July 4, 2015
A year after Ji Cheng captivated Tour de France fans, it is the turn for Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot to take their own place in the history books.
Eritreans Kudus and Teklehaimanot are the first black Africans to take part in the world’s most prestigious bike race, just as Ji — who earned the nickname of the “breakaway killer” — was the first Chinese rider in 2014.
But while overcoming athletic obstacles to reach the elite level is a daunting enough challenge, the two Eritreans have also had to get past some stringent red tape in their home country.
The pair needed the backing of Eritrea president Isaias Afwerki just to be allowed to leave their country and compete — Eritrea has previously pulled out of certain sporting events for fear of their athletes defecting to other countries, as has twice happened with the national football team.
Afwerki, though, echoed the general feeling of pride in Eritrea at the participation of their two riders at the Grand Boucle.
“The unprecedented achievement of the cyclists attests to the high technical level that cycling has reached in the country,” Afwerki said, according to state media.
Teklehaimanot confirmed on his arrival in Utrecht for the Grand Depart that the government and the whole country are behind him and Kudus.
“Of course I have much support from home; big, big support from all the government and the people,” said the 26-year-old rider, who was due to get the Tour rolling on Saturday afternoon as he was set to start first in the opening stage 13.8km individual time trial.
“Last week I was at home for the nationals and all the people were saying good luck for the next weeks.”
When it comes to the race itself, although both are handy climbers, Teklehaimanot and Kudus will largely operate in a support role for their more illustrious MTN Qhubeka teammates, although they will also aim to get in breakaways to give themselves a chance of a stage win.
“Of course we need to survive in the first week and support the sprinters in some stages. Our goal for the second week is to support the climbers and of course to try to get in a break,” said Teklehaimanot, who won the climber’s polka dot jersey at June’s Criterium du Dauphine.
Qhubeka are making history themselves as the first African team to ride the Tour — although there is some debate about that fact.
In 1950, a North African team took part with riders from Algeria and Morocco, but at that time the former was part of France and the latter an overseas colony.
In fact, the North Africa team was even listed under the French regional squads.
Regardless, Qhubeka will be keen to make their mark and get some much-needed publicity by riding at the front of the race and being as visible as possible.
“In the team we have sprinters and also climbers, so for all three weeks we are ready,” said Kudus, 21, who was bowled over by the number of fans that came out to support the riders at Thursday’s official team presentation by the side of the canal in Utrecht.
“It’s really amazing with big (lots of) fans and big (lots of) supporters. I can’t find some words to (say to) them, but I’m saying thank you.”
The moment has not been lost on either Kudus or Teklehaimanot, but both have seemed so far relaxed, with broad smiles.
“This could be a really tough race,” Teklehaimanot said. “It’s a big history for me and for my team also.”