Cycling in Ethiopia - Cycling's best unknown destination?
Ethiopia offers a range of spectacular scenery and roads with climbs to over 3000 metres making it a hidden cycling paradise. Daniel Hughes tells the Ethiopian cycling story. Oh, and the coffee remains unrivalled
If you are a coffee lover like me, you will have heard about Ethiopian coffee. What I didn’t appreciate was the Ethiopian definition of fresh. Order a cup in Ethiopia and they will quite literally roast the fresh beans over charcoal in front of your eyes.
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Patience is a virtue and all good things come to those who wait: the smoothest, most delicious coffee you will ever drink. Locals take it with sugar but in my opinion, au naturel is best.
While I had heard about the coffee, I had never considered cycling in Ethiopia. When Richard Nerurkar, one of the founders of Ethio Cycling Holidays, sent me a few pictures and told me about the rich culture and history of Ethiopia, I knew I had to make it happen.
If you’re looking for something different, a country of warm and friendly people and a place where you’ll enjoy better tarmac and better riding than in most European countries, then look no further. Ethiopia opened my mind to a whole new world of riding.
Time to go fast
Our journey began in Mekelle, the capital of the northernmost province of Tigray. From the moment the aircraft tyres squeaked on touchdown we could feel the hustle and bustle, busy markets and the peachy glow of this high-altitude city, watched over by its illuminated giant metal cross.
Our journey in Ethiopia would take us on a four-day loop through Tigray, covering 465km and over 8000m of vertical ascent. The challenges of thin air would be apparent on our bodies as we would never drop below 2000m of altitude, climbing as high as 3100m.
With fresh legs and a warm southerly breeze out of town, it wasn’t too much of a struggle to keep up with the local riders from Ethio Cycling Team on our first day of riding – but make no mistake, these guys are rapid.
The Local Ethio Cycling Team
It’s no surprise that these guys are fast, given Ethiopia’s reputation for producing world class long and middle-distance runners such as Tirunesh Dibaba and Haile Gebrselassie. While neighbouring Eritrea is more renowned for its pro cyclists, Mekelle is the home town of Ethiopia’s first and only WorldTour rider: Tsgabu Grmay, who rides for Bike Exchange.
Awaiting us out of Mekelle were four hundred vertical metres of joyous alpine-style switchbacks at an average gradient of six percent that led up and over towards the midway town of Wukro. An endless, gently rising sea of rollers took us onwards towards Adigrat via the hill-top settlement of Negash, home to a stunning mosque. Topped with an exquisite turquoise dome, it is reputedly one of the oldest in Africa. We rolled through, the fading light showering us with golden, soul-warming rays, and into the town of Adigrat.
The following morning, the early morning prayers echoed around the city streets, telling us that this was the period of Great Lent for the city’s majority Ethiopian Orthodox Christian population. Residents abstain from eating animal products on each of the 55 days leading up to Easter, and this makes Ethiopian cuisine a natural fit with visiting vegans like us. Rich, spicy stews — with or without meat — served on base of injera, a large sourdough flatbread, is food that nourishes the soul as well as the body.
“You’re going to love this,” explained our guides, Sammy and Binyam, that morning as we left Adigrat and headed west into the surrounding highlands. We certainly did. As the road snaked up to an altitude of 3050m, the landscape was slowly revealed. Parched hills, terraced fields and hilltop hamlets clinging to the terracotta earth surrounded us. The UK, with its dreary late winter weather, has never felt further away.
Ancient and modern
Creating a list of the world’s greatest cycling climbs is always a contentious issue, but this road would easily feature in any compilation of greatest hits. With switchbacks to rival the great roads of the Alps and an electrifying helter-skelter descent that whips you and your bike up to 80kph, this was a road we could happily have ridden again and again. But with another fresh cup of Ethiopian joe in our bellies, we continued to Aksum.
Enduring warm temperatures climbing to over 3000m altitude
That evening we gazed at the Obelisk of Aksum, an ornate stone emblem for an historic city that lies at the heart of an ancient kingdom, purportedly the realm of the Queen of Sheba and home to the Ark of the Covenant. The Obelisk was restored and returned in 2008 after having been looted by the Italian occupation during the 1930s and installed in the centre of Rome (it was one of the heaviest objects ever transported by air). Aksum itself, a World Heritage site, has seen new construction alongside its historic ruins and, like many cities in Ethiopia, it is a rapidly modernising place.
We began our third day with a small backtrack from Aksum before turning south for Werkamba. Today was set to be the day of ‘the Beast’ – a climb renowned for its searing hot temperatures reaching 35 degrees Celsius and hairdryer winds of hot air that sculpt the landscape into spires and table tops. Ethiopia is certainly a destination where you can pack light. The Beast lived up to its name, with 600 vertical metres of climbing at an average of seven percent leaving us sweating through our light merino jerseys. But the reward – breath-taking views down to our overnight stop in Werkamba, made it more than worth the effort.
One of the many flowing switchback sections
That left just 117km between us and our base camp at Mekelle. After an early rise, we let the sun’s rising rays break through the hills and fall onto our faces, pausing to absorb the warming light at the start of a bittersweet day: our last in Ethiopia. It was to prove no different to the others, with more joyous views, epic cycling and fantastic food. Within hours we said goodbye to our hosts and we were airborne for Addis Ababa.
We could have rushed home to London that night but a relaxing day meandering around the streets of the country’s capital gave us a time to reflect on our trip: the unique beauty of Ethiopia, the warmth of its people, and the brilliance of the cycling we had discovered in the most unexpected of places.
Thanks to Ethio Cycling Holidays for their support in making this trip possible.