Natnael Berhane (Europcar) became the first African rider to win the Tropicale Amissa Bongo stage race when he edged out Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural-RGA Seguros) on the final stage in Libreville on Sunday.
The Eritrean entered the final day in third place overall, four seconds down on Sanchez, but with three intermediate sprints on the menu, the race was delicately poised as it reached its endgame. The Europcar squad managed to keep the peloton intact for two of the three sprints, while Berhane did the rest, picking up six bonus seconds to Sanchez’s one. While Fréderique Robert (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) won the stage, Berhane took overall honours, just one second ahead of the experienced Sanchez.
“It’s a real joy. I found it hard to believe that it would be possible to beat a rider like Luis Leon Sanchez, who has such a great palmarès. But in the end, I got there, and that means that I’m starting to make a place for myself with the pros,” Berhane said afterwards.
Berhane is part of a talented generation of Eritrean riders that also includes Daniel Teklehaimanot, formerly of Orica-GreenEdge and now at MTN-Qhubeka. African road champion in 2011 and 2012, Berhane made the move to Europe last season with Jean-René Bernaudeau’s Europcar squad.
The highlight of Berhane’s year came at the Tour of Turkey, where he won a stage and finished second overall behind Mustafa Sayar, a result that may yet be upgraded to first place due Sayar’s positive test for EPO at last season’s Tour of Algeria.
“I want to thank my teammates who did enormous work for me today,” Berhane told RFI.fr. “I worked a lot, thinking every day about this win. I dedicate this victory to Eritrea. I’m so happy that I don’t know what to say.”
Berhane’s Tropicale Amissa Bongo victory is the fifth in succession by a rider from Jean-René Bernaudeau’s team in the race in Gabon, but the first by an African rider in the event’s nine-year history.
“The Tropicale is the true barometer of cycling in Africa,” Bernaudeau told RFI.fr. “A few years ago, African riders were struggling, but now we’re discovering some talented riders.”
Bernaudeau paid tribute to Berhane’s victory and said that he believes the 23-year-old can beat a trail on the world stage for other African riders to follow. “I’ve discovered a fine African rider who will be, I hope, the ambassador for the African continent,” he said. “Sport is also about discovering talent. I’m emotional because I am the first one to place his confidence in a rider of great talent without looking at his colour.”
Berhane’s next target will be the Tour de Langkawi (February 27-March 8), where he will lead Europcar’s general classification challenge.