LE HAVRE, France (VN) — A man from nothing stepped on to cycling’s greatest stage, pulled on a polka-dot jersey, and smiled into the cameras. Joy? Pride? Perhaps. But the usual descriptors for happiness fell short for Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN-Qhubeka) on Thursday, the day Africa took home its first-ever Tour de France climber’s jersey.
Teklehaimanot’s home nation of Eritrea needs champions. The oppressed and impoverished country has no private media, its human rights record is among the worst in the world, and it sends more refugees across the Mediterranean than every nation but Syria. The national soccer team has defected twice while playing abroad. But in France, for this month at least, it has men upon whom it can rest its pride. On Thursday, Eritrea found a champion in polka dots.
The tall, thin Eritrean earned the pois rouge through a strong breakaway effort across the rolling hills of northwest France, proving his talent on cycling’s biggest stage.
“A few days ago, when we started in Antwerp, they were singing and dancing, they were all happy,” MTN-Qhubeka general manager Brian Smith said after the stage, surrounded by twice as much media as the team has seen all week. “I think Eritrea is erupting now. They’re dancing in the streets.”
Teklehaimanot, long touted as a solid GC rider, showed his strength at the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he won the polka-dot jersey of the best climber, but it was Thursday’s ride into the French coast town of Le Havre that catapulted him into the world’s consciousness.
Thursday’s result was part of a plan developed after the Dauphiné, in which MTN directors pinned their hopes on an early jersey on the lithe Eritrean.
“Daniel rode super well in the Dauphiné two weeks ago, where he won the mountain jersey, and I think he liked it,” MTN sport director Jens Zemke explained. “So we made a plan. We said, ‘if we get it, then we have to get it early.’ We tried already on the second stage, and today again
“We’re to keep on going with the jersey; we want to hang onto it as long as we can. But this is absolutely fantastic.”
In Thursday’s morning meeting, the team tasked Teklehaimanot with getting in the breakaway. They knew that if he could get in the move and cross the three categorized climbs first, he’d pull the polka dots off Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) by a single point.
“It’s easy to say it on the bus beforehand, but he was incredible, and he made it happen,” teammate Tyler Farrar said after the stage. “He’s so good. Every time you say, ‘Hey today’s the day to get in the break,” there he is.”
Teklehaimanot made the move with Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar), and Kenneth Vanbilsen (Cofidis), a Frenchman and a Belgian looking mostly for TV time. But they didn’t gift him the jersey. The Eritrean had to sprint for the points at the top of each time.
With only rolling stages ahead, MTN directors believe that Teklehaimanot can hold onto the jersey for at least three days. But just the single day, the rider said, is enough. “To be on today’s podium was like a dream,” he said.