I remember as a child when I went to see cycling races –corso with my older brothers and friends or my father. We would wake up early around six on Sunday morning and go on foot- because there were no buses or taxis that early. In those days (late 80’s), cycling was one of the few good things in the tense political atmosphere.
The venues of the races would always be around St. Mary Church, or around the Monopolio. Thousands of people- young and old, lined along the pavements in the roads betting and speculating who would win. Cyclists like Yemane Tekeste, Biniam Yared (wedi Yared), and Desaleng Negash were more like gods than stars who made it from humble beginnings. Weekend races have been for long inseparable from the lives of Asmarinos for decades. All week long, the hottest conversations of young Asmarinos were always about last Sunday’s “Volata”, or the season’s “championa”, or the notorious fans like ‘Dbi’ and the funny things they did.
Cycling is probably the most popular and one has to say, the most successful sport in Eritrea. The sport has its roots back in the era of Italian colonization of Eritrea. It is said that the first bicycle arrived in Eritrea in 1905. It was a military bicycle that came for an Italian camp in the Forto garrison in Asmara. More bicycles arrived for the Italians in the coming years.
The Prestola Federasione Fasista di Asmara was set up in 1936 by Italians who were looking for some means of entertainment and sports for the soldiers and settlers. There were speculations that cycling races were impossible to be held in the Kebesa plateau, where the attitude is as high as 2400 above sea level. Still, the first contest was held on 21 April 1937. All the contestants in the race were Italians; basically, the sport federation was meant to be by the Italians for the Italians.
Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for Eritreans working under the Italians to acquaint themselves with bicycles. In the late 1937, Eritreans began to race with the rare bicycles they could find. In 1938, there were one in-city and two cross-country races by the natives. Contests were hold separately for the natives and the Italians.
Progress of the sport was weakened on the wake of the second world war. The late forties were the dark days to the sport; the unstable political situation and the uncertainties made things difficult. The then established national Eritrean team faced difficulties as unionist hit men were hunting down cyclists who went for training outside the city.
On November 19,1951 a big contest was organized around the Bowling between the teams Cabur Eritrea Barter of the Italians and Ganta Africa of Eritreans. Calrolo Valeti, the best of the Italian cyclists came wearing the Italian flag. The Eritreans with no tangible backups came wearing what ever shirts they could find. An Italian journalist wrote “although they wore shirts of different colors, the [Eritrean] team was united and strong. The race was one for all, and all for one.”
The race proved to be a turning point in the history of cycling in Eritrea. As the fans cheered and shouted, Berbere (the best of the Eritrean team whose real name was Weldenkiel Asgedom) took the lead and left Carlo Valeti behind. From that day on, it was clear to the Italians that the natives were not just amateurs. Contests were decided to include both the Italians and the Eritreans.
Berbere, the native who had won both the natives and Italians admiration and praise came from Adi Hawesha. He used to work with some Italians when he first got to ride a bicycle. He was so good with bicycles that people used to say that he was born for bicycles. ‘He used to lay someone on the ground and jump over him with his bicycle,’ Jovani Matsola former cyclist and current member of the National Cycling Federation remembers.
In 1950’s cycling was progressing well in Eritrea. In 1956, Mesfum Tsefay and Tsehaye Bayre went to Melbourne to participate in the Olympics.
In the 1960’s Ethiopia’s heavy hands began to fall on the sport. The Eritrean team was now under Ethiopian sport federation and Eritreans had to go to Addis Ababa for selections for international games to participate under the Ethiopian flag. In a chronometer race held in Addis for selection to the Olympic games, Eritreans held the top places, with Alazar Kuflu and Jovani Matsola standing first and third. But in the selection, only two Eritreans were allowed and the remaining four places were given to Ethiopians.
Similarly, a selection was conducted in Addis Ababa for a racing in Turkey. This time twelve Eritreans participated, and they held all the places from first to eleventh in the contest held around Addis Ababa University. The competition had to be held again, because the Ethiopian authorities were unhappy. Still, the same result. Yet only four Eritreans: Salim Bein, Yemane Negassi, Fesehasion Gebreyesus, and Solomon Embaye were allowed to go to Turkey.
In the late 70’s cycling stagnated once again. The coming of the Dergue made life difficult and the political atmosphere tense. There were more restrictions on the daily life of the city and new rules and laws including the one that banned bicycles from operating in the city.
In the 80’s cycling started reviving again in the contests which were commonly called da corsa. Zeregabir from Eritrea participated in a contest in Moscow where cyclists from Communist countries world wide took part. Teams were set up in regions (kefetenya). Generally though, especially in the first half of the 80’s Eritrean cycling was not as good and as it was before. In 1982, two Eritreans and four Ethiopians went to the Soviet Union.
In the late 1980’s, stronger teams came to being in Asmara. The fierce competition among the teams Adulis, Doga’ali, Zula, and Dahalk created a wave of support and passion in thousands of fans. Still, whenever it came to selections, opportunities would be given to the Ethiopians despite qualifications.
Yet, the games inside Asmara were more important, and the morale of the stars was not much affected. These were the days when there were fierce competitions between Yemane Tekeste and Desalen Negash.
After independence in 1991, cycling which was temporarily stopped in 1989 restarted immediately. Now there would be no selections and biases. Now the stars were not going to play for the flag of their oppressors, but for their own flag and nation. The stable and peaceful atmosphere created a suitable ground not only for cycling but for all sports.
Eritrea continues to be one of Africa's top cycling nations. Races are organized on national holidays in addition to the usual Sunday races; some times at regional and interclub levels. Clubs like Red Sea, Tele, AsBeCo are the main rivals on the tough races inside the city. “Zur Ertra”, the Eritrean version of the Tour de France or the Giro d'Italia is the biggest cycling event. The race tours through chill and windy highlands, and candle melting hot lowlands. People await the cycling caravan in every village and town along the road. The tour has made cycling to go from a city phenomenon to a countryside attraction. In fact, one of the biggest developments in the sport after independence is that the contest was introduced in all zones of the country; and today, the best contestants come from different areas and zones. Cycling has a future in Eritrea because it has deeper roots beyond being a sport and an entertainment.