Cycling in Eritrea: Q&A with ‘King of the Mountains’ filmmaker James Walsh
Just before Christmas, a 30-minute documentary about Eritrean cycling appeared online with very little fanfare or advance notice. With a focus on seven-time national road and time-trial champion Daniel Teklehaimanot, “King of the Mountains” — produced by Sinamatella Productions — traces Eritrea’s passion for bicycle racing back to Italian colonization at the turn of the 20th century, and up through the 2017 national championships, contested by WorldTour riders in front of thousands of fans.
Italian soldiers introduced the first bicycles to Eritrea, used for postal exchange. Within a generation, Eritreans had their own cycling clubs. When Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy in the 1920s, he held grand plans for a second Roman empire in Africa, with Eritrean capital Asmara referred to as “Little Rome.”
In 1939, Eritrea’s Ghebremariam Ghebru defeated several Italians in a special race organized by colonial administrators; according to academic FikreJesus Amahazion, that victory “shattered colonial Italian myths about Eritrean inferiority.”
After defeat in World War II, Italy was forced to give up its African territories, including Eritrea. The nation of six million struggled in a 30-year war for independence with Ethiopia, which was sealed in 1993. Still, the level of racing was so high that between 1956-1972, a total 19 Eritrean cyclists participated at the Olympic Games, albeit in Ethiopian colors. Eritreans were the only black African cyclists to compete at the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.
Over the past five years, a generation of racers who grew up in an independent Eritrea have, with the help of the UCI’s World Cycling Centre, breached the sport’s highest barrier, riding at the WorldTour level, including all three Grand Tours. Most well known among that group is Teklehaimanot, who signed a two-year deal with Orica-GreenEdge for 2012-13, and then spent four seasons with Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka.
In 2012, Teklehaimanot became the first Eritrean to ride La Vuelta a España. In 2015, he and Merhawi Kudus became the first black Africans to compete at the Tour de France; Kudus was the youngest rider of the 2015 Tour ,while Teklehaimanot spent four days in the polka dot King of the Mountains jersey. Last year, Teklehaimanot held the blue Mountains jersey at the Giro d’Italia for two days.
It was under this backdrop that South African James Walsh traveled to Asmara, 2,325 metres above sea level, to create a documentary film about Eritrean cycling for China Global Television Network (CGTN).
His trip — commissioned by CGTN and made possible through the Eritrean Cycling Federation — coincided with the 2017 national road and time trial championships, won by Meron Berhane and Mekseb Debesay, respectively.
Walsh was no stranger to cycling, having produced Baisikeli, a documentary film about the Kenyan National Cycling team, in 2013. However Eritrea is not Kenya, and while it may be producing strong riders, it’s a nation under strict government control; in 2015, a United Nations inquiry concluded that serious human rights violations in Eritrea may amount to crimes against humanity. Eritrea’s mandatory national service, which the government claims can last 18 months but the UN says can end up being indefinite, held under “slavery-like practices,” has become a focal point of international criticism. Eritreans currently make up one of the largest groups to cross the Mediterranean to claim asylum in Europe.
For 2018, Dimension Data for Qhubeka employs four Eritrean riders — Kudus, Debesay, Natnael Berhane, and Amanuel Gebreigzabhier. Teklehaimanot, who is rumored to have clashed with team management, is currently without a contract for the first time in six years.
Earlier this week, the Israel Cycling Academy team announced that it had signed 25-year-old Eritrean refugee Awet Gebremedhin, who defected in Italy while racing with the national team in 2013 and spent 18 months in hiding in Sweden before he was declared a legal refugee.
“I think after Syria there are more Eritrean refugees in Europe than any other country,” Walsh said. “There’s so much complexity there. I wanted to make sure, as a filmmaker, that I wasn’t going there jeopardizing any of the riders. They go back every year to train, to ride, and they’ve got families who’ll probably never get out, or who won’t be repatriated.
“With all of us judging a country we’ve never been to, for me it was just using cycling as a lens to go to this place and let the world see it, and see this genuine passion, and see the genuine talent. And hopefully it’s just a starting point for people to learn more about it.”
CyclingTips: I enjoyed the documentary, there was a lot of really great footage, but the question I kept coming back to was around the primary motivation behind this. Who wanted this documentary made, and why?
James Walsh: Good question. I’m a director based in Cape Town. I’ve got a film production company, and we’ve been telling stories across the continent for the last eight years. This is a story we’ve wanted to tell for ages. And the usual story with all storytellers is trying to find a platform, and trying to find someone to fund you to tell it. So the Chinese national broadcaster, CGTN — Chinese Global Television Network — has a bureau based in Africa, out of Nairobi, Kenya, and one of their strands is called Faces of Africa.
So, we got commissioned in 2017 to make four 30-minute documentary films on interesting, redemptive, exciting, dynamic Africans doing great stuff. So we put Dan’s story into that commission. We had already done some filming with Team Dimension Data here in Cape Town, on their training camp, at the end of 2016. I’ve spent some time with Dan, and I’d actually made a film in 2012 where we’d followed some Kenyan riders in the Tour of Rwanda, and during that tour, Merhawi Kudus was an 18-year old, and he was in the white jersey, and in the yellow jersey at one point. So he captured my attention.
I interviewed his DS at the race, J.P. Van Zyl, who heads up the World Cycling Centre Africa. J.P.’s got his finger on the pulse of African talent, and he said, “Watch Merhawi,” and obviously three years later Merhawi and Daniel are riding the Tour de France for Team DD, and finished as I think the first black African to finish the Tour De France.
Spending time with Dan in November 2016, I really wanted go to Eritrea, like we went to Kenya, and like we went to the Tour of Rwanda, and really unpack the enigma of Eritrean cycling. I mean they had four WorldTour riders in Team DD in 2017, and from a country of just over five million people, that is huge. And Eritrea, as you know … well, I don’t know if you do know, but it’s ranked 197th on the World Press Freedom Index, out of 198. It’s pretty difficult to get in there, and pretty difficult to find out any information.
So it’s an enigma on many fronts. I didn’t wanna go and tell a political story if I didn’t have the backing, and the real depth and knowledge. I didn’t wanna jump in guns blazing. And I think Daniel and Merhawi, and Eritrean cycling story is a great lens into the country and hopefully … all our African stories are trying to find an interesting angle for a global audience to see the continent in a different light, and then learn more, and read up more themselves, and make up their own minds. It’s very hard to present a full picture without financial support and time. And like any good story or storytelling, you need the time. Time is the key element in non-fiction storytelling.
So we got an opportunity after eight months of leg work, emailing the minister of information, emailing ambassadors in South Africa and Eritrea., just trying to get the visas to come and tell that story, and I don’t think that we would’ve got journalistic visas if we were telling any other story.
So yeah, that’s probably the entry point, the enigma of Eritrean cycling, and clearly the performance of Dan and then Merhawi. I mean we spent a bit of time with them at the training camp last year. Both of them are quite different people, but lovely people. And I wanted to know more about them. I wanted to know the background from which they came from. Then when we got to Eritrea, it blew our expectations away.
So it was tough because I pitched the story, and then we were sent there, but we were telling the story for a non-cycling audience. I would’ve gone deeper and further, and been more emotive, but we were packaging a story for a huge global audience that doesn’t know much about cycling, doesn’t know much about Eritrea, and doesn’t know much about Tour de France. So we had to try tick many boxes.
The product is good, but I think there’s further depths there. We did some filming with Merhawi and I’d like to do a standalone eight to 10 minutes on him. We also filmed, not just at the national TT champs, but also the national road race, and Merhawi finished third on a circuit course around Asmara, and for a climber he did super well, just going back and racing for his fans, and his whole culture.
CT: What obstacles did you face in putting this film together?
JW: Eritrea doesn’t have, like South Africa, cricket, or rugby, or football, or the UK has football, where there are these other national sports. Cycling is everything. So Daniel’s a god, but Eritrea is obviously… since 1991 it’s still run by the same person. Depending on who you talk to, there’s a clampdown on press freedom. It’s very hard to get an exit visa for people to travel out of Eritrea. I think after Syria there are more Eritrean refugees in Europe than any other country. There’s so much complexity there. I wanted to make sure, as a filmmaker, that I wasn’t going there jeopardizing any of the riders. They go back every year to train, to ride, and they’ve got families who’ll probably never get out, or who won’t be repatriated.
They loved their lives there, to some degree, but it’s still quite harsh, relatively compared to the freedom like Dan’s got in Lucca. For instance, when you get a cell phone SIM card it’s just for calls, there’s no data, and no one’s got private internet at home, so you have to go to internet cafes to log onto the internet. It’s very centrally controlled.
So I didn’t want to come in with my ignorance and jeopardize anyone’s story, and we were given access by the Eritrean Cycling Federation. Everyone was super warm, and open and welcoming, and everyone wanted their story told, or gave us time, or when we walked around the streets with our cameras, ordinary people were incredibly welcoming. The second night we were there it was this candle-lit procession where maybe 15,000 people were marching with candles down the center of the capital city Asmara, in honor of martyrs day, down to the big stadium. That was to commemorate everyone who died in the war for independence against Ethiopia, which was a 30-year war.
There was a lot of government propaganda going on, on-stage reenactments of war scenes and stuff. Then when we get down to the actual stage, there was a peaceful march. We just walked around with cameras, and we never felt threatened. It was warm. Everyone was curious. I’ve never seen a cycling culture like that. I haven’t been at Paris-Roubaix or any of the Belgian classics, but it felt like there was just such a … I mean, the youngsters and the coffee shops and training up towards nationals, or just group rides, the crowds around the circuit in Asmara for the road race, there’s a deep cycling culture there. We were going there to tell that story. It’s always hard to tell a story when you’ve got this unknowing backdrop, and how much to allude to, and both Dan and Merhawi off camera talked about how … would journalists in Europe would say, “What’s going on back in Eritrea? What do you think?” And they’d get quite tired and frustrated because they aren’t spokespeople for the political situation in Eritrea. I suppose it’s like asking Tiger Woods about Trump. So it makes it pretty difficult, because they are such leading lights for their country.
What was interesting is that Daniel has a presence in almost any room he enters and is so charismatic off camera. But then becomes somewhat shy and reserved on camera. I’m not sure if that is because he just doesn’t like being interviewed or is concerned about his English or if if he’s tired of being misquoted or if he’s worried his comments will travel without context which could pose potential problems in a complex place like Eritrea. Maybe we should have interviewed him in his native tongue, Tigrinya. These are the dynamics in trying to capture and convey someone’s story.
With all of us judging a country we’ve never been to, for me it was just using cycling as a lens to go to this place and let the world see it, and see this genuine passion, and see the genuine talent. And hopefully it’s just a starting point for people to learn more about it.
CT: What did you learn? What was the biggest surprise?
JW: Going to Eritrea is kind of like… Asmara is, I think, after Miami, has the second-most Art Deco buildings outside of Italy in the world. Because of the centrally controlled government some people liken it to the Cuba of Africa. It’s almost like stepping back in time. There’s no internet at home, so the café culture is huge. Both Dan and Merhawi talked about how they can go back to Eritrea to switch off, to engage with friends, family, themselves, to train. So there’s this warmth and sense of community. Dan’s got his local coffee shop that a friend owns and they ate pastries in the film, and we went and sat there. Dan walks in and hugs or shakes hands with everyone, sits down, has a macchiato, his friends are having lovely coffees, and everyone’s just talking. I don’t want to over romanticize it, because it’s essentially controlled, and there’s lack of freedom, but because there’s been such slow development and growth, it is kind of stuck in a time warp, but there are certain elements that shine through.
Their sense of spirit, sense of community, sense of slowing down, but that doesn’t mean slowing down intellectually. It’s not going back to the dark ages. You get the sense that there’s a lot of erudite, intelligent people. There has been a lot of suppression. I thought it would feel more draconian than it was.
To give an instance; to go to Dan’s hometown where he was born, Debarwa, which is an hour outside of Asmara the capital city, we needed to go to the Ministry of Information to get another visa. So that’s how much they control the movement of non-Eritreans. I think for Eritreans to get to their borders is quite difficult. But there’s the natural beauty, the buildings, the spirit in the people. Their real passion for cycling is intense. Apparently there are club races on every Sunday. So they’ve got this racing culture which not only do the guys have the physiology, they’ve got the racing brains.
I don’t know about Columbia, but I’m just thinking of other developing nations that are producing these cyclists. I think there’s a lot of countries that have the physiology — such as the Kenyans — but they don’t have a racing culture. So that’s just great to see.
I suppose judging a book by its cover is probably … I’ve filmed in nine or ten different African countries and you always think you know it when you get there, and you’re always surprised and blown away by ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The burden on these athletes, they support a lot more than just themselves, so they’re different to say the Australians, or maybe the Europeans, in the peloton. But then when they get back they’ve got their bike shop and they’ve got their friends and family as their soigneurs and their directors. I mean Merhawi’s dad drove his support car [at the road nationals], and I sat in it for a couple of laps, right behind the national champs. Merhawi’s best friend helps him with nutrition and looking up stuff online.
You see Mekseb won the national time trial championship after Dan crashed, and Mekseb’s on the Dimension Data WorldTour team roster. His sister won the Elite Women, and his younger brother won the junior men’s. So you’ve got three out of I think five siblings finishing top of the podium.
So you’ve got these beautiful stories, and clear talent. There’s lots of little countries around the world where that’s been held back, but if you give them this opportunity, you give them a sliver, they have the chance to shine. I think it’s been so interesting having posted it online. CGTN, who are broadcasting it around the world, has a big Asian audience, I think it goes to two billion people, 49 countries in Africa, and 60 in Asia then it gets syndicated across other regions. But the Eritrean audience has reacted hugely to it on social media, and it’s just really interesting and good to see.
I do know that the Eritrean government does have a set-up social media element to help shape narratives, but I think there’s an outpouring of warmth just to see their story told. The Eritrean diaspora worldwide is big. You speak to a couple of the guys on the Dimension Data team that I mentioned — a couple of the Europeans or the Australians — the team bus gets mobbed, like at the Tour of Switzerland, or you saw some of the images in the film from the Tour de France of the Eritreans with their flags. They want a sense of identity and a sense of a positive story on a global stage. And people like Dan and Merhawi are doing it for them in very complicated circumstances.
The first film I ever made was a feature documentary that involved two South Africans. One, Dave George, used to ride on the US Postal Service team, and I made a feature film of him [and his team-mate] trying to win the Absa Cape Epic, which is the richest mountain-bike race in the world. It turned out that Dave had doped. He tested positive six months after I released the film. So I kind of got crushed. My blinkers, my fan with the camera [attitude], came off very quickly. The blinkers came off very quickly, and I read David Walsh and I read every similar book under the sun.
So the next film we made was going to Kenya, and telling the Kenyan riders’ stories and it was just such a humble story, and there’s so many incredible stories that are not at the absolute pinnacle of the sport. You know we all want to believe global sport is such a big powerful … I mean it’s the world’s biggest entertainment business, and often the pinnacle of the sport, the pressure is brought to bear on the athletes and the sponsors and the organizers and the broadcasters and us couch potatoes watching, get to move on to the next thing when the athlete gets burnt out. But these stories that come from these humble beginnings or that just that show the transcendent power of sport, that can for a moment give people a positive news story in their own country, or if they’re outside of their country, gives them something to feel unified about, or just a talking point, or show that they can compete, or that they have a space on the global stage. I suppose that’s the romance of sport. With the IOC and all that stuff has kind of being watered down, and sold, but there’s still these stories out there that have the ability to show you what exists in the quietest and most interesting places on the planet.
I suppose what’s the cool thing about cycling is that everyone’s ridden a bicycle at some point in their lives. For us as kids it was probably our first sense of freedom, and first sense of escape. The Italians left bicycles behind and Eritrea was introduced to the bicycle. So their colonizers left behind this tool, this elegant machine, and the Eritreans have taken it, and it’s become a big sense of their identity. For Dan to wear that wear that blue jersey at the Giro d’Italia that year, it was only for a day or two, but the idea of an Eritrean going back to Italy and standing on the podium I think it’s quite a nice little full circle.
CT: How long do you imagine it will be until we have an Eritrean Grand Tour champion?
JW: I think GC is so tainted, unfortunately. I don’t know. If they wanted to start the team — I mean the URL for Team Dimension Data is AfricasTeam.com or whatever — but I think you’ve gotta have the resources, and you’ve gotta have a five year plan, and you’ve gotta dedicate it. I suppose it’s the same with Quintana. The windows are so small, and the competition at that level’s so hard. Maybe not to win, but to be competitive, and to be in the top 10 certainly, I think … The UCI World Cycling Centre for Africa is based in Potchefstroom here in South Africa. It’s a high performance center that have had lots of Eritreans on the team, but they come and they abscond because they want to pick up refugee status. So the human trafficking elements become quite difficult. Eritreans are on the EU watch list. So for Dan and Merhawi and Mekseb, and Natenael, I’ve heard stories about pro cyclists then trying get work visas in Europe trying to compete. So that’s kind of bizarre. You have these talented athletes that aren’t able to compete in Europe because of refugee watch lists… I suppose a red light flicks on when, “Oh you’re from Eritrea. I’m not sure we can give you a work visa.” So it takes them a long time after being in Italy for three or four years to prove that they’re not going to, I don’t know, want to pick up refugee status or something. So if it was a straight line, I’d say in the next five years you could have some strong competitors in the top 20, but I think you’re gonna struggle without the enabling environment. Not the physiology, not the racing brain, not that stuff. Those inherent raw ingredients are there. I think Orica burnt Dan out, just let him sit in the wind. I think you have to build a team around them.
They have to go to Europe, learn a new language, learn a new culture, new food more or less, be away from home. So it’s difficult. It’s difficult to go, it’s a big leap, but yeah, I don’t know. Ten years, maybe? It’ll be interesting to see.
There’s so much to talk about, the sports, and politics, and the questions that get asked. I mean it’s a lovely story in the sense of there’s so much potential among these hungry, talented athletes. And there’s this big fan base, and it’s an enigmatic, beautiful part of the world, and they want to be seen on the global stage. They want to participate on the global stage. They just need the opportunities to do that. And to develop the Eritrean talent is different to developing Italian talent. I think you need to be cognizant of where they’re coming from and the visa issues and those types of things. That just makes it harder for their talent to get up there on the podium.
CT: And that’s part of what makes this such a great story.
JW: Yeah, and I suppose if you use that as the context, to talk about how they’re essentially controlled, or the political ramifications that the riders themselves don’t have any influence over, but they have to play by those rules, not just by their own government’s rules, but by their international organization’s rules that say, “Okay well, if you don’t have this visa … Or we don’t want to give you this visa.” Meanwhile if they were highly talented athletes from any other country they would get a visa in a heartbeat. As a South African if I travel abroad it’s difficult to get visas. Any sports person, or any person from Africa who wants to try and make a career off the continent, it’s really difficult. It’s an extra hurdle that has to be overcome, besides distance and culture, and language, and all those other things.