Eritrea's champions of the future
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The buzz at the Tropicale Amissa Bongo stage race in Gabon is all about the Eritreans.
Four days into the race, the national squad leads the African teams' classification and have five riders in the top twenty overall, having matched strong European squads like Europcar and Lotto-Belisol blow for blow.
And all with a six-man team born entirely in the 1990s.
"They're the next Colombians," five-time Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault says.
Sitting in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea was colonised by the Italians in the late 19th century, who brought with them a love of ciclismo that has stuck.
The country now has five professionals in Daniel Teklehaimanot (Orica-GreenEdge), double African champion Natnael Berhane (riding his first race with Europcar here in Gabon), Meron Russom, Jani Tewelse and Ferekalsi Debesay (all MTN-Qhubeka).
"They're going to have a lot more too," Hinault, at La Tropicale in an ambassadorial role, adds.
Softly-spoken Berhane is the shy neo-professional among his garrulous teammates, quiet at the dinner table with his hesitant future. But his ability on the bike makes him a serious prospect for the future.
Five months after starting training on a mountain bike in the capital Asmara, he won his national junior championships in 2006.
Last year, as part of the UCI World Cycling Centre team, he was up there in all the big U23 races, challenging at the Tour of Flanders, Giro della Toscana and Tour de l'Avenir.
"Cycling is like my bread and water," he tells CW under the shade of a giant manguiner tree before the start of stage four in Oyem.
"When I was little, only having dinner in Asmara, I first saw the Tour of Eritrea and I loved it."
So, what are his ambitions? "I want to improve in the Giro, though not this year, but we have to wait. Then there's the Tour of France. I think every day that one day I'll go and ride there.
For now, the 22 year old treats his first year "like school".
Berhane is based in Les Essarts - home to a recent Tour de France TTT and the Chrono des Nations - in Brittany, with Thomas Voeckler virtually on his doorstep and half of Europcar also nearby.
He is a graduate from the Eritrean national team, which trains daily on the roads around the altitude-high capital Asmara.
Arguably the most precocious from the current crop at La Tropicale is also the youngest: 18 year old Merhawi Kudus.
After winning a stage in his first UCI-rated race, the Tour of Rwanda, last November, the lanky teenager has continued to impress here, making a decisive eleven-man break on stage three among top riders Anthony Charteau (Europcar), Adrien Petit (Cofidis) and race leader Andrea Palini (Lampre-Merida) to sit sixth overall.
In March, the climber hopes to go to the UCI World Cycling Centre in Switzerland in March to continue his development.
Whether he maintains his high overall placing or not, there's another thing on Kudus's mind: his 19th birthday on Wednesday.
"I'm hoping to go and celebrate with my family," he said.
Eritrean cyclists have already taken Africa by storm in recent years, sweeping the board in the continental championships a few months ago.
In the not-too-distant future, Berhane, Kudus and a growing number of their compatriots could be making their presence felt at Europe's biggest races.
Merhawi Kudus: Eritrea's newest star wins Tour of Rwanda
African MTN-Qhubeka team aims for Grand Tours
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