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Bumpy roads to the top: The future of African cycling

After the collapse of Team Dimension Data, which had promised to ensure an African rider won the Tour de France by 2020, where next for a continent woefully underrepresented at international cycling events?

Africa is not known for its cycling. Despite the continent’s domination of endurance running for generations, the surface of global professional cycling has only been scratched by African cyclists. This is largely a result of two key issues that face development more generally on the continent; a lack of resources and widespread corruption in government. However, African runners have been able to dominate the world stage with access to very limited resources, so why should African cycling not do the same? 

Cycling culture has been around since colonial times and the large quantity of resilient, talented and determined athletes, combined with the high altitudes on the continent, should have resulted in African cycling being at least a force to be reckoned with. It seems that the resources required to be a successful cyclist may be the deciding factor, making it more difficult to be a world-class African cyclist than a successful runner. Despite this, there is good reason to expect improvements in the future. 

At the heart of African cycling is Eritrea. The Horn of Africa nation was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1947 and was established as the Italian industrial centre for East Africa. Whilst the story of Eritrea’s Italian occupation, known by many as ‘the new Roman empire’, is a typical one of exploitation, violence and damaging political leadership, it left behind a rich and passionate cycling culture. Italian settlers brought their passion for cycling to Eritrea, taking their road bikes with them and establishing a vibrant racing scene. Eritreans took up a wild enthusiasm for the sport and after the end of Italian occupation in the 1940s they took ownership of the cycling culture, training and competing hard in races and learning how to maintain the road bikes left behind by the Italians. Though some had very little, most households took pride in having a bike and local races became a very frequent a popular occurrence across the country. The staggering altitudes, which exceed 3000 metres in the central highlands, combined with the rich national culture of endurance running certainly supported the growth of Eritrean cycling. 

Fast forward to the 2000s and Eritrean cyclists had finally made their breakthrough onto the world stage. Leading this charge was Daniel Teklehaimanot, who had dominated the African continental championships as well as picking up GC wins at African stage races like the Tour of Rwanda. Despite having to overcome numerous difficulties, including often being unable to obtain visas and lacking sophisticated equipment and support, Teklehaimanot was able to become competitive at the highest level, becoming the first black African to ride in a grand tour by competing in the 2012 Vuelta a España. In 2015, he and his compatriot Merhawi Kudus wrote history in becoming the first black Africans to compete in the Tour de France, marking a significant moment in Le Tour’s vividly rich history. In addition to this, Teklehaimanot took a special liking to the King of the Mountains classification, which he successfully targeted, wearing the coveted polka-dot jersey for four days. This felt like a turning point in cycling’s history, with Teklehaimanot’s team Dimension Data pledging to deliver the first African winner of the Tour de France by 2020. 

Unfortunately, the impressive performances of Teklehaimanot and other Eritreans has not marked a significant turning point as black Africans remain very poorly represented in the ranks of the professional peloton today. Dimension Data as a team does not exist after having to change sponsor following a disastrous 2019 which saw them at the bottom of the global rankings. Furthermore, there is significant evidence pointing to a decline of African cycling in recent years, despite the massive potential contained in the continent. In 2018, after a year at the bottom of the rankings, Dimension Data decided to reduce the number of African riders on their team in an attempt to keep their status as a world tour team. Black African riders clearly are not yet ready to ride competitively against those cultivated in resource-rich European cycling centres such as the UK, Italy and France. 

There is little doubt that the lack of resources and governmental support in Africa is the main reason for the continent’s lack of success, although this is not necessarily a result of most African countries being undeveloped economically and politically. Whilst being a resource-poor country with low Human Development Index (HDI) scores, Columbian cycling has been hugely successful in recent years, perhaps best exemplified by Egan Bernal’s stunning Tour de France victory at the age of 22 last year. The key difference between Columbia and African countries is that the cycling culture is so rich, reaching every corner of the nation, with the government placing cycling at a high priority. This culture, combined with the high altitude of the mountainous terrain, has allowed talented riders to get the attention of wealthy European and American teams in which they have been able to excel. In contrast, endurance running often competes with cycling in terms of resources and popularity in Africa. A lack of political will and widespread corruption in government has not provided enough support for cycling, as was sadly exemplified in December 2019 when Nicholas Dlamini’s arm was broken in an assault of excessive force by park rangers in Cape Town. Unlike Columbian cyclists, African athletes are not targeted by wealthy western teams, and Dimension Data, their sole representative, has been struggling with a lack of financial resources and poor results. 

However, there seems to be no good reason why African cyclists should not succeed and even dominate global cycling in the future, as they have done in endurance running for generations. Infrastructure across the continent is slowly improving, with more and more paved roads. The success of Eritrean cyclists like Teklehaimanot and the grand tour dominance of Kenyan-born Brit Chris Froome mean that increasing attention is being paid by the public and government towards the sport. Bikes are no longer so expensive and difficult to obtain, and much of the infrastructure and the high altitudes available for training runners can be applied for cycling. Across the continent, cyclists have been joining runners on training camps to access the accommodation, coaching and physiotherapists that they have long been denied. Even in Iten, Kenya’s ‘home of champions’ for endurance running, has seen increasing numbers of full-time cyclists training there with aspirations to appear on the global stage. It seems that it is only a matter of time before African riders will be competitive at the highest level, challenging the white hegemony that has dominated the sport since its birth. 

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