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Aérogramme Day 07: Daniel Teklehaimanot

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African Waves

To the roar of the crowd, he stuck his head from the corner of the victory podium, looking first, before responding with a warm smile. It was almost as if he were testing the waters. But then Daniel Teklehaimanot is a relative newcomer when it comes to Tour de France glory. Barely 24 hours earlier, the Eritrean pulled the esteemed polka-dot jersey, awarded to the best climber, over his head for the first time.

Words & images: James Startt
From: Fougeres, France

Although Teklehaimanot, along with his countryman Merhawi Kudos, is making history in this year’s Tour as the first black Africans ever to line up for the great French race, the 26-year-old came with a clear race plan. Only weeks earlier in the Dauphine Criterium, a key warm-up race to the Tour, Telklehaimanot spent more time in breakaways than he ever did in the peloton. And for his unrelenting efforts, he won the best climbers jersey there too, something that apparently gave him ideas for the Tour.

It came as little surprise then, when the lanky rider went on the attack early into stage 6, a stage littered with best climber bonus points. And like in the Dauphine, his efforts won him the best-climber prize once more. But the Tour is infinitely bigger than the Dauphine, and his success met with instant fanfare.

“I don’t know what to think,” he said after the race. “I can’t believe it. I am really happy. It makes me proud.”

By Friday morning the MTN-Qhubeka team bus was greeted with renewed clamor as television stations from around the world waited for a Teklehaimanot. The team already attracted attention at the start of this year’s race as the first African squad to line up of the Tour. And now they were backing it with results. Climbing down from the bus, Teklehaimanot struggled to reach his bike amidst the throng of autograph seekers and television cameras. And as he rolled to the start, he continued to be stopped.

For Teklehaimanot, the journey from a market town in East Africa to the roads of the Tour de France, is nothing short of astounding. But the Eritrea, once an Italian colony, loves cycling. A Giro dell’Eritrea was even held in the 1940’s and is still staged occasionally. In addition, the country, situated over 2,000 meters above sea level provides ideal high-altitude training grounds.

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Teklehaimanot started cycling at the age of 10 and eventually was spotted by the International Cycling Union, who invited him to participate in the UCI’s International Cycling Center, aimed at developing promising talent from developing countries. On the team, he finished a strong sixth in the under-23 Tour de L’Avenir. Such a result generally serves as an open passport into the professional ranks, and Teklehaimanot started to arouse interest among World Tour teams. But while he first signed with the Orica-GreenEdge team in 2012, but spent most of his time on the Australian team negotiating his way through visa problems rather than racing his bike. Fortunately for him, the rise of MTN-Qhubeka, the first African team with Tour de France ambitions, offered him the opportunity to re-focus on racing in 2014.

“You know it wasn’t easy for him last year,” said Jens Zemke, one of the MTN-Qhubeka directors at this year’s Tour. “He struggled early on in races like the Tour of Switzerland. But he had a good Tour of Spain at the end of the season. And he built on that at the Dauphine this year. That’s given him a real boost of confidence. It’s been a real breakthrough. He’s getting a taste of the success.”

Norwegian rider, Edvald Boassen-Hagen, one of the experienced European riders brought to the team this year, has been impressed with what he has seen in Teklehaimanot.

“He’s a great teammate. If you tell him to get in the breaks, he always seems to do it! That’s not easy. He’s really impressive. He’s strong!

But Teklehaimanot understands that winning one of the Tour’s distinctive jerseys is more than just a result, as the polka-dot jersey is a sort of flag of its own. “I was dreaming just one day to be on the podium for the mountain jersey. Standing on the podium yesterday I was really proud.

I’m so happy to wear this jersey for myself, but also my teammates and my people back home. I know they are proud and are following me from back home.”

Friday’s stage 7 stretched from the France’s Normandy region over to the western region of Brittany. The gently rolling terrain only offered one small climb with a single bonus point. But that one point was enough to inspire Teklehaimanot to go on the attack once again. And by grabbing that additional point he put a virtual lock on the jersey until the race hits the Pyrenees next week.

At the finish he had to content with even more television cameras and autograph seekers. One particularly enthusiastic band of Eritrean fans mobbed him as he approached the team bus. Taking a moment to speak with them, he then slipped into the bus as the fans broke into a national song. “Eritrean is a very poor country,” said one. “But it is the best cycling country in Africa, and Daniel is proving it! We are so happy for him!”

Check in daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.