Breaking barriers: 16 women leading the way for Africans in pro cycling

 Maude Le Roux from South Africa and Selam Amha Gerefiel from Ethiopia racing for the WCC Team in 2023

Maude Le Roux from South Africa and Selam Amha Gerefiel from Ethiopia racing for the WCC Team in 2023

Biniam Girmay’s emergence as one of the leading lights of 2022, following his victories in Gent-Wevelgem and stage 10 of the Giro d’Italia, may have been a moment of great change in the world of cycling.

The Eritrean’s breakthrough felt so significant because of how notoriously difficult the journey is for most African riders to make it as professionals. In the coming years, many more may follow in his pedal strokes and transform the cycling landscape.

“As hard as it is with men, make it times ten for the women.”

That’s what Kimberly Coats, CEO of African cycling development organisation Team Africa Rising, told Cyclingnews of the prospects for female African riders going professional in Europe.

That’s why it’s remarkable to see an all-time high of 16 female Africans from seven different nations racing for UCI teams in 2023.

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Most African riders, whatever their gender, face the challenges of travel restrictions, lack of access to quality equipment and a scarcity of high-standard races to compete in.

South African Hayley Preen, racing for Torelli in 2023, nearly had her successful 2022 derailed by visa issues. She believes the travel restrictions ultimately cost her a move to a bigger team for this season.

“I could only go to Europe for two months because of visa issues. That’s one of the main things that stopped me from getting into a bigger team for this year, just because I only have a South African passport,” Preen told Cyclingnews.

Team Africa Rising runs programmes in several African nations aiming to empower women and men to reach their potential on the bike. Through this work, Coats has seen a unique barrier to entry to the sport for women due to cultural expectations put on them in many African communities to marry and have children – forgoing any other aspirations.

“We have been trying to get them to see that they can be an athlete and be married and have kids. They can have it all. They don’t even think it’s possible, they think it’s an either-or situation,” Coats said.

This worldview is deeply ingrained. It’s part of the cultural framework in many African nations, and although change is occurring in some communities, it’s a long road.

“Culture is important. If you step outside that culture by saying ‘hey, I’m going to be a professional female cyclist,’ that’s difficult for some people to handle,” Coats said.

It would be wrong to make any blanket cultural statements about Africa as a whole. Algerian culture is very different from that of Cameroon, Rwanda or Namibia.

Indeed, the situation is reversed in South Africa, where the culture is generally much more progressive and empowering of women to become athletes. This, and access to greater financial resources, are reasons why 7 of the 16 African women on UCI teams in 2023 are from South Africa.

Team Africa Rising is currently investing efforts in Benin – alongside Rwandan former WorldTour rider and new national coach of the west African nation, Adrien Niyonshuti. Coats speaks about the growth in young Beninese women wanting to join the training programme, which is becoming typical in many other African nations too.

“In Benin, I have girls showing up at our team house and asking to be tested,” Coats said.

“We’ve got a 15-year-old right now who’s like the next Teniel Campbell. She’s already five-foot-ten. She’s going to be six-foot-tall and probably weighs 55 kilos right now.

“She’s just passionate. Her dad is super passionate about it, he messages me all the time. We always try to get parental involvement with young women. Because if the parents buy into it and they’re supportive, it makes everything so much easier.”

This young girl is one of many being inspired to race a bicycle. There is a generation of female cyclists beyond the current crop who are ready to take African cycling to the next stage. Their belief is being kindled in part by the 16 African women who are leading the way by racing overseas on UCI teams.

“It is super exciting to see this many women [on UCI teams] because what’s going to happen is that women around Africa are going to start seeing them, and they’re going to think, ‘if they can do it, so can I,’” Coats said.

This could be the dawn of something. The snowball is growing, the momentum is building. African women, just like their male counterparts, are being enabled to race bikes on a scale we’ve not seen before.

Let’s introduce the 16 African women breaking the glass ceiling for the next generation.

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (AG Insurance-Soudal-QuickStep) wins stage 3 at Setmana ValencianaAshleigh Moolman Pasio (AG Insurance-Soudal-QuickStep) wins stage 3 at Setmana Valenciana

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (AG Insurance-Soudal-QuickStep) wins stage 3 at Setmana Valenciana

An inspiration for many, Moolman Pasio has delayed her retirement by at least one year after riding one of her best seasons in 2022, winning the Tour de Romandie in a string of top-level performances.

How much longer Africa will have its talismanic rider is unknown, but it’s safe to say that Ashleigh Moolman’s legacy will be significant, with the wealth of African female talent rising in her wake. She is already off to a strong start with AG Insurance-Soudal-QuickStep after winning the queen stage 3 at Setmana Valenciana.

Moolman Pasio said: “I was very certain I would retire after this season, it’s what I announced to the world, but gradually the idea to continue started to gain ground in my mind. I had one of my best seasons to date, and even at 36, I make progress every year.”

Ebtissam Zayed Ahmed

Zayed Ahmed achieved a rare feat in October, taking every stage on her way to winning the overall at the Tour of Burundi. She showed in that race that she is a level above the domestic African scene, dominating the general classification by just over 34 minutes.

Earlier in the season, the 26-year-old was also crowned African Continental road race champion.

This year, she secured double titles in the road race and time trial at the Egypt National Championships.

Zayed Ahmed said: “I am very happy to be part of a professional team this year, especially since it is the year of qualifying for the Paris Olympics 2024, and I can do some big races with a professional team and also with great riders.”

Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru

Eyeru Tesfoam (Ethiopia) racing at the World ChampionshipsEyeru Tesfoam (Ethiopia) racing at the World Championships

Eyeru Tesfoam (Ethiopia) racing at the World Championships

Eyeru Tesfoam had a very promising three years with the UCI World Cycling Centre from 2018 to 2020, with top-10s in stages of Vuelta a Burgos Feminas and Tour Feminin l’Ardeche among her best results. When war broke out in her home region of Tigray in Ethiopia, her prospects changed dramatically.

Now three years later, Tesfoam has received refugee status and will ride for French outfit Team Komugi – La Fabrique. Talented and already with some European experience to her name, the Ethiopian will be eager to make up for the lost time.

Valantine Nzayisenga

Valantine Nzayisenga (Canyon-Sram Generation)Valantine Nzayisenga (Canyon-Sram Generation)

Valantine Nzayisenga (Canyon-Sram Generation)

Nzayisenga is riding her second season with Canyon-Sram Generation. A talented climber, Nzayisenga gained valuable experience in 2022, completing four stage races, including the 2.Pro Thüringen Ladies Tour.

Nzayisenga said: “I am happy to sign again with Canyon-Sram Generation. I had a hard year where I learned a lot from many races. I sometimes missed home, but I managed it with my teammates and am happy with my season.”

Nesrine Houili

The 2022 African Continental time trial champion is a rider with a lot of potential. Houili will benefit greatly from experiencing European racing, and at just 19, she could have a big future.

Houili said: “I started riding when I was 12 years old and was determined to make a career in cycling last year. I love the challenge of learning new things and development through racing, like in the ITT and classic races. I can’t describe my feelings and how happy I am to join Canyon-Sram Generation.”

Frances Janse van Rensburg

Frances Janse van Rensburg (Stade Rochelais Charente Maritime) at the Tour de France FemmesFrances Janse van Rensburg (Stade Rochelais Charente Maritime) at the Tour de France Femmes

Frances Janse van Rensburg (Stade Rochelais Charente Maritime) at the Tour de France Femmes

Janse van Rensburg goes into a second season with Stade Rochelais Charente Maritime after 2022, which saw her become the national road race champion and start the historic first edition of the Tour de France Femmes.

Neither she nor Moolman managed to finish, so the accolade of becoming the first African finisher of the race remains available for this year.

Hayley Preen

A former elite trail runner and horse rider, Preen had a breakthrough season on the bike in 2022, winning the Manx International GP. She is aiming to continue her development this season with one eye on the Olympic Games in 2024.

Preen said: “The goal this year is to ride as many UCI races as possible. Get as much experience as possible, and hopefully some good results.”

Diane Ingabire

Diane Ingabire (Canyon-Sram Generation)Diane Ingabire (Canyon-Sram Generation)

Diane Ingabire (Canyon-Sram Generation)

The current Rwandan road and time trial champion has limited experience racing outside of Africa, only ever competing in the 2021 World Championships and 2022 Commonwealth Games away from her home continent. Ingabire has just completed her first training camp with her new team.

Ingabire said: “I am very excited to sign with Canyon-Sram Generation. I will be going from my local club to a Continental team. It’s a big step in my life. I want to work hard and learn to become a professional rider.”

Kerry Jonker

Jonker has recently completed two WorldTour events for the first time at the Tour Down Under and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race after joining Team Coop-Hitec Products for this season.

Jonker said: “I am very excited and grateful to the team for giving me the opportunity to join them. They have a great calendar and a great reputation. I am excited for what is to come.” [Procyclinguk]

Olivia Shililifa

Olivia Shililifa (Canyon-Sram Generation)Olivia Shililifa (Canyon-Sram Generation)

Olivia Shililifa (Canyon-Sram Generation)

Visa issues meant a late start and a short season in 2022 for the Namibian. At just 20 years old, Shililifa has time on her side. She will embark on her second season with Canyon-Sram Generation in 2023.

Shililifa said: “I cannot be more grateful for another opportunity with Canyon-Sram Generation to showcase what I have grown to love doing. I learnt so much in a short period, I can only imagine what more is waiting for me next season.”

Taneal Otto

Otto, a former triathlete, is riding her first season in a UCI team in 2023. The South African has limited European experience, but did impress in 2022 by winning the group sprint for 7th place at reVolta.

Selam Amha Gerefiel

Selam Amha Gerefiel (WCC Team)Selam Amha Gerefiel (WCC Team)

Selam Amha Gerefiel (WCC Team)

In her third season with the WCC Team, Amha Gerefiel had a solid year in 2022, taking an excellent 7th place on stage one of the Tour Feminin l’Ardeche, among a number of other strong results.

UCI World Cycling Centre Sports Director, Cristina San Emeterio, said: “If you ask her if she is a sprinter, she will say no. If you ask her if she is a climber, she will say no. But she can do it all. Despite some health problems this season, she had developed incredibly.”

Fatima Zahra Benzekri

  • Nationality: Moroccan

  • Age: 21

  • 2023 Team: Torelli

Benzekri had a late start to her season last year after problems obtaining a visa, only managing one UCI race day in Europe. This year she’ll hope to race more often as she aims to compete in the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Benzekri said of her third season with the Torelli squad: “I cannot be more grateful for another opportunity with Torelli. It gives me the confidence to chase higher goals.”

Thrhas Teklehaimanot Tesfay

  • Nationality: Ethiopian

  • Age: 21

  • 2023 Team: Team Soltec

The Ethiopian was a very promising junior, winning both the individual and team time trials at the African Continental Championships in 2019.

Since then, the war in her home country has paused her career. She was given a contract with Team Soltec last year but never had the opportunity to race. She will hope to be able to get to Europe this season to show her talent.

Maude Le Roux

Maude Le Roux (World Cycling Centre Team)Maude Le Roux (World Cycling Centre Team)

Maude Le Roux (World Cycling Centre Team)

Le Roux took her first European win last season in the Spanish amateur race, Trofeu Ajuntament d’Ondara. She backed that result up with consistent performances across the season and hopes to make another step up in 2023.

Le Roux said: “Coming from triathlon and only being in cycling now for two years, I’m still learning a lot. My hope is to build on what was learned last season to hopefully move up within this year.”

Azulde Britz

Azulde Britz is beginning her second season in the Spanish team after a consistent 2022. Britz finds time to study for a degree in Psychology alongside her cycling career.

Britz said: “I am super excited about my renewal, I really enjoy the team atmosphere and motivation that the girls show. For 2023, I am looking forward to pushing myself again with the support and guidance of my teammates and the team staff.”