Androni Giocattoli’s Natnael Tesfatsion caught a few eyes during Tirreno-Adriatico last week, mixing it with some of the best in the world and even, on one occasion, breaking free with a punchy attack towards the end of stage six. The move set a few hearts aflutter and tempted Kevin Geniets (Groupama FDJ) out of the peloton and along for the ride, before eventually coming to nothing.
Successful or not, it was an exciting taster of what the Eritrean 21-year-old might be capable of doing in races to come, but just who is Natnael Tesfatsion, and what can he do in the future in this sport?
Tesfatsion signed to Androni at the end of last year after spending the previous two seasons racing for NTT Continental, the development squad operated by the WorldTour team of the same name (and now known as Qhubeka-Assos).
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Unlike his compatriot Biniam Ghirmay who passed through the World Cycling Centre on his way to elite competition, it was ‘Africa’s team’ that helped develop Tesfatsion to the point he is at now. Indeed, NTT Continental (and Dimension Data for Qhubeka as it was called before that) has been an instrumental force in the advancement of African riders, with the likes of Ryan Gibbons, Nic Dlamini, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier and Stefan de Bod all passing through on their way to the WorldTour.
While riding for NTT Continental last year, Tesfatsion won the general classification at the Tour du Rwanda, with a stage win to boot, as well as scooping second place overall and a stage win at La Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon. These are by far his most impressive results thus far, albeit in a very short career.
La Tropicale and Rwanda are inarguably the biggest races in Africa, and there is no finer indicator of future ability for African riders yet to race in Europe than success at one or the other.
To have podiumed both GCs by the age of 21 is totally unprecedented.
Tesfatsion has raced in Europe, of course, over the past two seasons, and when it comes to parlaying success on his home continent into major races ‘up here’ in Europe, the signs so far are relatively good.
Last year saw him snag a fair few top 10s in mostly Italian races (the Qhubeka-Assos organisation has been based out of northern Italy for years), and he netted a 12th place at GP Industria & Artigianato earlier this year to really begin his 2021.
Tesfatsion’s 48th place overall at Tirreno-Adriatico might not have Ineos or UAE Team Emirates reaching for their chequebooks just yet, but a closer examination of his results across the whole week-long race reveals he lost a substantial chunk of time on stage five (a full 21 minutes), when he was caught in the wrong group. Without that, the result of his first WorldTour stage race begins to look vastly better.
Stage five was a rain-lashed stage more akin to a classic in northern Europe than a day of Mediterranean stage racing, and Tesfatsion arrived over the line in the same group as Sergio Higuita (EF Education Nippo), who is no slouch himself when it comes to stage racing usually.
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Without that massive time loss, Tesfatsion would’ve been comfortably in the top 15, jostling shoulders with the likes of Marc Soler, Nairo Quintana and Rudy Molard on the fringes of the top ten, even. Crucially and most illuminatingly, Tesfatsion lost only 5’43” to Tadej Pogačar on the summit finish queen stage.
While Tesfatsion’s compatriot Ghirmay is an intriguing prospect because it’s not quite clear yet what his specialty will be, Tesfatsion’s path to success seems obvious. He is a born stage racer, with his victory last season in the Tour du Rwanda overall providing clear evidence of that fact, not to mention consistently high placings in GCs from as far back as 2018.
If there is a weakness in the young Eritrean’s arsenal at the moment, it would appear to be time trialling. He placed 131st out of 159 in the Tirreno final day TT, and 21st in the Tour du Rwanda TT in 2020. Had he not been leading that latter race by a healthy two-minute margin at the start of its final day, his performance against the clock might even have cost him the overall victory.
Still, Tesfatsion is very young and will have plenty of opportunity to develop his time trialling in the next two years. He is contracted to stay with the Italian ProTeam Androni until the end of 2022, but it would not be a complete surprise to see him picked up by another team before his contract is up.
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