Natnael Berhane, gives Eritrea emphatic win in queen stage
African champion Natnael Berhane (EUC) proved Eritrean cycling had come of age when he gave his country its most significant victory to date in the queen stage of the Tour of Turkey above Elmali on Tuesday.
A born climber, the 22-year-old Asmara-born outclassed the rest of the field on the final climb to Gugubeli to earn his first major pro victory, the first of such calibre by an Eritrean cyclist outside the African continent.
The elegant Europcar rider charged in the final 200 metres of the 159-kms third stage to get rid of Belgium’s Keven Seeldrayers (AST) and Turkey’s Mustafa Sayar (TRK), who came close to give the host country its first stage win on the home Tour.
Sayar, the best climber’s jersey holder, was the other hero of the day as he proved he had reached international class by staying in the front in most of the finale.
Berhane also seized the GC lead with a 10 seconds lead over Seeldrayers with Sayar third, a further two seconds adrift.
The only mountain stage in the TUR started as usual in a jittery fashion, several teams hoping to place a rider in the day’s break to collect points for the KOM mountain classification on the three 1st category climbs of the day.Â
The wounds from the second stage massive pile-up in the final stretch were still wide open as several riders preferred to call it quits when they saw the Antalya airport signs on the roadside.
As usual, Turkish team Troku Sekerspor were extremely active as Nazim Bakirci and Serguei Grechyn placed first and second in the first second category ascent of the day (km 9), in front of Poland’s Jaroslaw Marycz.
Both Grechyn and Marycz made their ambitions clear straightaway and they were again in the breaking group taking shape some 15 kms later on the flanks on the Tahtalibeli climb.
In the meantime, Francisco Moreno (CJR) had won the Turkish Beauties sprint of the day in Antalya without dislodging overall leader Ahmet Orken of Turkey.
Along with Grechyn and Marycz in the day’s big breakaway were France’s Clement Koretzky (BSE), already in sight in the previous stage, Germany’s Bjorn Thurau (EUC) and Italy’s Mauro Finetto (VIN), the last two reaching the top (km 35.5) in that order.
They were later chased then caught by Timothy Duggan (TST), who led the way up the Saksaganlibeli climb dedicated to former Turkish Olympic rider Rifat Caliskan. .
On the descent, Koretzky and Duggan were dropped by the leading group, whose maximum lead was just under five minutes after 55 kilometres.
And in the long stretch taking the race towards Elmali, only Thurau, Finetto and Grechyn were left to tackle the final climb in the front. While Grechyn deservedly took the last intermediate sprint of the stage in Elmali after spending all day at the front, Berhane’s team-mate Thurau was by far the busiest of he three escapees as they tackled the climb with a 1:40 lead over the chasing pack, led by team Bretagne Seche.
With 11 kms to go, Thurau, tired of being the only pacesetter, moved and left Finetto and Grechyn hapless. But the son of former champion Dietrich Thurau could only keep a 20-second lead over the bunch, led by Sojasun riders. The gap melted in the sun with each turn and the break ended seven kilometres from the line.
On the junction, Serge Pauwels (OPQ), one of the favourites for today’s stage, took his chance and despite a brave chase led by Torku Sekerspor and red jersey holder Mustafa Sayar, took his gap to nearly 20 seconds. But the Belgian had made his move too soon and compatriot Kevin Seeldrayers (AST), along with Berhane countered and caught him four kilometres from the top. Yet their pace was not hard enough and they were joined by France’s Maxime Mederel (SOJ) and Sayar in the last two kilometres. Sayar fully honoured his climber’s jersey by leading the four towards the finish line but could not do anything when Berhane, by far the most comfortable rider in the last climb, surged in the last 200 metres to claim a well-deserved victory, six seconds ahead of Seeldrayers and the Turkish hero.
Natnael Berhane: “Better than I could have hoped for!”
How does it feel winning the queen stage of the Tour of Turkey?
It’s huge! It was a hard stage. I didn’t expect to win for I didn’t really know what my capacities were in a climb such as this. It was a dream and that’s why I cried when I crossed the line. It was the best stage to win and I did it!
How did you do it?
We did a great team-work with Bjorn Thurau in the break. Later the team helped me a lot in the climb until I caught the rider in front (Serge Pauwels). I gave everything to win in the last meters of the climb.
What does this victory mean to you?
To win race at such level was better than I could hope for in my first year as a pro. It’s my first participation in the Tour of Turkey. It’s great. Just before, I rode the Tour of Trentino in which we had mountain already. I came here hoping to finish in the top 5 but first is even better. Now we have a jersey to defend.
Did you learn a lot this season by riding alongside champions like Thomas Voeckler or Pierre Rolland?
Yes. I do everything I can to become a rider like they are. Europcar is a great team. I used to see them on television and it’s very moving to think that now, people in Africa can see me win live on TV. A month ago (Ethiopia’s) Tsgabu Grmay, with whom I spent two years at the World Cycling Centre in Potchefstroem in South Africa and then in Aigle, in Switzerland, won a stage in the Tour of Taiwan. And now it’s my turn…