Tour de l'Espoir: Africa’s best young riders do battle in Cameroon
Held for the first time this year, the Tour de l'Espoir – round one of the 2018 UCI Nations' Cup U23 – was held in Cameroon on 31st January-4th February.
The continent's top 15 national under-23 teams covered almost 420km in their four days of racing. Starting the season in the heat (touching 35°C) and humidity (70%) of Cameroon, plenty of riders struggled, before man-of-the-moment Joseph Areruya finally emerged victorious in the general classification. The 22-year-old Rwandan, who had already won the Tour du Rwanda in November and La Tropicale Amissa Bongo (Gabon) in early January, finished ahead of two Moroccans, Mehdi El Chokri and Mohcine El Kouraji. Areruya was visibly delighted to with his success in front of noisy crowds: "It wasn't an easy win, but tactically I managed the race really well, and we were able to beat two strong teams from Eritrea and Morocco."
Areruya laid the foundations for his overall victory during stage three, which ran through the suburbs of the capital Yaoundé, known as the 'city of seven hills'. On the nine laps of the final circuit, he made his decisive move on the kilometre-long Mvolyé climb, with its 7.8% gradient; he and team-mate Samuel Mugisha broke away and finished together, Mugisha taking the stage victory and Areruya the yellow jersey.
Yet on that very same morning, it had looked as though no-one would unseat the team from Eritrea. They held all the leaders' jerseys and had won the opening two stages, which took place around Douala. On day one, Natnael Mebrahtom was the winner – making him the first-ever yellow jersey wearer in Tour de l'Espoir history – then the following day, Daniel Habtemichael made it two out of two. But the team seized up on stage three when faced with the Rwandan attacks; Mebrahtom was still second overall going into the final stage, but a fall left him with no chance, leaving the route clear for the two Moroccan riders to overhaul him. Despite their struggles, Eritrea did still win the final stage, thanks to Henok Mulueberhan.
"From a sporting perspective it's been a great success, with Rwanda, Eritrea and Morocco cementing their places at the top of African cycling," said Laurent Bezault, UCI Consultant and African Adviser for the UCI Africa Tour. “The organisation has been exemplary, and that is the primary objective of this UCI Nations' Cup U23, to ensure that Under-23 riders have dedicated events that allow them to compete against each other, with the aim of allowing everyone to progress." And although Rwanda, Eritrea and Morocco may have been a step ahead of the rest of the peloton, the riders from the other 12 nations took real pleasure in participating in the Tour de l'Espoir. One such rider was Cameroon's Ismael Voukeng Kemstop, who was taking part in his first international race: "Having an event like this in our country is certainly a real motivation! Of course it was hard to follow the leaders, but we were cycling in front of our home crowds, and they encouraged us a lot. We had to give our best for them, and that kind of made us forget how much we were suffering!"
Paul Daumont, from Burkina Faso, says coming up against the best riders is the perfect way to start the season: "It lets us gauge everyone's level. We're all young and a little bit inexperienced, even though some guys are already training with pro teams." Damount finished 7th in the general classification, 6'22 behind Areruya, and was particularly impressed by the Rwandan: "I was in the lead group on the 3rd stage when he attacked, and it was impressive to see him pedal! It was the same with the Moroccans and the Eritreans... They're on another planet. It must be said that they are really well trained, plus they also have the opportunity to ride in big races throughout the season and rub shoulders with the very best. For us nations that aren't quite so strong, it's an advantage to be riding alongside those guys; it helps us to gain experience too!"
As well as the individual general classification, the team classification is also hugely important, because the winning team earns direct qualification for the Tour de l'Avenir, the final event of the UCI Nations' Cup U23. That means we'll be seeing the Rwanda team in France, on 16th-25th August this year. "There's a big difference between the level here and the level of the Tour de l'Avenir, but it was important to allow the best African nations to encounter something new and cross a new threshold," says Bezault. "It's the route African cycling must take in order to compete on an international scale. It will undoubtedly be difficult, but it lets them see how far they still have to go. Like I always say, if it works elsewhere, there's no reason why it can't work here." The challenge certainly doesn't faze Areruya: "It's really great, I can't wait to race over there! I hope I'll be in good form there too. In any case, I'll do everything I can to win the race ahead of the best young riders in the world."
The stage is set!