Ethiopian cycling: a brief history

For more than sixty years road cycling has been a big sport in Ethiopia.

At the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956 Geremew Denboba led a team of 4 Ethiopian riders as the first Ethiopian cyclists to compete at the Olympics. Denboba himself finished 25th in the 187km road race won by the Italian Ercole Baldini.

In a bizarre twist of fate Ethiopia has the Italians to thank for bringing cycling to the Horn of Africa. During Italy’s five-year occupation of Addis Ababa (1936-1941) Mussolini’s fascist regime were keen to impose their culture throughout Italian East Africa and many Italian road bikes such as the famous Legnano and Bianci models were brought to Ethiopia.

At the forefront of Italy’s golden age of cycling was Fausto Coppi, a five-time winner of the Giro d’Italia and a two-time winner of the Tour de France. Coppi became a household name on the streets of Addis Ababa and cycling quickly became part of the local culture. Still today Ethiopian cyclists use Italian terms when talking about their trade: ‘volata’ for sprint, ‘ruota’ for following the wheel and ‘scappo’ for attempting a break.

Outside Africa Ethiopia’s cycling culture is little-known. The exploits of the likes of Abebe Bekila and Mamo Wolde who between them claimed three consecutive Olympic marathon titles for Ethiopia in the 1960s ensured that Ethiopia’s cycling prowess would soon be overshadowed by the triumphs of its famous distance runners.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s cycling remained a more popular sport among the public of Addis Ababa than running, with tens of thousands of spectators flocking to the city’s national stadium each weekend to watch their cycling heroes going head to head in keenly fought circuit races.

By the late 1980s, as Ethiopia became gripped by civil war, cycling races were stopped and public interest in cycling waned. Following the change of regime in 1991, athletics then regained the upper hand through the emergence of stars such as Derartu Tulu and Haile Gebrselassie.

Today, road cycling is very much back on the nation’s sporting agenda, with the emergence of riders such as Tsgabu Grmay, Ethiopia’s first cyclist to compete in the Grand Tours. It’s no coincidence that Grmay himself hails from a family of cyclists, and his success will increase the chances of more young Ethiopian riders emerging on the world scene in future years.