Daniel Teklehaimanot of MTN-Qhubeka celebrates his polka dot jersey on the podium after his stage 6 victory on 9 July. Photograph: Manuel Blondeau/Corbis
Daniel Teklehaimanot has a lot of firsts weighing on his shoulders. On Thursday, he became the first African rider to wear the coveted King of the Mountains jersey in the Tour de France, racing as part of the first African team to compete in it, MTN-Qhubeka.
For weeks now, the term “making history” has been following this impossibly tall, softly spoken Eritrean cyclist around. Along with his team-mate, Merhawi Kudus who, at 21, is the youngest tour rider this year, he is the first black African to compete in the world’s biggest bike race.
Born in a market town not far from the capital city of Asmara, Teklehaimanot explained on a sweltering day in Amsterdam, at the team’s official presentation before the start of the race in Utrecht, how cycling was in his blood. “I first started cycling at home, a long time ago. There are many cyclists in Eritrea, the people love it, it’s really popular,” he said.
Bicycles were brought to the country in the 19th century by Italian colonisers, who soon established the Primo Giro dell’Eritrea in 1946, named after another of the world’s longest-running and most prestigious races, the Giro d’Italia.
“When I was 10 or 11 I started riding my bike. When I grew up a bit, around 16, I always watched the tour on Eritrean TV, and when I became a good rider, I started dreaming that one day I could make it.”
And the 26-year-old has: in June, Teklehaimanot won the polka-dotted King of the Mountains jersey at the Critérium du Dauphiné, taken to be a marker of who to watch in the Tour de France. Chris Froome, the Kenyan-born Team Sky rider and former Tour winner, raced to victory there too.
Daniel Teklehaimanot with Europcar rider Perrig Quemeneur and Cofidis’s Kenneth Van Bilsen during Wednesday’s breakaway. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters
But perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. Eritrea is gripped by a fanatical love for the sport. Bicycles are everywhere in the capital, and racing has become known as the country’s “unofficial fifth state-sanctioned religion”. Five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault has predicted that the east African nation’s riders “are the next Colombians”.
Sitting 2,325 metres above sea level, at the tip of an escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, Eritrea breeds strong cyclists. “The geography is a main part of why we’re so good,” Teklehaimanot said, “but we also just work hard.
“When I was young, around 2005 and 2006, and I watched [the tour on] TV, me and my friends talked a lot about the bikes, the wheels – but we didn’t really know how they are racing. So now I’m really excited to be a part of that same race,” he said.
It has been a long journey for the Eritrean. In 2010, he started catching the attention of European teams when he came first in the African Championship road race, won the individual and team time trials, and came first overall in the Tour of Rwanda. But Teklehaimanot’s entry to World Tour cycling was blighted by recurring visa problems, which sabotaged his chances to compete at the highest level with his team at the time, Orica-GreenEdge.
“There are so many African riders – from Eritrea, South Africa and Rwanda – but it’s not easy to become a part of the big teams. We have to work hard, so I’m thankful for MTN-Qhubeka,” he explained.
Kudus said he felt the same. “It’s not easy when you come from Africa. There should be more invitations, and more opportunity. Especially for places like Rwanda, where riders are becoming better and better. But we need more opportunities – it’s more difficult to get to Europe for us.”
In what has historically been a predominantly white, European and exclusive sport, the inclusion of black riders is still, lamentably, a novelty. “I hope this is the beginning of a shift,” said MTN’s Scottish team manager, Brian Smith, adding that there was not enough respect for black riders in the peloton.
“You look at long-distance running, it’s all Africans now. You just need one racer to break through, and it makes others realise they can do it too. It’s the same here. We don’t see enough black cyclists.”
Though little could mar Teklehaimanot’s win on Thursday, a racism row surrounding another of MTN’s Eritrean riders, Natnael Berhane, has exposed the serious racial politics that hang over professional cycling.
At the Tour of Austria, which runs in tandem with the Tour de France, MTN’s management are said to have appealed to the UCI, cycling’s governing body, to have the Belarusian rider Branislau Samoilau expelled from the race for racial abuse.
The team’s principal, Douglas Ryder, said: “One of the riders from another team said to Natnael Berhane: ‘Get out of the way you effing n*****’. Just outrageous.”
Smith said MTN frequently battled prejudice, but that the peloton was slowly learning to respect the talent of the African team, and recognise their right to contest at the front of the race. “Lots of test teams are trying to globalise the sport, and Africa is an untapped entity. Daniel was the trailblazer, that’s why there are so many [Eritreans] coming through now,” he said.
Kudus, left, and Teklehaimanot at the start of stage two of the Tour de France. Photograph: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
“Although we’ve got foreign people on the team [American Tyler Farrar and Norwegian rider Edvald Boasson Hagen, among others], this is an African team. We want African riders. We want to make sure this team is where all the African talented riders come to perform. Not to be a development team – we want to keep the cream of the crop.”
Last month, Teklehaimanot and Kudus returned to Eritrea to compete in the national championships. In the infamously closed-off country – better known for dire human rights records and contributing to Europe’s growing migrant crisis – the two riders are stars.
“There was a big welcome for us. After the nationals, the government wished us good luck for the tour. We met the president, Isaias Afwerki, in his office. It was a big moment for us,” Teklehaimanot said.
Afwerki has been in office since independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and no national elections have been held in this time. While Eritrean footballer players are notorious for using international matches as an opportunity to escape and seek asylum, the cyclists say they are proud of their country’s support.
“They are really supportive, the president too, we got lots of media attention – everyone is watching us,” said Kudus.
At this Tour de France, soon to enter its second week and enter the brutal mountain stages, Smith said the Eritreans were hoping for further glory. “I want to give them the opportunity to try to win in one or two stages,” he said. “We’ve got no general classification hopes, no big sprint hopes, so it’s save energy and grab a stage. I’ve told them both: go show the world what you can do.”
For Teklehaimanot, there’s no doubt this is his moment: “My family are waiting for the tour, they’ll be watching on television, and my wife is coming to Paris [for the final stage]. I’m really proud to be an Eritrean riding. It’s big for me, for the team also. I’m really happy.”