Eritrea’s Perfect Race at the Africa Cup

By Natnael Yebio W.

The perfect race! If there ever was such a thing, this was it. The Eritrean men’s cycling team had six riders at the starting line.

They finished the race, a 181-km long road race held in the world heritage site Asmara, taking the top six places. The Africa Cup cycling competition, which ran from November 21st to 25th, concluded this past Sunday in emphatic fashion as Eritrea’s Sirak Tesfom, who had dominated the competition, won the cup.

The Africa Cup brought together all the elements needed for a perfect bike race. The cycling culture, the passion, the city, and the passes – all in a five-day race.

Sunday’s road race zigzagged from Bahti Meskerem, to Menaharia, through Mizan and Bar Kit-Kat, uphill to Forto, and downhill past Keih Bahri Secondary School, before heading to Semaetat Avenue. The race also saw the inclusion of the Uganda national team, who traveled over night to participate in the final competition. They joined Benin, Egypt, host nation Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and the Seychelles. However, it was Team Eritrea that demonstrated its prowess. From start to finish, we couldn’t stop talking about Sirak, Dawit, Daniel, and Robel. From the start, the crowd realized that the Eritreans were going to win.

Believe it or not, cycling is a team sport, which is why you see groups of riders wearing the same uniforms or kits. Sure, it requires individual talent and skill, acquired after logging many, many miles, racing numerous times, and more than a little sweat! In competitive cycling, practice makes close to perfect, since you also need teammates and a strategy. Cycling is a highly strategic sport and winning races doesn’t simply happen by accident.

Eritrea’s win on Sunday was partly based on strategy. After the race, coach Samsom Solomon revealed that the team had planned to break away from the peloton on the third lap; however, the jumped the gun, so to speak, and instead broke away on the first lap, which was highly risky but proved greatly rewarding.

Sirak triumphed in the Africa Cup with a passive-aggressive masterpiece of doggedness, occasional boldness, patience, timing, strength, and some luck (or at least the complete absence of bad luck). After the race, he stood upon the podium in Bahti Meskerem, with a mix of happiness and disbelief etched onto his face. “I dedicate this win to all my teammates and our supporters,” he said.

The Eritreans won plaudits for their domination and few could deny that they had just completed a near-perfect race. Dawit was aggressive, Daniel was brave, Robel more enigmatic, Daniel, the team’s captain, led admirably, Henok shone, and Sirak had just enough of each quality to beat his talented teammates to the finish line.

Of course, Sirak wasn’t the only story of the Africa Cup. His victory was given extra luster by the mature riding of Henok Mulubrhan throughout the entirety of the race. The fight between him and Rwanda’s Mussi Mugisha turned this year’s race into an instant classic. However, it was Sirak’s ride that will live long in the memory.

The competition was also graced by the presence of talented Ethiopian riders. Temesghen Buru was one of the competition’s most exciting athletes and his spirited battle with Henok and Samuel Migisha on the final lap of the race was unforgettable. The persistence and fortitude he exhibited in keeping up with Henok and Samuel, ultimately seeing him finish in eighth place, astonished the crowd.

The captain of the national team, Aron Debrestion, who won silver in the individual time trial, finished in fifth on the last day of the competition. Overall, the first four riders who broke away during the beginning of the first lap finished the race a mind-blowing 4 minutes and 27 seconds ahead of the peloton.

The first race of the day, held in the early morning of Sunday, was the women’s 80.5-km long road race. The race, which included four national teams and a total of 16 riders, saw South Africa’s Mathee Maroejska win gold, followed by Nigeria’s Lovina Ese Ukbeseraye and Ethiopia’s Tsega Beyene in second and third place, respectively.

Shortly after the race, the Eritrean and Ethiopian riders tried to make an early break. However, the attacks were uncoordinated and the two teams were unable to as breakaway from the peloton.

The Eritrean team, featuring Zinab Fitsum, Adiam Tesfealem, Tigsti Gebrehiwet, and Letemichael, were kept quiet by the impressive South African team, led by Mathee Maroesjka, Liezel Jordan, and Sanet Coetzee. However, a crash during the uphill section of the course, around Forto, involving Eritrea’s Tigsti Gebrehiwet and South Africa’s Liezel Jordan, resulted in the peloton breaking away. Demonstrating great resilience, the two riders quickly caught up with the group.

In the end, in what was the best sprint finish of the day, South Africa’s Mathee Maroejska won the race. Nigeria’s Lovina who quietly rode the entire race sandwiched between the leader and the rest of the riders, surprisingly won Nigeria’s first medal of the competition, followed by Tsega of Ethiopia. Eritrea’s Tigsti Gebrehiwet, despite suffering a crash midway through the race, finished in third place in the women’s under-23 category. “We can learn a lot from the Eritrean riders,” said winner of the stage Mathee, while expressing her delight for claiming first place in the inaugural Africa Cup.

The first edition of the Africa Cup 2018 officially came to a close with a dinner reception held in Asmara’s Municipality Hall. This was a time to recap on the last five days of racing. In a speech he gave during the event, CAC president,  Dr. Mohammad Wagih Azam, expressed his gratitude to Eritrea for hosting the competition and stated that the passion Eritrean’s have for cycling is extraordinary. He also presented gifts to Eritrea’s Commissioner of Culture and Sport, Ambassador Zemede Tekle, the president of the Eritrean Cycling Federation, Tewelde Yohannes, Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Eritrea, Mr. Redwan Salih, UCI commissioner Isabella Fernandes, as well as CAC technical delegates, Mr. Mohamed Bashir and Noha Solima.

Mr. Tewelde extended his appreciation to all those who helped organize and prepare the competition, particularly Eritrea’s Commission of Culture and Sports.

The first edition of the Africa Cup was magical. Although many host countries look to international experts to help with the hosting of large sporting events, Africa Cup was entirely organized by Eritrean institutions. The Cycling Federation of Eritrea, the Commission of Culture and Sport, and all sponsors and volunteers should be praised for putting together an amazing and successful competition.