BY ALULA ABRAHA
Natnael Berhane has won the most decisive battle to earn himself a deserved championship. Just as he has closed his 2013 account with a great triumph when crowned African Sportsperson of the Year last week, the ambitious Natnael Berhane proved his worth, yet by just opening his 2014 account with a historical win at the Amissa Bongo Tour of Gabon on the last day of the tour yesterday.
He proved, at the end of the day, that there is no point winning a battle if one ends up losing the war.
It’s, in fact, about winning the decisive battle that eventually wins you the war. That tells the story of Natnael and his journey through the week at the 9th Amissa Bongo Tour of Gabon. He has made history by becoming the first African to win it since its inception in 2006.
Here is Natnael’s day-to-day performance throughout the week working his way up the General Classification (GC) table against his Spanish rivals, Sanchez and Garcia.
|GC Position STAGE – 1 (Last Monday)||==||GC Position STAGE – 2 (Tuesday)|
|1)||Luis Sanchez||03:32:24||1)||Luis Sanchez||06:26:44|
|2)||Egoitz Garcia||@0:01||2)||Egoitz Garcia||@0:05|
|3)||Natnael Berhane||@0:07||3)||Natnael Berhane||@0:08|
|GC Position STAGE – 3 (Wednesday)||==||GC Position STAGE – 4 (Thursday)|
|1)||Luis Sanchez||09:46:00||1)||Luis Sanchez||14:35:16|
|2)||Egoitz Garcia||@0:01||2)||Egoitz Garcia||@0:01|
|3)||Natnael Berhane||@0:08||3)||Natnael Berhane||@0:08|
|GC Position STAGE – 5 (Friday)||==||GC Position STAGE – 6 (Saturday)|
|1)||Luis Sanchez||17:57:46||1)||Luis Sanchez||20:19:34|
|2)||Egoitz Garcia||@0:01||2)||Egoitz Garcia||@0:01|
|3)||Natnael Berhane||@0:07||3)||Natnael Berhane||@0:04|
|GC Position STAGE – 7 (Sunday)|
This highlight in the above video clearly shows what this young man is really made of. He’s indeed an incredible man of steel. Not only did he actually do what he said he would do just before the race, but to actually win the first hot-point time bonus is hard enough, but again, to repeat the win in the same race and under immense pressure is something out of this world. No words can describe that. He is such a huge athlete with immense talent, grit, focus and hunger to win. He needed to win both hot-point sprint time bonuses in order to win and he did just that.
The fact that his nearest championship rivals had finished in 3rd positions in both instants was a huge relief. Teshome’s intervention in the first one and that of Saleh Mraouni of Morocco in the second hot-point time bonus sprint were both crucial. Those two hot-point sprints wins were really hot enough and had helped Natnael eventually win the Championship gold medal by a slender 1 – second.
He has shown that he can be both an individual who can rise up to the challenge as well as a professional team player that keeps a cool head and composure. Now, the world needs to be prepared for the next winner of Tour de France coming from the young nation of Eritrea in Africa.
He might have kept his fans on the edge but at the end of the day, he is an athlete who never let his fans down and had lived to the the expectations of his fans back home and abroad by becoming the first African to win the 2014 Tropicale Amissa Bongo Tour of Gabon after being dominated by European riders through out a decade of its history. He has finally managed to snatch it off their grasp right at the death.
It is the manner in which he had done the job that amazed the world. His first sprint finish at the 50 km mark, followed in 2nd place by the true son of Eritrea, Meron Teshome pushed Garcia to 3rd place and kicking Sanchez out of the points positions. That was a very important intervention by Meron denying Garcia an extra 1-second bonus which would have been a huge disaster for Natnael.
Meron Teshome is a sensational talent on the rise in his own right. Only this time last year, he was in Sawa but he still seem to be doing his national service by making such a mercurial job to help his fellow countryman peep the Spaniards at the post.
Only months after coming from his national service, Meron was remembered to have made a huge impact at the biggest domestic championship (the National Championship), winning the toughest Road-Race in Asmara in 2013 almost right at the finish line similar to that of Natnael’s recent exploit in Gabon earlier yesterday.
Meron Teshome was also part of the Eritrean team that had won the African TTT Continental Championship. He has also competed in the World Championship in Italy last September. Tesfom has also played a part in winning the mountain classifications between the bonus sprints, thereby controlling the pace.
After team Europcar riders worked hard to control any escapee groups and after Meron’s intervention in the first sprint helped cut the lead of the Spaniards into a single second, Natnael’s focus then was firmly fixed at the last important bonus sprint coming up at the 85km mark, which was also about 25km before the finish line. Miraculously, he won it against leaving Sanchez for dead. Sanchez was the favourite at that point as all that he needed to do to win the championship was to get at least in 2nd position at the following bonus sprint.
Natnael won it but thanks to Morocco’s Saleh Mraouni’s intervention this time, Sanchez desperately finished 3rd behind Mraouni. That negative 1 second disadvantage for Natnael before the last sprint had now turned into a one second advantage for Natnael Berhane.
At this stage, Natnael held on a slender championship lead of 1-second for the first time in 7 days with only 25km to go and all that he needed to do at that stage was to hold his nerves and finish wheel to wheel without risking his hard earned championship lead. As there were no more sprint bonus times left in the race any longer, the only thing Sanchez can do to regain his disappearing lead was to bolt away to finish the race at least by 1-seconds ahead of Natnael. The pressure was immense as Natnael and Sanchez were riding side by side until the Spaniard made a brave last ditch effort to escape with only 3km to the finish line. Natnael was like “NO WAY JOSE, YOU AIN’T GOING NOWHERE, MAN” and quickly chased him and managed to reel him back.
Natnael kept an eye on him, breathing down his neck all the way to the finish line just as the Spaniards had been doing all week long. As cool customer as he is, Natnael coasted clear in one piece with a nerve of steel to finally did Africa a great favour by winning the most prestigious tour of the continent only days after he was voted Africa’s sportsperson of the year ahead of the likes of superstars Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba. But again Meron Teshome and Mraouni of Morocco have played as important part in his win as did his Europcar teammates.
Most people thought that things can’t get better than 2013 after seeing Daniel and Natnael winning Euro tours in Spain and Turkey respectively as well as the young Merhawi Kudus, who had winning two tours in a space of two weeks in Spain and Italy last summer. But, nothing can compare with that of yesterday’s start of the year 2014, after Natnael won the Amissa Bongo tour only days after being crowned African sportsperson of the year.
The future is bright as Giro de Italia, Veulta a Espana and Tour de France is next to be conquered. A great win and a great champion. Natnael Berhane is the man to dominate the world stage sooner or later.