Ethiopia’s rich cycling history
11th March 2017
Alemayehu Sitotaw grew up on Ethiopian cycling and represented Ethiopia at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Here he reflects on the sport’s history in Ethiopia, and why we can expect to see many more world-class Ethiopian cyclists in the future.
For as long as I can remember, and I’m now in my fifties, cycling has always been a big sport in Ethiopia. I grew up with stories about the great Ethiopian cyclists such as Geremew Denboba, Salam Beni and Haile Micael Kedir.
Geremew Denboba after a race in 1963
The legend of Denboba (whose first name in Amharic means ‘surprise’) flagging down Haile Selassie’s car as the Emperor was heading off on his weekly visit to Debre Zeit was still doing the rounds when I first started riding in the early 70s. The letter that Denboba passed to the Emperor led to the Ethiopian cyclists participating at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Denboba finished 24th in the Olympic road race and four years later was the Emperor’s big hope for an Olympic medal. Unfortunately, he crashed out of the race, but days later the headlines for Ethiopia were made by the relatively unknown Abebe Bikila.
Geremew Denboba at a reception hosted by HE Haile Selassie
Ashenafi Woldegiorgis (nicknamed “the iron man”) at the 1968 Ethiopian National Championships
Haile Michael Kedir was my childhood hero. On Sunday mornings in Addis Ababa, crowds of spectators would turn up at Atkilt Terra to watch the cyclist from Akaki, one of the city’s suburbs, destroy all before him. Kedir was already relatively old and a father of five children by the time I started competing in 1976, but he was still the rider everyone wanted to beat. One of his great rivals was Ashenafi Woldegiorgis from Somali Terra, another district of the capital. In one race supporters of Woldegiorgis tried to sabotage Kedir to prevent him from winning, after which Kedir’s followers retaliated by physically stopping other cyclists from training on their patch, which was known for having the best roads in town.
The 1977 Addis Ababa Club Championships, including Haile Michael Kedir (first from the left) and his team
The 1981 Ethiopian National Cycling Championships, Asmara
From how I saw things, for at least a couple of decades in the 1970s and 80s cycling was a bigger sport than athletics for the public of Addis Ababa. For a start, there weren’t many competitions in Ethiopia for the country’s top athletes – they tended to go abroad for their races – so the public didn’t really get to know them. Also, the likes of Miruts Yifter, Tolossa Kotu, Eshete Tura and Mohammed Kedir (our top athletes at the time of the 1980 Moscow Olympics) were all from the ‘countryside’ as we cyclists used to say. The public really got to know the country’s cyclists because we were regularly competing on the city’s streets throughout the year.
The 1981 Addis Ababa Clubs Championships
Looking further back at Ethiopia’s cycling history, we have the Italians to thank for bringing their cycling culture to us. This started in Eritrea, colonised by the Italians in the 19th century, and later came to Addis Ababa during the five years of Italian occupation at the time of the Second World War. Thirty years on, the Italians were still importing bikes (mainly Legnano and Bianchi models) to Ethiopia. As soon as we got wind of these arrivals, we rustled up whatever money we could find and dashed off to the local Meucci spare parts factory in Piassa where the bikes were being sold. All of us in Ethiopia grew up with the Italian words used in cycling: ‘volata’ for sprint, ‘arata’ for following the wheel, and ‘escato’ for attempting a break.
By the age of 17 I had progressed to national level. In my first year on the team we competed against the East German junior cycling team in Addis Ababa, where Olaf Ludwig (who later became 1988 Olympic road race champion) rode against us and won. To us, the East Germans looked twice our size, and our bikes probably weighed twice that of theirs.
Above the 1984 Ethiopian Cycling Championships race in Addis Ababa, and below Alex receiving the winner’s trophy from Prime Minister Fikre Selassie Wogderess
Alex receiving the trophy for the 1981 Ethiopian Clubs Championships, Addis Ababa
The 1980 Moscow Olympics was an amazing experience for me. As an 18-year-old I competed as a member of Ethiopia’s time trial team, the second youngest cyclist ever from Ethiopia to compete at the Games. Also on the team was my hero Haile Michael Kedir, still going strong at the age of 36.
We killed ourselves in training. In fact, that was the main problem; by the time we arrived in Moscow we had nothing left to give in the race itself, and we finished 23rd and last. Just one thing redeemed us: the road race team actually failed to finish the race, so they took even more of the blame for our poor results once we returned home after the Games!
Alex (first from the right) at the Moscow Olympics with his team members Haile Michael Kedir, Mekonnen Tadese and Ayele Mekonnen
My best years came between 1981 and 1984 when I won a number of big races for my region and then at the national championship. For the 1984 LA Olympics we trained well, and this time sensibly, under a Belorussian coach, but the boycott meant we never actually took part.
After I left Ethiopia in 1986, I still followed the sport closely in Ethiopia. Because of the problems in the country and the change in government, no big names appeared in cycling. The same was true in athletics for a short while, at least until the end of the 1980s. Then suddenly we had Derartu and Haile, and athletics took off again. Cycling in Ethiopia needed a star like we had in athletics, but for many years failed to produce one.
It’s no surprise to me that we’re now starting to see lots of good cyclists emerging from Ethiopia, and particularly from the province of Tigray. It’s no exaggeration to say that the culture is steeped in cycling. Look at Tsgabu Grmay. His father was a cyclist, so too was his older brother. And now his younger brother Kidus is trying his luck. What has happened in recent years is that they have got organised, they have built good roads, and (let’s not forget this, because this is also the reason why our country’s athletes so good) they train very hard.
Club cyclists in Tigray in 2016
What excites me about taking cycling tourists to Ethiopia is that they will not only see why it’s so good for cycling here, but also understand how much cycling has always been a part of our culture.
Alex (first from the left) in Tigray on Tadele Travel’s exploratory tour.
Alemayehu Sitotaw is one of the expert tour leaders on our cycling tours in Ethiopia. We can’t imagine anyone better qualified for the job.