Think of the ideal cycling city: a city where cars drive at under 20mph and give way to considerate cyclists who, in turn, treat pedestrians with similar respect. A city where traffic lights are unnecessary, where cycling is the number one sport and, at weekends, roads are closed off with a few cones while stylish amateurs and professionals race on inner city streets. A city where cycling is an integral part of the culture.
No, it’s not Copenhagen or Amsterdam. Or even Portland, Oregon. It’s Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. "Where on Earth’s that?" is most people’s response, when I tell them I’ve just been there. It's a long, thin shape on the south side of the Red Sea, squeezed between Sudan, Djibouti and Ethiopia to the south. It is a troubled nation which was occupied by the Italians from the late 1800s to 1941, when the British Army set up a mandate following the Battle of Keren. You’ve probably not heard of the battle of Karen either. That was a turning point in WW2: the first allied victory in North Africa, which led to success at El Alamein and ultimately victory in Europe. The BBC was alerted to its importance and sent their star reporter Richard Dimbleby to cover the bitter fighting. Eritrea is a hilly country (more of that later): the Scottish, Sudanese and Indian soldiers had attack up a steep and rocky escarpment that had been thought impregnable.
Before we kicked them out, the Italians left behind a range of important cultural assets: not just some great city planning, but a world class collection of 1930s modern buildings, pizza, pasta, good coffee and, most importantly, un amore per il ciclismo.
This culture of cycling has produced a number of professional riders of note: Daniel Teklehaimanot who won the Polka Dot in stage six of the Tour de France in 2015 - the first African rider to be so honoured (I tell a lie, Chris Froome won a polka dot in 2012); Marhawi Kudus who currently rides for Astana, and Mekseb Debesay, who won the 2014 Tour d'Algérie.
While visiting Asmara - mainly to study the spectacular Italian architectural legacy - I managed to meet up with Meron Teshome, formerly of Qhubeka, and now with the German BikeAid team, to talk about the Eritrean passion for cycling.
The country is poor; only last year it concluded 20 years of conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia. Yet you see literally hundreds of riders out training, in elegant kit and on expensive bikes. Meron told me that because cycling is the country’s number one sport, families will spend all they can afford to help talented children; relatives abroad often help (some three per cent of the population lives overseas, many to escape the punishing national service which can last up to 10 years). Cyclists in Asmara benefit from the hilly terrain, the high altitude and good roads as well as the regular weekend racing on city circuits.
As a teenager, Meron was showing promise as a mountain biker and his cousin in Germany sent him a road bike. He switched ride styles and joined one of the local amateur clubs who helped with bikes, training and food. He worked his way up until he was selected by the national team and rode in African national championships, the results of which are recorded by the UCI and useful riders are noticed.
Meron first joined the Qhubeka team and has now moved to the German Bike Aid team. This year he’ll be riding in the African Championships as well as German and French races, although not yet in any of the Grand Tours. Getting out of Eritrea is difficult and EU visas are hard to come by, so he is only able to ride in Europe for three months a year.
While young professionals like Meron are high profile figures in the national culture, the racing ethic does not seem to have spread to city cyclists, who exhibit none of the competitiveness of their London counterparts. The consideration given to other road users by Asmaran cyclists is a lesson to us all.