Eritrean cyclists pedal country onto world stage

When Eritrean cyclist Natnael Berhane crossed the finish line of the Tour of Turkey in May, he made history not only for his country but for his continent.

Natnael, 22, who is expected to take first place after the winner was disqualified for doping, was the first person from sub-Saharan Africa to win a race of that class.

But he is only one of several Eritreans in this cycling-mad Horn of Africa state making his mark on the sport, showing another side of a nation that makes headlines more for brutal repression than world-class athletes.

Eritrea offers ideal training ground for serious cyclists, with its breathtaking, cliff-hugging roads that swoop from the highland capital Asmara, elevation 2,325 metres (7,628 foot), in a 100-kilometre (60-mile) stretch down to the Red Sea.

"When I race in Europe, the aim is to introduce our country to the world," professional cyclist Meron Russom told AFP, sporting the bright yellow gear of his South African-based MTN Qhubeka team ahead of a training session.

"We are still fighting to push Eritrea to the top in sport, especially cycling," added the slender 26-year-old, a former winner of the Tour of Eritrea, a race modelled on the more famous Tour de France.

Eritrea's competitive cyclists have zoomed forward in recent years, boosted by a training centre set up in South Africa by the International Cycling Union (UCI) in 2005.

"They've never had the trying to move them into the higher arena of cycling, until the UCI set up a satellite training centre in South Africa," said UCI President Pat McQuaid.

The tradition of cycling in Eritrea dates back more than a century, when Italian colonisers introduced the sport.

Though international races were hosted in Eritrea, it was not until the late 1940s that Eritreans were permitted to ride competitively alongside their Italian occupiers.

Today, cycling is an integral part of life as cars compete with bikes -- the day-to-day transport for many -- on the capital's roads.

The groups of youths who take to the high-altitude routes alongside professional racers each weekend, however, continue to grow.

The sport suffered during the three decades of war that won Eritrea independence from neighbouring Ethiopia in 1991, said cyclist Giovanni Mazzola.

"Before independence it was bad. Because the war continued, the people could not go out," said Eritrean-born Mazzola, who competed for Ethiopia in the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Today, the country boasts six professional riders who compete internationally, and more than 650 cyclists in the national cycling federation.

But the sport is hampered by lack of funding for equipment and limited local training programmes.

"Funding is a problem, it is not enough," said Eritrean Cycling Federation president Asmerom Habte, sitting in his office next to a handful of cycling trophies.

The government helps buy some professional bicycles, while top riders are supported by sponsors.

But obtaining travel visas to compete abroad adds another challenge since the hardline regime restricts travel, even for national athletes. And the fact that some national athletes have defected has not helped matters.

Olympic runner Weynay Ghebresilasie defected after the 2012 London Games. Last December Eritrea's football team disappeared in Uganda, and at least two more cyclists have defected so far this year.

"We have had one or two who have come and disappeared, which doesn't help the ones who are trying to get in after that," McQuaid said.

Yet the mood remains optimistic that the sport will continue to grow here.

Many of the country's professional cyclists, Meron included, prefer to return home to train in the country's high altitude , temperate weather and varied terrain good for both mountain biking and road racing -- which some feel gives Eritreans a competitive edge over other African riders.

National pride is anther push for Meron.

While Kenyan-born Chris Froome won this year's Tour de France, he carried a British flag. Meron hopes that one day there will be an African -- and specifically an Eritrean -- winning that most famous of cycle races.

"Here in Eritrea, everybody knows us, when we pass in the road, they call us by our name, so they give us a big boost," said Meron. "That's why we are still racing and riding, because of our people."