Natnael Berhane (Europcar) may become the first Eritrean to ride the Tour de France this July. Berhane has enjoyed a good start to the year where he won the La Tropicale Amissa Bongo, the first African to do so, and was belatedly awarded the Tour of Turkey victory.
His directeur sportif Andy Flickinger confirmed that Berhane was under consideration to ride la Grande Boucle. "He's a very good rider and a very good climber, and I think that he will be a leader in the future. He is doing his first Grand Tour. We don't know yet which one. Maybe the Tour de France or maybe the Vuelta a España," he told Cyclingnews. "If he does a Grand Tour it will be his first, so he will open his eyes and work for the leader."
Berhane's performances have earned him African sportsman of the year in 2013, beating footballers Yaya Touré and Didier Drogba. African cycling as a whole has had a boost this season, but Eritrea is enjoying growth. Berhane's compatriot Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first Eritrean to ride the Vuelta in 2012 when he rode for the Orica-GreenEdge team. There are now six Eritreans on the professional circuit.
The quietly spoken Eritrean rider joined Europcar at the beginning of last season, after attracting their attention by winning a stage of the 2011 edition of the La Tropicale Amissa Bongo. He first came into the public consciousness when he won the queen stage at the Tour of Turkey. Berhane went on the finish second, but later inherited the race when the winner Mustafa Sayar tested positive for EPO.
Due to the time it took to confirm that Sayar would have the victory stripped from his palmarès, Berhane only found out the week he won in Gabon, making him one of the few riders to win two stage races in the same week. Nonetheless, he was happy to add another victory to his name.
"Sometimes it happens like that. Now my name is down as the winner of the Tour of Turkey. It's a little bit strange with first finishing second. At least I was on the podium."
Now that his Europcar team is moving up to WorldTour level this season, it opens up many doors for Berhane with bigger and tougher races open to him. He said that he would not return to defend his title at the Tour of Turkey. Instead, his programme following Langkawi would be full of mountains, in a bid to unlock his potential further. "I will race Catalunya, País Vasco, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Romandie," he said.
Currently Berhane is riding the Tour of Langkawi, here he was looking to continue his good form but he missed out on the split in the peloton. Despite his efforts, he was unable to catch the the leaders.
This season will be another steep learning curve for Berhane and we may see him take to the podium at the Tour de France one day.