-Qhubeka. On March 17, that teams German rider Gerald Ciolek won the Milan-San Remo classic; and a few days later, Tsgabu Gebremariam, MTN-Qhubekas 21-year-old Ethiopian rookie, won a stage and finished second overall at the Tour of Taiwan, a 2.1 stage race on the UCI Asia Tour.
What is so important about all these recent results, but especially Berhanes win, is the confirmation that the globalization of pro cycling is really working. Talking to the East Afro Web site, Berhane briefly detailed how his cycling evolved from racing mountain bikes at age 14 to signing a professional contract with French road team Europcarwhich is headed by Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Roland.
Theres a history for bike racing in Berhanes country, which was known as Italian Eritrea from 1890 to 1947. Italian colonists established the sport and created an enthusiasm for cycling with the Eritrean people. When he was 19, Berhane won the Tour of Eritrea, and he was selected to race in the 2010 African Road Race Championship, held that November in Kigali, Rwanda. His older compatriot, Daniel Teklehaimanot (whos now a pro on the Orica-GreenEdge team), won the title before the Eritrean duo went on to finish first and second in the Tour of Rwanda.
One of the UCIs top coaches, Michel Thze, was talent spotting at those championships, and he offered Berhane a place at the training school thats part of the UCIs World Cycling Center in Aigle, Switzerland. Two months later, before joining the Swiss institute, Berhane won the Libreville stage of Gabons Tropicale Amissa Bongo race by out-sprinting seasoned French pro Jrme Pineau of Quick Step.
It was after seeing me at the Tour of Gabon in 2011 that Jean-Ren Bernaudeau contacted me, Berhane said, referring to the Europcar team manager. He told me that if I continued to achieve good results I might join his team. I worked hard for that to happen, and it finally materialized.
A major part of Berhanes apprenticeship was racing in Europe with the UCI training center team. In the past two seasons with that team, the Eritrean showed an all-around competence, from placing 16th in the under-23s Tour of Flanders classic to taking 19th overall at the demanding Tour de lAvenir. He also won the Tour of Algeria and the African road title both years.
This season, Berhane struggled somewhat in the first couple of months of his pro career with Europcar at races in Spain, France and Italy. His highest finish was 27th at the Tour du Finistre, a one-day French Cup race won by his teammate Cyril Gautier. The number of races with very cold temperature and rain didnt help me, Berhane stated.
Happily for the Eritrean (and the rest of the European peloton who suffered through a freezing spring season), warm temperatures awaited at this weeks Tour of Turkey. Berhanes stage win came on a mountain climb thats been likened to LAlpe dHuez, but hes not a specialist climber. He has shown many other qualities in defending the race lead. While most of his teammates have been left behind on the climbs, his German colleague Bjrn Thurau (the 24-year-old son of Didi Thurau, a former Tour de France yellow jersey, classics winner and six-day star) has been the one who has kept Berhane in the front group and countered all the attacks from Seeldrayers and the other 10 riders within one minute on overall time.
Whatever the final result on Sunday in Istanbul, Berhane has already given African cycling a huge boost. And though Froome has British parents, he was raised in Kenya, and like Berhane found his love of cycling riding a mountain bike in the hills and mountains of East Africa. Maybe Berhane will never have the strength and skills to follow Froome as a contender at the Grand Tours, but there will surely be other Africans who follow in his footsteps.
Talking about Berhanes magnificent mountaintop stage win in Turkey last Tuesday, his team boss Bernaudeau said, This is a great day for those like me who believe that the future of cycling also passes through Africa. Ive followed Natnael since 2011 and known since his victory in Libreville that we have a great rider. He didnt win by chance.
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