“In order to be a cyclist, you must go through incredible amounts of pain, nobody escapes it.” – Jonathan Boyer
Cycling is a difficult sport not for the physically or mentally weak. The best cyclists in the world have generally been European. There was a time when we thought Americans had a great cyclist. The Colombians have risen once again thanks to a young phenom, Nairo Quintana, who recently became the first Colombian to win the Giro d’ Italia.
But, the world has not seen the true potential for greatness in cycling….the Africans.
Two weeks ago, while in Eritrea for the National Championships of Cycling, I witnessed yet again, how much the Eritreans, Rwandans and Ethiopians have to go through just to reach 10 steps below a level playing field with the rest of the first world.
We stopped by the National mechanic’s local shop in Asmara the Thursday morning before the races (ITT—Individual Time Trial and Road Race). Mahari looked distraught. He had been washing Natnael Berhane’s TT bicycle, a $15,000+ Colnago with EPS Campagnolo gruppo and when he was finished it wouldn’t shift. EPS is the new electronic shifting components from Campy. This bicycle with these components is as good as you get, however, Natnael was not going anywhere without the ability to shift. Mahari is a good mechanic, diligent and always wanting to learn, however, prospects for training and equipment are limited in the capital city of Asmara. Jock told Mahari he would look at it.
Later that afternoon Mahari, Jock, Natnael and a couple of others stood in the dimly lit back room of a jewelry store, the store was owned by Natnael’s father.
Jock is not familiar with the new electronic shifting so the first attempts were futile. He needed to know how to reset the shifting and the sequence to reestablish the gears. First he tried to call Natnael’s mechanic at Team Europcar in France. His phone cannot call out as it is blocked. Natnael then calls Steven. Steven answers but the connection is poor, the voices delayed. Another call, Jock and Steven talk and then the line goes dead. Another call, a few more steps then phone runs out of minutes. The friend runs out and comes back with three 110 Nakfa cards to recharge the phone. The calls do not go through. Steven calls back. Another few steps relayed, the phone dies. Jock calls back. Steven tells him he will send him a video on the reset sequence. We all laugh. Eritrea essentially does not have Internet. Throughout the week we were able to send off and receive a few emails but that was it. A video? Never happening.
People have no idea, no concept of life in Africa, unless they have experienced it. Most haven’t.
More 110 Nakfa airtime cards, a few more calls and Jock gets the bike shifting….4 gears out of 22. Not good, but better. Steven tells Jock he will send the file via email. The first email is 5MB. Jock responds to reduce the file and he sends it 786kb. No chance of opening it.
Throughout the entire ordeal, Natnael is calm, relaxed and simply going with the events. Mahari was silent, most likely contemplating he was possibly going to be responsible for Natnael’s loss on Saturday’s ITT. I’m nervously watching, playing solitaire on my phone trying not to think about the what ifs and biting through the inside of my cheek.
Natnael looks at Jock and says, “Can you call Louis Garneau (the clothing sponsor for Team Europcar) and tell him I need more National Championship jerseys because I will be racing the Dauphine next week?”
Jock just looked at him and said, “Yes, I will call Louis, but we need to get the bike fixed, let’s call him after Saturday.”
Why was this bike so important? The ITT is often decided on tenths of a second. A TT bike gives a cyclist a 3mile/hr advantage. Natnael’s biggest competitor, Daniel Teklehaymanot, also from Eritrea and now riding for Team MTN Qhubeka, had his TT bike. Daniel is also one of the best cyclists in Africa and moving up the ranks of professional cycling.
If we didn’t get this bike operating, the chances of Natnael winning were slim, slim to none. Natnael kept insisting we call Louis Garneau. His quiet confidence was impressive especially considering the lack of the majority of the gears working.
Friday we decided to go to the US Embassy. We had meetings there in the morning and we hoped to use their Internet as we had heard it might be faster. When we finished our meetings around 10:00am the electricity was still off. The electricity in Asmara was generally non-existent between 6:00am and 1:00pm daily. We made an appointment to come back at 1:30 to be safe.
We arrived at 1:30…the electricity didn’t arrive until almost 2:30.
As soon as we got on the computer we tried to download the link. The computer could not open pdf files. There were two other computers left which could open pdf AND print. Jock and I both worked furiously trying to open the files. The electricity surged mid download and the back up batteries died and the computers with them. The Italian and Japanese portion of the file had printed but not the English. Jock speaks Italian. The electricity comes back up and we start printing everything we can find on the Campagnolo website relating to resetting the EPS. We were allowed 2 pages of printing each. We printed over 50 pages. The toner ran out, we printed some more. Luckily the Eritrean at the Embassy knew the story and let us print away. He got a pair of Team Eritrea socks as a HUGE thank you.
An hour later we had what we thought we needed. We called Natnael and met him and Mahari back at the jewelry store. Another two hours and Jock had the rear derailleur working (11 gears) but not the front. Luckily the course was relatively flat so Natnael would not need the front derailleur. He just had to make sure not to touch it at any point or the gearing would not work.
Two days, six hours and it still wasn’t 100%.
In the US or Europe it would have taken 10 minutes at your local mechanics and it would have been 100%.
This is just one of the dozens of life issues African cyclists face day in and day out. They do not have electricity to charge, phone service to call all over the world, credit cards if they get in a bind, parents at home to bail them out in a jam, a first world education, clean water, a good diet, access to parts, expertise, nutrition, coaching….they have none of it.
When an Eritrean hits the starting line at a major European race, physically and mentally they have had to overcome dozens, hundreds of obstacles a western cyclist would not even have to consider. When they hit the line they are already the strongest young men in the group.
Saturday Natnael rolled up to the start house already facing a strong time by Daniel who currently held 1st place by over 3 seconds.
As he left the start house I hit the stopwatch on my iPhone and waiting. Daniel’s time based on my stopwatch was 21:05. As the time approached 20 minutes I started watching. There he was….the time was ticking by. The crowd started cheering. I stopped the iPhone at 21:04. I knew it was close but from where I was standing I couldn’t be 100%.
Natnael won by .8 seconds. He was the ITT Eritrean National Champion.