Pioneer: A candid discussion with one of pro cycling’s few black African riders

Grmay grew up in the small dusty Ethiopian town of Mek’ele, a town that has quadrupled in size since his birth, but still has few paved roads. As a child there was lots of football, running, but little cycling. His first hero was the marathon runner, Haile Gebrselassie, who not only competed in the Olympics barefoot but whose stride had a distinctive style came from carrying books to school.

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Marshall Taylor, one of the greatest African-American track cyclists, was first and foremost a Baptist. He preached clean sportsmanship, clean living, and most of all racial compassion. Often turned away from velodromes in America because he was not only black but unbeatable, Taylor toured Europe, where he was treated like a superstar. Crowds that once heckled, hurled racist slurs, and threw things, became, across the Atlantic, rapt, admiring spectators. He never spoke negatively of his home country, though. His love for humanity was equanimous, often saying with a smile that all men and women were one under God. His spirituality sometimes clashed with cycling. Most cycling races in Europe were held on Sunday, and Taylor forewent prizes and money so as to observe God’s day of rest.

Tsgabu Grmay races on Sunday, but he is a devout Christian, using his rest time to read the Bible and books about God and religion. He is married to long-time girlfriend and fellow cyclist Hadnet Asmelash and they have a young daughter to whom he dreams of being reunited someday in Europe. Grmay speaks fast, the words drifting upon his smile, each uttered thought shining with gentle optimism. He was twenty minutes late to our interview and I gave him an out, saying, “You must be busy in Innsbruck,” but he was immediately honest, uttering a shy, apologetic laugh about just waking from a wonderful nap.

We talked extensively about his upbringing, his new wealth, what it meant to be the only black rider in the Tour de France (even though he dropped out on the second day due to stomach cramps – a heart-breaking decision, he said), the fact that he is the highest ranked black African on the UCI World Tour (170th), and that he rides for Trek-Segafredo, whose captains have been Alberto Contador, Bauke Mollema, and now Ritchie Porte. During our talk, I never once heard him speak negatively or bitterly, only with a kind of sincerity and humility that reminded me of Taylor’s biography, an impressive mental strength and stamina that deflected negativity while reflecting ambition.

Cycling pioneers should not be compared using numbers and stats, but on circumstances, opportunity, and their will to succeed. In this respect Grmay and Taylor are similar. While at 27 Grmay is still working to reach his relatively modest goal of winning a stage in the Tour de France. Taylor, in comparison, had at 18 already became the first African-American to become World-Champion and at twenty, broken seven world records. Grmay, on the other hand, was born only six years after one of the worst famines in Ethiopia’s history. He grew up with nine brothers and sisters, few beds, and little food. “We are survivors,” he said. “When you see what happened to our fathers in the past, without food… looking for food.” Then, after exhaling the psychic weight of his family’s struggles, he turned the negative into positive, adding, “Now, our generation, its time to work. We have a different mentality and I love that.”

Grmay grew up in the small dusty Ethiopian town of Mek’ele, a town that has quadrupled in size since his birth, but still has few paved roads. As a child there was lots of football, running, but little cycling. His first hero was the marathon runner, Haile Gebrselassie, who not only competed in the Olympics barefoot but whose stride had a distinctive style came from carrying books to school. There was a similar myth about Taylor building his strength and dexterity working as a bike messenger and of Grmay’s own boss at Trek, Bauke Mollema, who rode his old bicycle in ferocious headwinds to school with a backpack full of books. I asked Grmay why he thought these stories lasted in our consciousness and he answered quickly, “because they show that the dream is more important than money.”

At a young age, Grmay was preened by a local cycling club, joined the Ethiopian national team, then Qhubeka, trained at the African UCI Continental Center and later, the World Cycling Center in Switzerland. Jens Zemke, Grmay’s early coach, (who was Directeur-Sportif for Qhubeka and is now a Directeur-Sportif of Bora-Hansgrohe), said that he once went to a marathon in Germany where, once the black Africans went by, he waited nearly twenty minutes for the “white guys.” He continued without irony, “So I thought, if they (Ethiopians, Kenyans, etc.) can run so fast, it must be possible to bring them on the bike and do the hard races of cycling.” When I asked Grmay about Zemke’s line of reasoning, he paused then exhaled slowly.

“Ethiopians dominate running because you only need shoes,” he said. “When you read about Gebrselassie, he was running without shoes and training without shoes and he won the Olympics without shoes. But bicycling you need a bike. You need helmets. And you need money for that. And it all comes from outside of Africa, from Europe, from America. If Africans had more possibilities they might have more talent from Africa.”

So, I asked, if all the great Ethiopian runners had a bike, they’d win the Tour de France, like Zemke suggested?

“No,” Grmay said quickly, with a dismissive groan. “Running is different. It’s very physical. You need strong form, body, and good motivation. There is no tactic. You just go to your full potential. Cycling is different. You go in the peloton with 200 hundred people, amen. You not only use your legs, you use your mentality. You have to be 100% technical. Downhill, uphill. You have to be a fighter. You’re fighting with the flat riders and strong sprint riders. It’s completely different.”

Often athletes who grew up poor ascribe their fortitude to the challenges of poverty. Grmay sees himself as a fighter, but racing in the Giro, Grmay’s first World Tour, something inside him snapped, and he could be heard shouting in despair, “this is not racing!”

“I grew up in sunshine and low altitude,” he said. “It was never raining during my training. When I came to Europe it was always raining and cold and foggy. The peloton was really big and the road was really small and we went up and down and up and down.” Then, after a pause for a chuckle, he admitted that the Giro was one of the greatest experiences of his career.

There was a video on Twitter of Grmay riding his Trek time-trial bike through the backroads of Ethiopia, passing tin-roofed shacks and kids standing in shock by the side of the road. In a country where the per capita income is $783, I asked if Grmay was comfortable with such an ostentatious display of wealth, especially when he himself has admitted that, as a youth, had been a petty thief.

“I grew up in my city, I know the people who live there and what the kids do. I have the same (street-wise) mentality. I kept that same mentality when I became a professional rider. I’ve traveled from Ethiopia to Europe and all over and back, but when I come back to my home, I have the same mentality as a guy still living there. I’m not scared of anything because I know everything and I grew up there.” He laughed a bit as he recollected, “But yeah, some people do come up and ask how much the bike is worth and they’re always surprised. Some people believe me and some people don’t. They ask me, ‘how is it possible that a bike can cost this much money?’”

When I pushed him to explain how he rationalizes the disparity, he said, “Some people have a car other people don’t, some people have shoes, some people don’t. You cannot compare. We have millions of people (in Ethiopia), you know. That’s life. That’s how it works. Everyone goes on their way. I open a discussion and inspire them and show them what they too can do. I show young people that I didn’t have a house, but now I have a house, my family is working and I have a car and I have a good life. My life is changing because I am working. I am making money. This job is my passion and I love riding my bike. And also it’s my business, it’s my work. I’m still 100 percent the same person. I started my bike racing in my country and with my people and they support me to do more and show more and that’s my biggest motivation.”

Being a national celebrity hasn’t changed him, he contended, deferring to a Christian humility as he did often during our interview. “I believe that we are all brothers, that we are all sons of God. And in the eyes of God, we are all the same.”

The number of legendary black cyclists in the last century are few and far between. Limiting it to only road-racing, there are perhaps no more than a handful. In this year’s World Championships there were three black Africans, besides Grmay, riding in the elite men’s race: Merhawi Kudos, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier Werkilul, and Nicholas Diamini. Outside of the World Tour, Kevin Reza, Johann Gene, Nicholas Dlamini, and Daniel Teklehaimanot are still racing and contributing to professional cycling. But no single black rider has come as far as Grmay in road-racing.

Alberto Contador was Grmay’s hero. He admired El Pistolero’s fighting spirit, his style, his climbing charisma. While Grmay did not get to meet Contador when he finished his career with Trek, he did ride with him in the peloton, observing him from afar. He even still watches Contador’s racing videos.

Most surprisingly though, Grmay’s biggest African influence was Froome. “I’m inspired by him. He won the Tour de France, he wears a yellow jersey, he comes from Africa. My dream was just to start the Tour de France, and then in 2011 when I saw Froome win, I thought, I can do that too. Maybe I cannot do what he does, but I can be in the Tour. That is the energy I’ve gotten from seeing him. Also, when I saw Daniel Teklehaimanot raced in the 2012 Vuelta, I said ‘ok, it is possible.’ Daniel can do it and I can do it too.”

While Grmay considered Froome a fellow African, they came from very different circumstances. Froome went to a private boarding school and Grmay grew up struggling for basic necessities. Froome had his own bike. Grmay borrowed his brother’s bike. But, to Grmay, simply being African was enough to unite as was his staunch belief that we are all children of God.

“I see only the country where we were born in and where we grew up,” Grmay said. “I don’t see the color of their skin. Alberto Contador is from Spain, but I am inspired by him. Everyone has a greatness. If he can do it, I can do it. I have two arms, two legs, a brain. Everyone has the same system. It just depends on how we think and what kind of mentality we have. I am inspired by Contador, but when someone comes from Africa if someone from my country can do it, then I get more energy, more power from that.”

“There are a lot of people who believe in God, but don’t believe that everyone is equal,” I said.

“I have my own brain,” he responded pointedly.

Last year during the Tour of Romandie, Sky’s Gianni Moscon made racist remarks to Kevin Reza and was suspended for six weeks and dispatched to a diversity awareness course. Grmay claimed that he’s never encountered racism in the peloton and he attributed it to his persistent positivity.

“I try and have good communication with the riders and have good fun,” he said. “If you give someone positive energy you will receive positive energy back. I always come with a smile and good energy toward everybody and that’s what I receive.”

In America, African-American role models such as LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick use their celebrity to influence positive change. While Grmay is not yet the LeBron of cycling, he is one of the only black riders in the peloton and certainly the only one in last years Tour de France. It was not clear if he had considered applying his positive outlook to his place in cycling history. Cycling is lacking diversity, especially with black African riders, and Grmay, with his sincere smile and gentle optimism, could be the rider to speak to that change.

“If a guy comes from Ethiopia and they’re racing in the peloton, it’s obviously easier for me to inspire him,” he said. “I want to inspire not just people from Africa, but also young kids out there, whatever the color.” In order to do that, he added, “It is important for me to chase my dream and reach my goals. How many years do I have? The fire can go out in one day. There are limits as a sportsman. I must use my firepower, my age, and the time I have, to do this wisely. And if I do something historical in the process, great, but I want to be remembered according to the reality of what I have achieved. My dream is to win a Tour de France stage and show young people that I can do it.”

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