‘Maybe today I will die’

African riders face massive challenges to become a pro. Mulu Hailemichael risked his life to stay one.

Hailemichael’s wide smile is a trademark of almost every picture of him, on the bike or off. Photo courtesy Caja Rural-Seguros RGA.

Mulu Hailemichael had made it, he thought.

The then-20 year old Ethiopian racer was just three months into his European racing odyssey when he won the KoM and placed fifth overall at the 2019 Giro Valle d’Aosta, a key U23 stage race where riders like Thibaut Pinot, Enric Mas, and Fabio Aru signaled their early potential. Mauri Vansevenant, now of Soudal Quick-Step, won the race, and Juanpe López, who would go on to wear the Giro d’Italia’s maglia rosa for 10 days in 2022, won a stage. 

Hailemichael was in fine company. Verified as capable of competing in Europe, the French ProTeam Nippo-Delko-One Provence signed him on a three-year deal, beginning in 2020. He won a stage at February’s Tour of Rwanda before COVID-19 lockdowns hit, and raced back in Europe in the abbreviated late summer and early autumn season. When he returned to Ethiopia on October 31, he didn’t foresee what was around the corner. 

For several years, ethnic tensions in newly democratic Ethiopia had been rising, as federal authorities led by prime minister Abiy Ahmed clashed with leaders in the Tigray region over political power-sharing and election delays, among other issues. Hailemichael was about to land right in the middle of it.

On November 1, he arrived at his family’s home in Adigrat, a city in northern Tigray. “On November 3, I went to [Tigray’s regional capital] Mek’ele to visit my friends and that night the war started,” he recalls. Just before midnight, Tigrayan forces attacked a military base in Mek’ele. In response, Abiy ordered an offensive centered on the city of 300,000. [Note: the city can also be spelled Mekele and Mekelle – Ed.]

Media and internet blackouts helped obscure the details, but according to both Tigrayan leaders and eyewitness testimony from residents, over the next few weeks the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) strafed Mek’ele with airstrikes and artillery (charges the Ethiopian government denies). According to Human Rights Watch more than two dozen Mek’ele civilians were killed in the initial fighting. Hundreds were reportedly killed in other attacks as the conflict spread, including clashes between ethnic groups. Eritrea entered the war on the ENDF side, risking a regional conflagration.

A man passes remains of a destroyed tank in Idaga Hamus, just south of Hailemichael’s family home of Adigrat. Photo: Yan Boechat/VOA, Wikimedia Commons

“I had nothing: no clothes, no bike, none of my stuff. I had left everything with my family,” says Hailemichael. While his colleagues in Europe were enjoying the last days of their offseason, Hailemichael was suddenly attempting to survive a brutal civil war. “It was the hardest time of my life.” 

There’s a pause as he recalls what he endured, holed up in an apartment for 57 days with seven friends, wondering if he would ever continue the cycling career in Europe that he had been carving out for the past 20 months; wondering if he would even survive.

“There was some food, but not a lot,” he says of those tense, worried weeks where silence could be broken any moment by the sounds of war. “I didn’t go many days without eating, but some days we asked other friends for food. I don’t like war. I don’t like to fight. I was never thinking of going into the army. Never, ever. I am proud to be from Tigray, but I say we have to respect people as humans, not from the regions they are from.”

But along with surviving, Hailemichael faced the biggest, most terrifying decision of his young life as street fights raged and bombs exploded all around him. His EU work visa – good for two years – would be revoked if he didn’t return by January 4, 2021. But to land safely in Europe he would have to risk capture, imprisonment, and even death by first attempting to cross south to the bordering Amhara region in order to get a flight out of Ethiopia. 

As Hailemichael sheltered in Mek’ele, Ethiopian forces surrounded the city, while Eritrean soldiers surged into his hometown of Adigrat in the north. Map from Ethiopia Map, Wikimedia Commons

Hailemichael’s story may be an extraordinary one, but it reflects the enormous difficulties faced by African riders in chasing their cycling dream. So sparse are the opportunities, so great the challenges to get even to where he already was, that Hailemichael felt compelled to risk his life in pursuit of his sporting ambition. If he stayed in Tigray – even if he were not added to a tally of some 600,000 dead that ranks as arguably the deadliest war of the 21st century – cycling’s doors would slam shut forever.

Pedaling a path out

Born at an altitude of 2,500 metres in Adigrat, just a stone’s throw south from Eritrea, Hailemichael is one of seven children, including three brothers. He comes from a family of farmers. “Every day we work by hand with the cows and animals,” he says. “There was little pressure at home: every day you work, help the family a little bit, and then chill, relax with your friends, neighbours, family.” 

When Hailemichael was 14, his mother, Akiye, needed extra help on the land, so she bought him a bike to make the 8 km journey to school quicker; walking took one-and-a-half hours each way. A few months into his cycling commute, some local amateur riders noticed how fast he was. “One said to me, ‘Mulu, why don’t you start racing? I have seen you, maybe you’re good.’ I said, ‘What is bike racing?’” 

Once educated and inspired, Hailemichael started racing every Sunday in what is widely regarded as Africa’s cycling’s heartland. He didn’t, however, tell his mother. “When she heard, she said, ‘Mulu, you have to stop cycling because I can’t buy [cycling] materials like shoes.’” Hailemichael persuaded his mother that he needed his bike to get to school, but he also continued racing. 

An early race for Hailemichael, in the blue helmet. Courtesy Mulu Hailemichael

Before long, a team in Mek’ele offered him a place on the roster, complete with accommodation and food. He was hesitant; “I liked work, helping my mother,” he says, but he accepted. “The first moments were not easy, I didn’t have any technique, but step by step I slowly improved and was winning local climbing races.” In 2018, aged 19, Hailemichael beat Tsgabu Grmay, a WorldTour rider since 2015, to become Ethiopian national champion, though the result was never formally made official. “The Ethiopian cycling federation has a history of not verifying results,” explains Kevin Campbell, manager of the Q36.5 Continental team (formerly Qhubeka), who signed Hailemichael to his first European contract, “but Mulu was allowed to race for us with the champion’s jersey.” He then finished third overall and won the KoM at the Tour of Rwanda, completing the established steps an African rider must pass through if they are to even stand a chance of being spotted by teams racing in Europe. 

Campbell has given contracts to more than 50 Africans in the past decade and is well-acquainted with the obstacles. “Riders need to do well in their national championships to get on a national team to compete in tours in Rwanda and Gabon,” he says of the typical process. “If they get results there, they come on our radar, we can ask our contacts and their peers, and then we can make a decision. Without that route, it’s just not possible for us to identify talent. We can’t physically check every single country as it’s too big a continent, so if they don’t race internationally, we won’t ever see them.” 

Ineos have opened a cycling academy in Kenya, Israel-Premier Tech have racing programs in Rwanda, and the UCI’s World Cycling Centre in South Africa continues to open the door to a wealthier and more prosperous life to riders from across the continent’s 54 countries. But they are the exceptions, small schemes battling against more than a century of cycling’s European-centric gravity.

Early success at the Tour of Rwanda, where he finished third overall in 2018, was essential to attracting the interest of European teams. Courtesy Mulu Hailemichael

When Campbell signed Hailemichael in 2019, his new charge was stunned by the differences in Europe compared to home. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, no one is in the street, everyone is at home.'” Hailemichael recalls. “My mum asked me how life was and I said, ‘Yeah, everything is good, really easy, but everyone’s alone, everything is done solo.’ I didn’t like it. I also didn’t speak English; I was starting to understand Italian, but I was confused every day. It was really hard.” The weather impacted him, too. “I arrived in March and it was -5° [Celsius; 23° F], snowing, and even when it got warmer to 10-14 degrees [50-55° F] it was still so cold for me. I said, ‘How can I ride here?’ I was suffering a lot. I didn’t think I could become a good cyclist in Europe.”

Campbell had also warned him of the racing differences and difficulties: in Africa, pelotons often number 40 riders. “My first race, the Trofeo Piva, there were almost 200,” recalls Hailemichael. “I didn’t know how to move. I couldn’t see the front, I was always fighting for position. Everything was hard, but my teammates always said, ‘despacio, animo, you will get better.’” 

Despite the cautionary tales and reality, Hailemichael was in a rush, fearful that this was his only chance to impress. “I had never ridden in Europe but I had to win,” he says. “There are so many really strong riders in Ethiopia but they don’t get the opportunity I have.” The cases of Grmay and Eritrean racer Biniam Girmay, Africans who are firmly embedded within European racing, are rare ones. To succeed, riders from the continent need significantly more luck and adaptation time than their Western colleagues.

Back in Europe, but not in the clear

Hailemichael decided the risk was worth it. “The moment I left Tigray was really dangerous,” he says. “I thought maybe I would die in the middle of my trip, but I didn’t have a choice – I had to go.”

Against all odds, Hailemichael returned to Europe, but with communication lines down, his family in Adigrat were none the wiser; they thought he was still 80-odd kilometres south, in Mek’ele. He slowly built up fitness after two months without riding, but in his second race of 2021, the GP Industria & Artigianato, he broke his back. “When I crashed I had nothing to do, so every day in the team house I was searching for news,” he says. “I couldn’t find anything good, only bad news.”

Hailemichael returned to race 13 days towards the end of the season, but Delko, which had lost two sponsors in the offseason, was in trouble. Girmay had switched to Intermarché at the end of May, and by August the team ran out of funds; they would cease operation two months later. The final year of Hailemichael’s contract was void. “I was thinking, ‘If I don’t find a team, what can I do?’” he recalls. “Maybe I could stop and start something new, find a new job, as I had an EU work permit until the end of 2022. I could not go back home, but if I did not find something, I couldn’t do anything: not pay the [rent], not eat. 2021 was the hardest year of my whole life.”

That’s where his agent, former Spanish pro Egoi Martínez, stepped in. “When I first met Mulu he was a happy, bright kid with a lot of chispa – a spark – and on the bike he was aggressive,” he recalls. “He was one of the best climbers in the world for his age,” Martínez, who first started working with Hailemichael after that 2019 Valle d’Aosta performance, says. “In 2021 it was like the lights had been switched off as a person and a cyclist. He was without a team, he couldn’t return home, he didn’t know if his family were alive or dead, he had no economic stability, and he was on the verge of collapsing as a person. At that moment, the only thing that occurred to me was to bring him closer to me.” 

Martínez rented an apartment in Etxarri-Aranatz in the northern Spanish region of Navarre for Hailemichael to stay. It was 100 metres from both Martínez’s own home and his parents. “I always thought that life was something more than just making money and drinking beers, and I took this on as a challenge,” says Martinez. “It has been very, very hard, but almost the whole village has been luchadores – fighters – for Mulu and have so much love for him. My parents have welcomed him like a son, my wife too, my kids like their brother. I don’t know whether he’s my brother or my son, but he’s part of our family.”

Still without contact with Hailemichael’s family (they remained unaware that he was even in Europe), Martínez secured him a place on the Global 6 Cycling team for 2022, but he did only one race with the team (March’s Tour of Normandie) and left in May in search of more race days, uncertain what the future held. “I was thinking again to stop cycling, to find a new job and to have a new life,” he says.

The mid-2022 move to Caja Rural’s club team proved to be a vital opportunity for Hailemichael. Photo courtesy Caja Rural

What would he have done? “Pff, I had nothing to do. I had to find any type of work. In the end, Egoi said, ‘Don’t stop, I will speak with Caja Rural, they will help you.'” At the moment he was about to become a refugee, Martínez called Caja Rural’s manager Juan Manuel Hernández and asked him to give Hailemichael an opportunity in its club side, which competes on the domestic and U23 circuit. He did so, and Hailemichael grasped the chance, taking five wins. The ProTeam offered him a one-year deal for 2023, his cycling dream prolonged another year.

Risks, returns, and reunions

Hailemichael steadies his voice and takes a deep breath. “I said to my friends, ‘Please, if I die, tell my mother I chose to do this by myself.'” It was December 31, 2020, and he was preparing to flee the war on a do-or-die mission, with his passport his only possession. “I was saying: ‘Maybe today or tomorrow I will die,’” he recollects. “I was waiting for when it was my day to die, because we never knew when they would throw bombs into our place.

“For half a day I walked from Mek’ele to the next city. There were bombs, lots of tanks, military people. They could have shot at anyone. You have to be lucky because if not …,” he trails off, leaving the sentence unfinished. “No one shot at me. I was lucky. When I got to the [regional] border where they were fighting I thought once again, ‘Maybe I will die.’ But I crossed, and then travelled by car to [the country’s capital] Addis Ababa. When I got there, everything was organised by the [Delko] team, and they sent me a flight ticket to Europe. When I arrived, I was really happy, but I was also stressing about my family. I had seen a few things, really bad things, and I wasn’t sure if my family would survive or die. I could only think about them.”

Since fleeing, the small, lightweight climber hadn’t returned home in more than two years. All the while, the war raged. A ceasefire was brokered six months ago – two years after the war began – but the scars remain, and the accusations continue, of genocide as well as a litany of war crimes. Hailemichael’s family was displaced, their farm taken over by the Eritrean army. “They left to save their lives,” he laments. Some friends managed to contact him to say his family was alive, “but I didn’t trust them. I was waiting to hear my mother’s voice.”

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A post shared by Mulu Kinfe Wedikerseber (@mulu_kinfe_hailemichael)

Finally, in January with the war finally quieted, his uncle Mebrahetu called him. “Hello Mulu, it’s me, your uncle. Everything is OK. I was with your mother yesterday; don’t worry, don’t be stressed,” Mebrahetu told him. Soon after Hailemichael spoke with his mother. It wasn’t until March that he received a photo of them all together. Hailemichael makes a sharp “Phwuh” sound as he puffs out his cheeks. “When I saw that photo it was like my life was starting from the beginning again.”

I ask about the call where he finally reconnected with his mother. “Phwuh,” Hailemichael exclaims again with a smile, tears forming. “I couldn’t even speak! I was nervous! She asked if I was OK, and I said, ‘Yes, of course, I am safe, but I am always thinking about you!’ I started crying, my friend. I was so emotional at that moment.” All of his family somehow survived physically unharmed, but he adds “some friends are not.” I hesitantly press if they are alive. “No, some friends died during the war.” I say my apologies. “Yeah. It’s not easy.”

In March, Hailemichael reached a milestone of sorts: his first WorldTour race, the Volta a Catalunya. In May, he had a far more consequential one when he was able to return to Tigray for the first time since he fled. “Being home for a few weeks, seeing his family, training again at 3,000 metres will recover his spark and his happiness,” Martínez predicted. When I speak with Hailemichael, a few weeks before his flight back home, it is clear that alegria, as Martínez calls it, is slowly returning, Hailemichael’s infectious smile and relentlessly cheery persona evident as he tours me around the dozens of trophies he has earned in the past year with Caja Rural. “I want to say thank you to the team for the opportunity,” he says. 

I catch back up with him after his return from Tigray, and that smile is as wide as I’ve ever seen it. “I was really happy to go back home and visit my family and friends,” he tells me. There are still signs of trouble; last month, Tigrayans protested the presence of Eritrean troops, and in early June, the US suspended food aid, citing theft by government officials. But so far, the ceasefire is holding and Hailemichael says things are improving. “My family and my mum are good; my brother and sister are starting school soon and I’m super happy for them. I had a great time.”

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A post shared by Mulu Kinfe Wedikerseber (@mulu_kinfe_hailemichael)

On June 13, Hailemichael started his second block of racing at the CIC Mont Ventoux, where he finished 38th. The Route Occitanie/Dépêche du Midi stage race, starting Thursday, is next, followed by a trio of smaller stage races in July. Is racing the Vuelta a possibility? “If I perform well, yes, why not?'” he ponders.

But his ambition stretches further than the personal. “I want to bring good results for me, my team, but especially for my country. There’s so much talent inside Ethiopia, but it’s so hard. I want to change things. Maybe if I perform well, other teams will look at junior and U23 riders in Ethiopia. I hope to help others.” 

For Martínez, Hailemichael’s journey goes far beyond his protégé, beyond even the sport. “As almost the father of Mulu, it’s my dream that he rides the Vuelta too, but him being able to return to Ethiopia, to see his family, and to get back his happiness and spark, that is a bigger victory than any victory at a Tour de France for us.”

Chris Marshall-Bell is a freelance journalist based in Valencia, Spain.

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