Introducing: Tsgabu Grmay
As the first major race of the season, the Tour Down Under typically ushers in a new wave of debutant World Tour riders each year. But in 2015 it’s perhaps a little bit more special than usual. For when the teams roll out from Tanunda on Tuesday morning in the Barossa Valley, Italian squad Lampre-Merida will debut a 23-year old climber by the name of Tsgabu Gebremaryan Grmay – the first ever Ethiopian rider to compete at World Tour level.
This is potentially a very big deal. As is well documented in Tim Lewis’ book “Land of Second Chances”, for decades now athletes from central and eastern Africa nations have excelled in endurance running events which, in theory, require similar physiological qualities to that of an elite endurance cyclist.
Since Abebe Bikila won Ethopia’s first two Olympic gold medals, with successive men’s marathons victories in 1960 and 1964, the nation wedged between Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Eritrea has collected no less than 21 gold medals in endurance running events. In fact, they’ve never won a medal at any other sport, or anything less than 5,000m for that matter. Never mind, when you can produce World and Olympic champions the caliber of Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba.
Now Tsgabu Grmay is no mug on a bike. With his potential clear enough, he was drafted into the World Cycling Centre (CMC) in Aigle, Switzerland for two years in 2010-11 and then signed professionally with MTN Qhubeka in 2012 where he rode for the next three seasons. He’s won the Ethopian road championship and the time trial championship twice. He also secured a stage win and second placing overall during the 2013 Tour of Taiwan.
Of course, stepping up to the World Tour is a very different challenge. There’s every chance the 63kg 175cm man from Mekele in the northern highlands, 2400m above sea level and not far from the Eritrean border, will never reach the same lofty heights as his illustrious countrymen and women did on the running track. But he’s a trail blazer for his nation nonetheless, not to mention world cycling – something he seems very aware of based on comments on his 2015 team website.
“For me stepping up to a World Tour team is a very great encouragement,” he says. “It pushes me to work hard for the future in order to reach the biggest dream of my life: to race in the Tour de France. I am very happy and lucky to be with Team Lampre-Merida. I am the first Ethiopian rider to sign with a World Tour team, so I am very proud about that as well and I want to say thanks so much to Lampre-Merida for this great opportunity”.
We’ll be watching him closely in 2015. And wishing him well with every pedal stroke.
Interested in the history of African cycling? This book is well worth a read: