By Dawit Tolesa
Born in Mekele, northern Ethiopia on August 25, 1991, Tsgabu Gebremariam Girmay aspired to become a professional football player.
He even went as far as representing the football team of his home town and the Tigray Regional State. But Tsgabu, the son of a professional cyclist, abandoned his footballing stint to join cycling. His decision to follow a family tradition was mainly influenced by his brother, Solomon Gebremariam Girmay, who had a relative success in the cycling profession.
Tsgabu’s modest eight year cycling career has already propelled him to the history books of cycling in Ethiopia. He has become the first Ethiopian who would be representing his country in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics after 24 years.
During the 2015 Africa Continental Road Champs, held between 9-14 February in Wartburg, South Africa, Tsgabu accumulated enough points to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in Brazil. On February 14, 2015, Tsgabu finished fifth behind a contingent of South African cyclists in the Road race event. Days prior that, he also won Ethiopia’s first ever gold medal in the continental competition. The result meant, Ethiopia and South Africa, aided by the four cyclists who finished ahead of Tsgabu, will represent Africa in the Olympic Games.
“I do not have enough words to express my happiness. I am the champion now and I can represent my country to compete in the Olympic stage,” Tsgabu told The Reporter.
Ethiopia’s cycling success in this year’s continental competition was not limited to the men’s race. Hadnet Asmelash became the first woman cyclist who would be representing her country in the Olympic Games. She finished third in the women’s road race coming behind two South African cyclists. Like the men, Africa will be represented by Ethiopia and South Africa in the women category at Rio.
“It is a especial feeling to be able to represent my country in the Olympic stage,” Hadnet, who was one of four women cyclists who represented Ethiopia in the continental competition, told The Reporter.
Born in the ancient town of Axum, Tigray Regional State, Hadnet started her cycling career in 2005. As a woman professional cyclist her path was particularly challenging.
“The negative stereotype against women cyclists starts from family and then goes on to the wider public. Even the responsible bodies [for the development of cycling] do not accord equal attention for women competitors as they do for men,” Hadnet told The Reporter.
With commitment for the sport and an illustrious cycling career at home – winning several national cycling titles – Hadnet eventually won the heart of her family members. But she says it was not all too easy. After joining the Addis Ababa University (AAU) in 2012, she had to juggle between training and study for three years eventually obtaining her graduate degree in Sports Science.
The 2015 cycling competition in South Africa was regarded as hugely successful by the organizers with a record 30 nations participating. It was a particularly stiff competition compared to the previous ones with 30 women lined up for the elite ladies road race and 108 in the men’s event.
The Ethiopian cycling pair, also set to seal their partnership with marriage, say hard work and commitment was a factor behind their success.
“If you are going to compete in a 200 km race, you should cover 220 km in training,” Tsgabu told The Reporter.
Tsgabu’s cycling career hit a trajectory after an impressive display in “Tour Rwanda” in 2010, his first tournament outside Ethiopia, where he won the Bronze medal. He then joined the World Cycling Centre (CMC) in Aigle, Switzerland for two years before signing professionally with South Africa’s MTN Qhubeka in 2012 where he rode for the next three seasons. He has won the Ethiopian road championship and the time trial championship twice. He also secured a stage win and second placing overall during the 2013 Tour of Taiwan.
And in December 2014, Tsgabu landed a lucrative professional contract with top tier Italian cycling club Lampre-Merida – making him the first Ethiopian rider to sign with a World Tour team.
“When the offer came, I never hesitated because the Lampre-Merida is a very prestigious club,” Tsgabu, whose deal will see him cash in 40,000 euros in the first year, told The Reporter.
He now aspires to compete in the prestigious cycling competitions such as the Tour de France, Tour Spain and Tour de Taiwan.
“I hope to take part in one of the three this year,” Tsgabu told The Reporter. “I do not know how long it would take me to participate in Tour de France, the biggest competition in cycling, but I already have started my journey,” he added.
“Looking back, I could not have predicted such a success. But I was fully committed to cycling. And I think that is the major factor for my success,” Tsgabu told The Reporter.
Meanwhile, Hadnet’s success has been restricted to local competitions so far. But she is adamant that it is so not because of lack of talent but opportunities for women cyclists.
“There are very talented women cyclists out there. But the country started giving opportunities for women to compete in international races only last year,” Hadnet, who competes for Trans Ethiopia cycling club based in Mekelle, says.
“Many women have given up for lack of opportunities and stereotypes. But I never lost hope and kept on going. Participating in Olympics is my reward,” Hadnet, who won eight consecutive national titles, told The Reporter.
Both cyclists say more, from equipments to training, needs to be done to encourage cycling in Ethiopia, whose Olympic competition began in the 1956 Melboune Olympics. Of the 12 Ethiopians who traveled to Australia to compete in the Olympic Games, four were cyclists. But since the Barcelona Olympic in 1992, Ethiopia had no competitor in cycling. In the meantime, Ethiopian Olympians became a formidable force to reckon with in long distance running races including marathon over the years greatly contributing to the nation’s impressive average Olympic medal of 3.2.
Experts say such endurance running events require similar physiological qualities to that of an elite endurance cyclist, at least in theory. And the Ethiopian cycling duo, who will be heading to Brazil in 19 months, hope to emulate the successes of the athletes of their countrymen.
“I have always dreamed of Rio since becoming professional. It is a competition that comes ones in four years. I have been working hard for it. And I am not going there to just participate but win medals like the atheletes,” Tsgabu told The Reporter.
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