Former World Cycling Centre trainee Natnael Berhane continues to blaze a trail for African cycling with his win in the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, au Gabon, at the weekend.
The Eritrean’s historic victory makes him the first black African to win a professional stage race. The rider with Team Europcar kept the peloton on its toes throughout the event, gradually moving in on the leader, one of cycling’s big names Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural – Seguros SGA). Thanks to bonifications in the last two stages, Berhane finally stole the show, taking overall victory by a mere second.
WCC trainee for two seasons
A trainee at the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland, in 2011 and 2012, the 23-year-old Eritrean was near speechless after the breathtakingly exciting last stage: “This is a victory for Eritrea and all of Africa,” he beamed at the waiting press. “I don’t know what to say. It was a good result. I am so happy. I couldn’t believe it was possible to beat a rider like Luis Leon Sanchez who has won so much. But I did it finally, which means I’m starting to make a place for myself amongst the pros.”
Berhane’s performance is no bolt out of the blue: in 2011 he had already beaten UCI WorldTour riders to win a stage of the Tropicale Amissa Bongo-Tour du Gabon. He is two-times African road race champion (2011 and 2012) and part of the Eritrean National team that has won the African team time trial three years running. Last year he made headlines when he won the third stage of the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey and spent three days in the leader’s jersey. “
For WCC Director Frédéric Magné, Berhane’s success is due not only to his obvious physical ability, but also to his intelligence and his drive.
“What struck us all when he was training at the WCC was his extreme intelligence coupled with a real desire for victory,” explains Mr Magné. “He rides to win and is a real fighter. He has everything it takes to succeed.”
The WCC Director underlined the young athlete’s maturity and long-term vision which saw him refuse initial offers from several teams, preferring to remain amateur until he received the professional offer he had set his sights on: “He took his time, thought carefully and waited to enter a very high-quality structure.”
Continued contact with former WCC coach
Berhane keeps in frequent contact with Jean-Jacques Henry, his coach at the WCC throughout the 2012 season, and phoned him shortly before the race in Gabon.
“His performances last year, particularly in Turkey, already showed what he was capable of,” says the coach. “He is concentrated, studious, knows what he wants and goes after it.”
Founded in 2002, the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland, has trained more than 620 athletes from more than 120 countries in cycling’s different disciplines. Natnael Berhane is the second Eritrean athlete to turn professional on graduating from the WCC: Daniel Teklehaymanot trained at the WCC from 2009 to 2011 before joining Orica.GreenEdge in 2012.
Photo: Natnael Berhane had already demonstrated his potential last year when he won the third stage of the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey