A bike tour of Eritrea

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KATY CLARK: Africa's size and complex history makes for a continent full of surprises. But sometimes you can find those unusual African stories far from the continent. Like, say, New York City. Here's The World's Alex Gallafent.

ALEX GALLAFENT: This is Harlem. That's the subway you can hear rumbling underneath the sidewalk. And this is a shop called ModSquad Cycles.

OYE CARR: So, you guys know how to use the pump? Put it on?

GALLAFENT: The guy teaching kids how to keep their bikes all pumped up - that's Oye Carr.

CARR: We are Harlem's only bicycle shop and I opened the shop because there was no shop in the neighborhood and I live up here. I needed a place to take my bike. So, it's nice to be here.

GALLAFENT: And Oye Carr has certainly been places. He was born in Switzerland, to Liberian parents. But he grew up in Kenya, where he learned to love biking. And biking took him all over the world.

CARR: I have coached and ridden in Italy and France. I think I rode in the centenary stage in Paris of the Tour de France. I've ridden on the same roads as the Amstel Gold Race in Holland, parts of the Tour de Swiss in Switzerland. I'm a cycling enthusiast. I love to bike and I love the history and culture of cycling, especially, I think, in its purest form. Just really going out there and being in nature and climbing mountains and seeing places you've never seen before.

GALLAFENT: Oye Carr went to college in the United States. His studies in African politics gave him an opportunity to visit Eritrea and its capital Asmara. He had been there in the nineties, the decade that saw Eritrea win independence. But on Carr's return in 2002, he saw evidence of new wealth - on two wheels.

CARR: I would notice these guys riding, you know, and they'd have gear on and some of them would have moderately priced bikes, I guess, for the US market, but really nice bikes for there. And the other guys were just riding old, sort of, clunkers, beat up bikes. And one day I think I ran into a Criterium race in the center of town and I said, oh, wow, I didn't know this was happening here. And I had a bike there so I started riding more and more. I would, kind of, catch up with these groups of boys and would ride with them and, you know, got involved just as a spectator-companion to these guys who race in the Eritrean league. Eritrea has a huge cycling scene because of its Italian heritage. They were an Italian colony beginning in 1890 and going all the way until 1950. And so there's a lot of stuff in Eritrea. Great cappuccinos, you know, wonderful fashion, wonderful Italian three piece suits that look like you bought them, you know, at Armani, and cycling. And sort of, you know, quixotic, you know, to show up in a country in the corner of Africa and kind of be like, wow, this reminds me of, you know, some little town in Tuscany the way people interact and dress and look. In 2005 when I was there for the third time I knew there had been their national tour, the Tour de Eritrea, Giro d'Eritrea, but I said hey, you know, can I follow this? Can I go and just follow the race? And some people said sure and I got a ride and it's a very, very tough race. The roads are super rough, just not very well paved, you know? And it's mountainous. Asmara is at 8000 feet and you can descend to the coast in just 80 miles. You can go down. In fact, we often did that ride down the escarpment there we called Sedici, which was 16 kilometers and then also we would go down to the 12 kilometer mark and then climb back up. And so basically that was, you know, a straight shot with huge hairpins and trucks coming up the hill. You know, it might be a twenty minute ride down the escarpment and to get back up took an hour. So, very, very steep and I did that at least twice a week. So, it was somewhat dangerous in some ways but you were really living cycling in Eritrea. It's a lot of fun.

GALLAFENT: That's cyclist Oye Carr. And Oye is very proud of his own bike - you can see it for yourself at the world dot org. It's from Austria. No matter that it's over twenty years old; he calls it The New Hotness. Judge for yourself. For The World, I'm Alex Gallafent, New York.