Tsgabu Grmay is sitting in an anonymous hotel lobby fielding questions. Suddenly he rises from his seat. His Trek-Segafredo teammate, Colombian Jarlinson Pantano, has entered the room.
The two broadly smile as they embrace. Both of the young men are thousands of miles away from home. Both know the fight it took to make their way into the European-centric WorldTour peloton. The warmth and understanding between them seem palpable. Here they are, together at the start of another professional bike race.
Grmay, in his first season with Trek-Segafredo, has taken one of the least traditional paths to the highest echelon of professional cycling. He’s an Ethiopian pioneer, the only one of his countrymen to ever race on the WorldTour.
In Ethiopia, many people struggle to feed or house themselves or their families. Striving for success as a world-traveling professional athlete is — typically — staunchly avoided. Despite that fact, Grmay has made it. He’s competed in the Tour de France on two occasions, and his next dream is to win a stage in the sport’s biggest race. It would be another first for Ethiopia.
Reaching the WordTour level and competing in the Tour was Grmay’s dream since the age of 17. Now 26 years old, not only has he managed to accomplish what he set out to do, he’s done it against a tide of bureaucracy and red tape that constantly pushes against him.
“A lot of people, when I told them my dream [of competing in the Tour de France] a really long time ago, they thought I was joking. They thought, ‘Ah, he’s just speaking bullshit,’” Grmay says.
To become a pioneer, Grmay has had to take full advantage of his limitless determination and a thick skin. He’s had to overcome setbacks, cruel jibes, and jokes made at the expense of his goal.
GRMAY WAS BORN IN 1991. At the time, Ethiopia was still recovering from one of the worst famines in history. By the end of 1984, it was estimated that as many as 1 million people had died from malnutrition. Parched land held no mercy for the people struggling to survive. Thereafter, corruption and civil war left their mark — they still traumatize the nation and its people to this day. All of this has helped establish a culture, aided by a delicate government coalition, that incites regular protests and has repeatedly led to fatalities.
This atmosphere offers very few stepping stones for those who wish to rise to be among the cycling’s best. Grmay grew up in a family of 12 living in a two-room house. With five sisters and four brothers, space was limited, as was food.
“For me, it’s nothing, and it was easy because that was the way to grow up. My family was poor and had no money; we are surviving just to have more food, not beds,” Grmay says.
It’s the type of struggle that can be a catalyst for good and bad. When asked about his past, Grmay seems slightly embarrassed to talk about it.
“As a kid of eight and nine years old, I was doing a lot of bad stuff. But it also [taught] me a lot,” he says. “I was a fighter, and you know, you steal some things… [I did] a lot of bad things as a kid in Africa; anything can happen there. I’m not that guy now, I’ve changed. But that way of growing up helped me a lot now, that’s why I’m not scared of [anything].”
For every misfortune in Grmay’s life, he’s found a way to harness those setbacks as fuel for his progress. Along the way, he’s also had the help of his older brother Solomon, who saw his potential and encouraged him to follow his lead and jump into the local racing scene. Every Sunday when Grmay started racing, he’d enter the criterium races that were held close to his home. He rode a heavy old bike and wore his brother’s hand-me-down cycling kit. Grmay immediately possessed a natural hunger to push himself.
“Being nervous, it’s normal, but you know I had a tough life growing up, so I wasn’t really scared that much,” he says of his earliest races. “Having to deal with tough things helped me a lot — whenever I felt nervous, I always knew I had it inside me to fight it.”
He finished sixth in his first race and claimed top 10s and wins in many other local races. He was immensely talented, and at 17 he began to draw the eyes of local cycling clubs. The Trans Ethiopia team pounced before two other local clubs had the chance, snapping him up for the equivalent of $50 a month. It wasn’t enough to live on, but Grmay was happy to be racing regularly. And he was a small step closer to his dream of becoming a professional cyclist — and racing the Tour de France.
GRMAY ROSE QUICKLY THROUGH Ethiopia’s tiny cycling scene. He won Ethiopia’s national time trial title three times and the national road race twice. He then made the Ethiopian national team. Racing came naturally to him. He was chosen to spend time at the UCI World Cycling Centre Africa, based in South Africa. Jean Pierre van Zyl, the founding coach, had asked the Ethiopian national team to put two names forward of cyclists with potential. Grmay was their obvious choice.
Van Zyl was instantly impressed.
“I would say every afternoon after training, ‘Tsgabu, you are tired, today was a long day,’” van Zyl says. “We have a hill called Telephone Hill, and we did it 25 times. He would go up faster every time, and at the end, everybody would be absolutely dead, and he would just say, ‘It’s OK. Tomorrow we can train hard again.’”
Van Zyl admits his biggest task was to try to prepare Grmay for the culture shock of moving to Switzerland, to the UCI training center specifically founded for athletes from developing countries.
The stress of dealing with cultural differences can strip vital energy from an athlete, which would ideally otherwise be used for performance. Grmay says he leaves his “Ethiopian mentality” behind when he travels to Europe; he relies on his ability to switch it on and off to cope with the different ways of living. It raises the question, does his success as an athlete mean having to turn off who he was brought up to be? Grmay seems indifferent to setting his cultural differences aside in order to help him realize the dream of racing a bike.
“Being nervous, it’s normal, but you know I had a tough life growing up, so I wasn’t really scared that much.”
Of course, this psychological rollercoaster is just a part of the equation for finding success as a top-tier cyclist. Part of the physiological challenge for Grmay, as well as for others who aren’t exposed at a young age to a cycling-rich culture, is racing on the twisting roads that litter Europe. Competing against people who see you as an outsider isn’t easy.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is not bike racing,’” Grmay says of his first European race experiences in Belgium.
If that European weather, unfamiliar culture, and homesick feeling weren’t enough to break him, the next challenge was finding a team willing to take him on. With that came the bundles of red tape that Grmay shouldered by being born in Ethiopia. The Henley and Partners Passport Index states that Ethiopians have the right to travel to 39 countries without a visa. In comparison, citizens of France, Italy, and Spain have travel access to 178 countries visa-free, and Americans to 176.
Still, there was never a moment when Grmay thought about quitting.
“If I started thinking about going back to Ethiopia, I know there is nothing in Ethiopia to go back to,” Grmay says. “Nobody knows better than me in that moment. I think for me coming from Ethiopia you don’t see quitting as an option — you’re prepared to fight because you don’t want to go back.”
LUCKILY FOR GRMAY, van Zyl had put wheels in motion for the formation of a Continental team, which became MTN-Qhubeka. Team director Doug Ryder, who had a vision of building a team that helped develop Africa’s talent, gave Grmay a springboard for entry into the WorldTour. After joining MTN-Qhubeka in 2012, Grmay moved to Lampre-Merida in 2015. He had finally made it to the WorldTour.
For 2018, his colors changed to those of Trek-Segafredo. Grmay says he hopes the move will bring him closer to his next goal of winning a stage of the Tour de France. But in so many ways, he has already won big.
“The biggest moment for me was racing the Tour de France back in 2016,” he says. “I remember on the first day I was crying. That was my dream that I was chasing for a long, long time. I will never forget that Saturday on the start line of my first Tour. It was my dream come true.”