The Israel Cycling Academy have added Awet Gebremedhin to the team's 2018 roster. The 25-year-old Eritrean, who holds a Swedish racing license, replaces Ahmet Orken on the roster after the Turkish time trial champion quit the team amid rising Middle East tension.
Gebremedhin's two-year deal is the culmination of a long journey from his homeland in East Africa that included "hiding out" for 18 months in Sweden before he was granted legal refugee status in 2015.
"I still cannot believe it," Gebremedhin said in a statement released by the team. "I waited for this opportunity almost all my life, and there were moments of darkness and despair when I almost lost any hope that this miracle could actually happen. But now, everything that I had to go through, it all seems worth it."
Gebremedhin will be the team's first East African rider as the Israeli squad lobby for their Grand Tour debut at the historic Giro d'Italia start in Jerusalem in May. Initially slated for the team's development squad, Gebremedhin jumped up to the Pro Continental team when Orken left after citing pressure on himself and his family in Turkey.
Gebremedhin's 13-year journey to professional cycling started when he was an 11-year-old working on his father's rural chicken farm and riding to school every day.
"It was 15 kilometers to school when I moved from grammar school," Gebremedhin said. "So [my dad] decided it was worth it to invest his very little money in buying me a used bike so I could get back quickly and work in the farm."
The youngster's daily rides to school quickly took on a recreational aspect as he started entering local races and winning. In 2009 he moved to the capitol city of Asmara and joined Eritrea's biggest team, Zoba Debube. Gebremedhin developed into a talented climber and eventually raced for the Eritrean national team in Europe.
Seeking sanctuary in Sweden
In 2013 Gebremedhin placed second in Eritrea's Fenkel Northern Redsea and sixth in the Tour of Eritrea, but on a trip to Italy he decided he would not return to his home country, choosing to flee to Sweden and seek sanctuary there instead.
"I knew that I would never get to be a professional rider if I returned to my country," he said.
Because his status in Sweden was still in limbo, Gebremedhin confined himself to a friend's apartment for 18 months, fearful that he would get arrested and sent back to Eritrea if he ventured out.
"It was by far the worst time in my life," he said. "I could not go out and forced myself to eat very little, actually starving. It was the only way to keep my body lean as I hardly moved. I knew that with not riding for a long period I was risking my future as a pro, so I just had to starve many times."
Gebremedhin spent his time studying Swedish so he would have a better chance to get his papers, which Sweden eventually granted in November of 2015.
"For three months, I collected empty beer bottles and sold them," he said. "Eventually I had enough to buy a bike, shoes and a helmet, and I could go out training again. I would train for hours and hours to get back in shape."
He signed with the Dutch Marco Polo amateur club in 2016 and quickly finished 19th in his first race in nearly two years.
Gebremedhin moved up to the Continental level with Kuwait-Cartucho.es in 2017, starting his season at Haut Var in France and Tour La Provence. His best result in 2017 was 16th overall at Vuelta de Madrid. He finished his season at Volta a Portugal, where on the very hilly Queen stage he finished 34 seconds behind the winner.
But when Kuwait-Cartucho.es folded at the end of 2017, Gebremedhin was left without a team and, more importantly, without an income.
"I could not even call home," Gebremedhin said, "because I knew they expected help from me and I could not [provide it]."
Gebremedhin was getting help from some of his old friends at Marco Polo, however, as they were calling around their cycling contacts trying to find the rider a new team. They eventually reached Israel Cycling Academy General Manager Ran Margaliot.
"Credit [Marco Polo] for saving his career," Margaliot said. "They said to me that I must take a close look at him, and I am happy we did."
Israel Cycling Academy's Pro Continental line-up was already filled, so Gebremedhin accepted a spot on the development team. His luck changed when Orken decided to ask for a release from his contract. That opened a spot for the Pro Continental team's first rider from East Africa. Gebremedhin said he was almost moved to tears when he got the phone call about moving up.
"It was a dream come true," he said. “I could not believe it."
Team founder and co-owner Ron Baron said signing Gebremedhin was a perfect example of the Israel Cycling Academy's mission.
"This is really all that ICA is about," Baron said. "Here is a rider who deserves an opportunity to fulfill the dreams that seemed almost lost. That's why for us it's an exciting moment. We feel privileged to give Awet this chance and confident that he will show the world of cycling his unique qualities."