Awet Gebremedhin Andemeskel has come a long way since his first ride in 2003. That’s when his father got him a bike so he could be home faster from school—an 18- mile round trip—and work on the family farm.
After that first ride, the Eritrean-born cyclist, now 29 and a Swedish resident, was off to the races—literally. He won every local mountain bike race he entered in 2007 and many national-level races the following year. Gebremedhin’s progression continued, and he was invited to join the Eritrean national team in 2011.
Still, his ascent was tough. As he improved, he found that elite racing in Eritrea was full of politics and corruption. The national team favored riders from certain villages or regions and payments were demanded. But he fought and earned selection for the 2013 World Championships in Italy. Afterward, he decided he couldn’t go home safely. “I said thank you guys for the last two years,” he recalls in a phone interview from Stockholm. “I learned from my mistake—I decided to go to Sweden.”
There, Gebremedhin applied for refugee status. Processing the paperwork took 18 months, and while he waited for documents he didn’t dare go outside. He hid at a friend’s apartment, unable to train, and ate very little to keep himself lean. In bike racing, especially for climbers, power-to-weight is everything and with no chance to train his power, he had to keep his weight down. It was yet another obstacle.
Eventually, Gebremedhin’s asylum paperwork was processed and he felt safe to leave the apartment and restart his pro cycling career. But even living the bike racer life in Europe was hard. He couldn’t go back to his homeland. Nor could he see his girlfriend or family in Eritrea. While teammates complained about missing their families during three- week grand tours, Awet barely saw his girlfriend for years.
Their prospects brightened in 2018, when Eritrea forged a peace agreement with neighboring Ethiopia. Gebremedhin still couldn’t safely go to Eritrea, but now his girlfriend could travel south, to the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.
Sadly, peace was fleeting. “It’s like Wi-Fi,” he says. “They can turn it on and turn it off.” But in the three months that it was possible, the two set up a home in Ethiopia, married and got pregnant. He invested in dairy cattle—at 2,000 euros each—and set up a farm with his brothers.
That year, Gebremedhin achieved what every young bike racer dreams of: a contract with a World Tour team. He was so excited when he got the contract offer from Israel Cycling Academy that he couldn’t sleep until he could call his father and tell him how far that first bike had taken him. “You can’t believe how I felt. It was the dream,” he says. In 2019, he finished the 2,200-mile Giro d’Italia, one of the most prestigious pro races on the planet.
He’s still looking for a job as a climber, “all my life is suffering,” Gebremedhin laughs.
But just when his troubles seemed over, ethnic and political violence erupted in Tigray. Just after he returned home last October after the end of the abbreviated 2020 racing season, war broke out between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Soon, Eritrean troops had crossed the border and begun fighting, looting and committing atrocities in the area where Gebremedhin and his family had built a home. Since then, the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced 2 million. Once again, he pondered leaving behind everything he had worked for to save the things that were most important.
“I have to be honest, I wasn’t thinking about cycling,” he recalls. “I was thinking about how my family and I would survive.” His family didn’t want to abandon their cattle, in which they had invested so much, but they couldn’t sell them in a war zone. “One day a rocket came and killed one guy 50 meters in front of me,” he recalls. “I prayed to God and said ‘I am coming, just accept me.’ I thought my life was done.”
After that brush with death, Gebremedhin loaded his family, some animals and other belongings into a truck and set off for Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. A few days (and a thousand euros in bribes) later, they made it. Then they flew to Sweden, where his wife and son were able to get asylum papers.
The hardest thing, he says, has been seeing the impact on his young son. “When he hears even a small sound, like a knock on the door, he starts to run,” Gebremedhin says. “He saw us running when the rockets came, and he learned from that, and he started to run with any sounds.”
And so Gebremedhin must start again. His battle is far from over: He’s still looking for a job as a climber, the most punishing job in pro cycling. “All my life is suffering,” he laughs. “I suffer on climbs [in a way] you can’t believe.”
But after 15 years of struggle, Gebremedhin has climbed so far and says he’s happy. “We have a different mentality; we need to joke about that,” he says. “You need to keep something beautiful, and every day now I am happy when I see my son.”
Without a team for 2021, Gebremedhin is out training and enjoying family time. He’s hopeful that a contract offer will come—and says he doesn’t care if it’s at the highest level or on a second- tier team. “Any contract is a good opportunity for me,” he says. “You never know what can happen.”