Joy Rides: A promising pro’s two-wheeled refuge far from home

A pro career snatched away, and the bike to rekindle the joy of riding.

Imagine, for a second, you are a talented, aspiring young bike racer. You’ve just finished third in Il Piccolo Lombardia (U23 Tour of Lombardy) and signed your first pro contract. You’d probably feel on top of the world, your cycling career just getting started, great things all but guaranteed.

Imagine then you suffer an injury, your pro team goes bust, your visa is expiring, and there’s a fricking global pandemic. You’ll have to go home, but going home means the end of this pro cycling dream.

That’s the reality Yakob Debesay faced. As a young up-and-coming Eritrean racer, Debesay won the overall classification at the 2019 Tour de l’Espoir, an international U23 stage race in Cameroon. That same year, he beat pros from WorldTour and ProTeams to win a stage, the KOM jersey, and the Youth Classification at the Tour Rwanda stage race and finished in the top 10 overall.

Those results and others, including a TTT African Championships title, earned him a stint with Groupama-FDJ’s development squad, an opportunity he grabbed with both hands. Two seasons at Conti level lead to a Pro Conti professional contract with Delko-Marseille for the following year and that Piccolo Lombardia podium, alongside guys whose names you might recognise from current WorldTour rosters: Sweeny, Moniquet, Leknessund, Van Gils, and Paret-Peintre to name but a few.

Yakob Debesay makes a turn on his FiftyOne bike.

But the dream turned into a nightmare. A crash-related injury forced Yakob off the bike in early 2021 and back home, initially only for a short period to get his form back. Home for Yakob is at 2,500 m elevation. Every road leads to an HC climb; it’s the perfect training ground for a climber. Going home was good, so long as he had a team to come back to.

Having regained his form, Yakob noticed the first signs something was wrong when he couldn’t get the team to book his return trip. Months of pleading were met with months of excuses. Yakob would have to make the trip himself if he wanted to race again.

Arriving in Europe, he realised the dream was over. With a sponsor pulling out, the Delko team had gone bust; his countryman and teammate, Biniam Girmay, was one of the few to escape to a new team mid-season. Injured and out of racing for much of the season, Yakob had no such luck. With other teams folding, even the Conti ranks were flooded with talent. Yakob had a dream and a visa to race bikes, but no team, no contract, and no source of income. A cyclist with no means to race, he became an asylum seeker to keep the dream alive.

From the heights of podiums across different continents, Yakob found himself living in a tiny room, in a converted city centre hotel turned asylum-seeker’s accommodation. He had to sign in and out each time he left the building; he was unable to work, unable to cycle, to do the simple things we take for granted.

His compatriots and teammates from just a few months earlier were now racing and winning in the WorldTour and at Grand Tours. Yakob didn’t even have a bike. Worse still, this process take more than a year.

A former team manager at Yakob’s team, and a friend of a friend, got wind of his situation and his location. He rang said friend, who pinpointed his location to just a few miles from me. Cue the local cycling club and community pulling together to help out a fellow cyclist. One club member lent his bike, another bought Yakob new cycling shoes, and with some leftover team kit he was back on the road. It wasn’t pro racing, or the high mountains of home, but a little sense of normality in an otherwise effed-up situation.

Loaners are a short-term solution, though. Yakob needed his own bike.

He still has dreams of racing, and that talent doesn’t leave you. We made some phone calls and sent some e-mails, and thanks to the generosity of FiftyOne, SRAM, DT Swiss, and Vittoria, who were all more than happy to contribute to making this build happen, this Joy Ride came to be.

There isn’t a mega or thoughtful paint job, or bank-busting bling components throughout. There’s no wind tunnel testing or custom geometry, nor wild design aspects, but what there is is a ride. From a ride you can make joy, make dreams, and make a new life.

Unlike our usual Joy Rides pieces, I am not going to break down all the individual components in this build; that’s not what this Joy Ride is about. That said, I do want to take a moment to appreciate the contribution the brands mentioned above did make. Any build would have been enough when we set out to build Yakob a bike. What we ended up with was a full-carbon frame and fork, with a SRAM Red Etap AXS groupset, including a Quarq power meter, a race-ready wheel set in DT Swiss’s ARC 1400s, and tyres to match in the new Vittoria Corsa Pro Control.

Yakob Debesay riding along a stone wall on his FiftyOne bike.

Yakob spent over a year in that converted hotel. He then got moved to other accommodation, all while he awaited his official refugee status and work permit. Those papers he so eagerly awaited finally came through recently. Yakob can soon start work, he can travel, he is no longer living in the converted hotel, and despite a long layoff, his natural talent means he has me matched and under pressure on climbs on even his first ride back.

He could race again, but he can’t yet chase his dream which requires a team and financial support. Thanks to the generosity of all involved here he has the tools, he just now needs the opportunity.

He needs a team, a living, and time to reignite that racing spark. If you are reading this and can provide Yakob with that opportunity, please get in touch with Escape Collective.

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