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Tsgabu Grmay and His Dream to Turn More Ethiopians into Pro Cyclists

    The 32-year-old has been racing as a professional for 10 years and he wants to give back to his home country and help more riders turn pro.

    Cycling changed Tsgabu Grmay’s life and the Jayco-AlUla rider dreams of it doing the same for more of his Ethiopian compatriots.

    Grmay has been a pioneer for Ethiopian cycling since he turned professional back in 2013. He hoped his path would help open the floodgates for more riders from his country but that hasn’t quite happened.

    As of this year, Grmay is one of just seven UCI registered riders from Ethiopia and one of just two at WorldTour level with another two racing with ProTeams. A decade into his pro career, the 32-year-old wants to use his experience to help more riders from his home country to be able to race for a living.

    “For me, it’s all about bike and I want it to change life for the kids, like it did for me,” Grmay told Velo. “You have to find someone passionate and who wants to ride their bike like I did, as a kid. If you find one that has the talent then I want to help because, in my time, there was no one helping me, I was just waiting for someone to come from the Federation or from South Africa or from UCI to say we want to take one kid to Europe. But now I can do that by just going back and making the dots connected between Europe and Ethiopia.”

    Grmay took up racing as a child, stealing coins from his father so that he could rent a bike — which he would often keep longer than he should — from a local shop. He soon started racing and was picked up by a local team.

    His fortunes changed when he was selected to go to the UCI’s World Cycling Centre (WCC) Africa in South Africa. The opportunity came when the WCC’s coach Jean Pierre van Zyl asked the Ethiopian Federation for some names and Grmay was on the list.

    From there he would go on to the WCC in Switzerland before getting signed to his first UCI team in 2012, MTN-Qhubeka. He turned pro when the team got a Pro Continental license the following season and he’s since raced with Lampre-Merida, Trek-Segafredo, and then Jayco-AlUla.

    Tsgabu Grmay has been racing with Jayco-AlUla since 2019
    Tsgabu Grmay has been racing with Jayco-AlUla since 2019 (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

    Grmay may not have become a big winner, but he has crafted a place in the peloton as a very reliable domestique who has ridden all three grand tours. Since turning pro 10 years ago, he has noticed a change in the perception of cycling in Ethiopia.

    He says that now the challenge is to create the support network for those who want to get into the sport and the pathway up the cycling ladder.

    “A lot of kids see it on TV and when you ask them, what do you want to be they said, they say they want to do the Tour de France because they see someone from there, who does the Tour de France. For me, it’s a big change,” he said. “I compare it to myself, to my friends, in 2007/2008, we never dreamed of doing the Tour de France, we never even think about it.

    “Kids now starting cycling, they’ve been interviewed, they say that because they see someone who does it in the WorldTour. It’s a really big change just on the mental side. But on the dressing and performance and everything, it’s still a long way to go. When they see there’s a guy who made it to the Tour de France or to WorldTour, we should have seen more kids coming. But in 10 years only, we have only now one guy Hagos [Berhe], who is in my team now… we should have more riders.”

    Getting equipment

    Running remains one of the biggest sports in Ethiopia, alongside football. While it’s unlikely that cycling will ever capture the nation in quite the same way, allowing kids to see that it is a possible path in life is one of the early challenges in growing the sport as a whole.

    Once people are on board, the challenge then becomes getting people on the road and riding regularly. One of the benefits of running or football is the comparative lack of equipment that you need to get started.

    Cycling requires a lot more with the bike being a major outlay, before you even get to the kit and the ongoing maintenance. Cost can be a prohibitive factor, but even when there is the money to purchase stuff, the logistics of getting items into the country can be pretty challenging.

    That’s why Grmay has regularly been storing up bits of kit and equipment that would ordinarily be thrown away by his friends and sending them back to Ethiopia.

    “We have struggled with tires. They get punctures, always, we have to change them. We don’t get these tires in Ethiopia locally and we really struggle with it if they get a puncture. So, sometimes when I go riding with my friends we get a puncture and we just change it and we throw it the tube. I just collect it I just put it in my pocket for Ethiopia,” he said.

    “For us, we don’t fix it we just throw it because it’s like one or two years old. But in Ethiopia we just struggle. There’s a lot of rocks on the street and people don’t see them. When you are an individual you see the rocks or holes and you don’t hit them but when you ride in a group, right, you have a lot of punctures because you just hit it when you don’t see it.”

    Racing with Lampre-Merida in 2015
    Racing with Lampre-Merida in 2015 (Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images)

    Grmay would like to do more to bring additional kit and equipment back to Ethiopia, but he sometimes struggles to reach out beyond his friendship network to ask for help.

    “All of my friends, I ask for old stuff from like old jersey, even a crash on it the jersey just don’t throw it in the bin, give me I will use it, Grmay said. “Someone looking for it can fix it and can use it. So, I just connect and send it back home and we use it for many kids. We will do more but I’m really bad at asking because I don’t have the character.

    “I know if I ask on my social media and I promote it, a lot of people want help. But I don’t have that character. I just focus on my job, and I just ask my close friends ‘ah man just give me your old stuff and I can use it for kids.’ Maybe I’ll do more in the future.”

    Supporting the next generation

    While Grmay is using his contacts to help send equipment and kit to Ethiopia, he believes that the real difference will be made with what is done locally, from talent spotting to building the racing scene where promising riders can hone their craft without the need to go abroad early on.

    He’s already pitching in, with the help of his brother — who used to be a racer — and working with some young riders to teach them what he’s learned during his career.

    “We have to do it with local races on the ground, I think that’s the game changer,” he said. “We can make a big change if we work on the ground. We have a lot of kids, they are very motivated, and they are smarter than us. The only thing is that if you get the talent that you build them up, myself and also the Federation should be involved to make pro riders. Now, I am working with my brother and we have six kids under my name, and we just teach them and guide them. We try our part to help to make more pro riders to from Ethiopia. But then we need a lot of races and of course the sponsors. Bike racing is hard. It’s you need money and good budgets.”

    There is only so much Grmay can do now while he’s still racing but when he finally hangs up his racing wheels, he hopes to do more. He believes the wealth of knowledge, connections, and experience can help him to guide young riders and link them up with pro teams and cut out some of the time spent waiting for a team to naturally spot the riders.

    “Ethiopia has a big potential. There’s a lot of WorldTour riders we can bring here [to Europe]. For sure, I don’t think I can do it alone, but with the connections, the knowledge, and the experience I have, even without help from the Federation, I can get a lot of kids to come here.

    “I see [a rider] who has good talent, good numbers you can add good knowledge to it, and you share your experience. With the connections, I believe I can speak with a lot of agents or teams to test him. I can test also at home. We can see what kind of power we can expect from a young guy and how many watts per kilo. Then, if you have the talent the European teams don’t have to wait to see him come to Europe and perform, I can put the message. This is my dream, that I can help with that a lot.”

    Source : Velo