Ethiopian & Eritrean Cycling

August 4, 2016

I wrote this back in 2012 but it's a fun piece to re-read and see how it applies to cycling in 2016


Maybe you know by now, my team, Marco Polo – Donckers Koffie, is registered in Ethopia. Of all places, it’s registered in a country where life in general has been thwarted by soaring temperatures, vast deserts, but not least the war between the Ethiopian, and the Eritrean government.

To give a brief history, Eritrea was once part of Ethiopia. And, to shorten a long, sad, story, here are a few bullet points to summarise the issues there.

  • The Ethiopian civil war started on the 12th September 1974.

  • The war originally was for Eritrea to gain independence from Ethiopia.

  • By eventually becoming independent, Eritrea landlocked Ethiopia.

  • The war started in earnest again in 1998 after serious border disputes.

  • Over 300,000 people have lost their lives.

  • Eritreans have no problems with Ethiopians and vice versa. They can co-exist. Even in our team.

  • It really is a war between the two respective governments.

  • The U.N still controls the border. 

  • Cycling continued to flourish.

The crucial part relating to our team, and to the respective countries… They are the ONLY countries in the world where bicycle racing is the undisputed national sport.


I had an all to brief conversation with one of the managers recently, and it became clear why the team is registered in Ethiopia. These guys live at very high altitudes, they are fantastic natural athletes (the test scores show it), they also have nothing to lose.


The next bit of the history is quite interesting. Ethiopia used to be an Italian colony. It still was around the 40’s which was when Fausto Coppi was coming to the fore. They took the cycling culture from the era and it still lives on today. All the teams are run by nationally respected coaches. All the teams live in converted farms, warehouses or whatever they can find. They all live together. You could walk around the corner into one of these places and find lycra blowing in the wind drying off from the days wash. Puddles of soapy water drying out in the sun after being liberally applied to the team bikes to clear the layer dust and dirt that has been collected whilst training or racing on the network of generally unmade roads .The coaches, the riders, the mechanics (when they exist in the teams) and soigneurs (carers, the guys that give massages, prepare bottles and food for the races etc). I have heard from the teams managers that have visited that it really is a carbon copy of eras gone by.


The European cycling community may frown upon these guys. Perhaps a few examples of our thoughts may be “these guys don’t know how to train”, “they can’t race over here in Europe” and so on. Their thoughts are the same as ours interestingly. They think that we don’t know how to train, or how to race on the climbs, if you think of a stereotypical thought of our view on their cycling community they have to same view on ours and it's interesting to see the relationship between stereotypes from different continents. You can learn from it, that's for sure.


These guys are the real deal. Full time professional athletes, with serious talent. One Eritrean has already been signed to GreenEDGE. That gives a little insight to these guys. It’s untapped. It takes an intelligent person to think outside the box and a brave one to act on those intentions. If the team can get it right…they have superstars on their hands.



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