In a country where car ownership is beyond the means of the vast majority of the population then cycling offers an efficient and quick alternative to walking. For many Eritreans the bicycle is a utilitarian means of transport, from village to village along dirt tracks or around the streets of Asmara. Cycles will be used to transport all manner of goods, from children on the crossbar to gas bottles on the pannier rack and (live) goats piggy-backing a lift on the rider's back.
Here the average bicycle is primitive by our standards, with thumbshifters, cotterpins and woods valves as standard. Around Asmara locals can be seen riding every manner of bicycle - from "sit up and beg" town bikes to 24 speed "mountain bikes" (interestingly that's 6 speed hubs combined with a quadruple front chainset).
Riding along past another cyclist anyone from a schoolkid to his granddad will hop on your wheel and stick to it like glue - often proving surprisingly (and embarrassingly) difficult to shake off. Any ride through a village is accompanied by shouts of forza or 'tilliano (or the ubiquitous Armstrong).
Asmara is situated at an altitude of 2300 meters in the Eritrean highlands, a ridge of mountains running the length of the country. Although the choice of tarmac roads is limited (here in Asmara there are four principal routes) the roads offer some spectacular scenery and terrain. The road surfaces vary from smooth and fast to potholed and rutted, with tyres inflated hard it can sometimes seem like riding over stretches of Flanders' cobbles.
From the Asmara plateau there are dramatic escarpments in all directions with Italian built roads snaking their way down. Of particular note is the road to Massawa, offering a descent of 75Km to the desert which stretches to the Red Sea coast 120Km from Asmara. The engineering of this road is truly incredible, twisting through the mountains alongside the old railway line. One of the biggest races descends this road to Dogali, situated at 90Km halfway through the desert and then turns to return up the hill to finish in Asmara, at real climbers race!
Although there is little traffic compared with the busy main roads of the UK Eritrean driving can be somewhat erratic. In general however drivers on the open roads will give consideration to cyclists, it is common to see children getting a tow up the climbs by hanging on to the back of a lorry or bus. Riding here does have other unique hazards - at the top of escarpments watch out for baboons throwing rocks, and not many club runs in England are halted by a camel train or herd of goats crossing the road - all of which serve to liven the rides.
As all training rides head back in to Asmara an important part of the culture is the post ride cappuccino and cake at one of the capital's numerous café's - another Italian legacy. The café's are a hotbed of cycling gossip, with team mates and rivals meeting to discuss the weekends racing, the latest bikes, or whether Armstrong will beat Ulrich in this year's tour - so not much different to the café stop on a British Saturday run.
The largest of Eritrea's ethnic groups share their genetic heritage with the Tigrinya inhabitants of the Ethiopian highlands. While the Ethiopians have demonstrated their natural athletic ability the Eritrean's physique lends itself readily to cycling. In general the riders are tall, long limbed and lean (even by the standards of racing cyclists). Together with the terrain this produces a country of natural grimpeurs, with only the occasional sprinter the exception to the rule.
Most of the domestic racing is centred on Asmara (there are 800 registered racers in the capital) but the surrounding towns of Mendefera, Keren, Massawa and Decemhare have second division races. Riders hold UCI licences and are divided into five categories, dependant on age and racing results. The country's biggest race is the Tour of Eritrea, an eight day stage race taking the riders through all regions of the country over 1150 Km.
Three teams dominate the racing (Tele, Red Sea and Asbeco). The teams provide their riders with accommodation the latest bikes (Bianchi, Pinarello and Trek). The countries top sportsmen (cyclists and footballers) are excused national service which takes other young men into the army at the age of 18. Instead the riders live the lives of professionals, training together every day and spending the afternoons resting. In a country with much poverty theirs is a privileged life.
The top riders enjoy something of a celebrity status with fans following their results and recognising them as they ride out of town training or walk the capitals streets. Races in Asmara are attended by thousands of paying spectators and crowds line the hills of the big races. The route of the recent time trial championship was found easily by following the droves of young fans heading out to spectate.
The Eritrean national team has competed in the World championships and in the tours of Egypt and Sudan. Although opportunities for international competition are limited they recently travelled to Nigeria and took third place in the African games.
Eritrean cycling experienced a boost in 2002 when two riders, Habte and Gombolo (first and second in that years tour of Eritrea) were selected to ride with the Marco Polo second division team in the Netherlands. After racing with some of the top European riders (such as Jan Ulrich and Robbie McEwan) it is to be hoped that the experience is mutually beneficial in breaking down barriers and opening the door for more Eritrean and African cyclists to ride as professionals. Who knows, perhaps the "next Lance Armstrong" will be black? The riders probably have much to learn, and can only gain from the experience, while cycling will become stronger through diversity and globalisation.