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At Tour de France, Riders From Eritrea Hope to Blaze a Grueling Trail for a Continent

Daniel Teklehaimanot with supporters before the eighth stage. He wore a polka-dot jersey as the Tour’s top climber. Credit Lionel Bonaventure/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By By Ian Austen | New York Times

MÛR-DE-BRETAGNE, France — All manner of flags are waved at the Tour de France. But at the start in Rennes on Saturday there were a few dozen examples of one that had probably not made an appearance: the red, blue and green of Eritrea.

Those flags appeared because of Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus, who are Eritreans of many firsts. In a sport in which black riders from any continent are rare, Teklehaimanot and Kudus are the first black Africans to compete in the Tour. Teklehaimanot is the first African rider to wear the red polka dotted jersey as the Tour’s best climber. And perhaps most important, they ride for the Tour’s first modern African team, MTN-Qhubeka, which hopes to make Africa as important a force in cycling as it is in endurance sports like long-distance running.

Despite his status as the leader of the climbing competition, Teklehaimanot faltered Saturday on what was arguably the most difficult climb of this Tour so far, the dramatically named Mûr-de-Bretagne, or Wall of Brittany. While relatively short, it included a grueling 10 percent grade at one point, which swiftly sorted out the field.

Alexis Vuillermoz, a French rider who started out in mountain biking, launched an attack against the race leader, Chris Froome, near the top of the hill and went on to win the 181.5-kilometer (112.5-mile) eighth stage in 4 hours 20 minutes 55 seconds. Dan Martin, who rides for the American Cannondale-Garmin team, was second.

In what may have been a preview of what is to come when the race moves into the mountains, Vincenzo Nibali, last year’s Tour winner, lost 10 seconds to Froome and trails him by 1 minute 48 seconds. Froome, who is among the favorites for the overall victory, leads the American rider Tejay van Garderen by 13 seconds and the two-time champion Alberto Contador by 36.

While Teklehaimanot finished 63rd, 1 minute 13 seconds behind Vuillermoz, he retained the climber’s jersey because of points he had acquired previously. Still, his status is unlikely to continue when climbs in the Pyrenees begin Tuesday.

Not that anyone is complaining. Douglas Ryder, a South African who founded MTN-Qhubeka, said the team’s plan for the opening stages of the Tour was merely to survive.

“Our riders have been superscared; we just wanted to get our riders through this first week,” he said Saturday. “Our major objective was no broken bones.”

How the team came to surpass that goal involved parallel paths taken by Ryder and Teklehaimanot.

During the 1990s, Ryder rode as a professional on small teams, including an American one sponsored by the now defunct Plymouth auto brand. When he raced at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the performances of other Africans, particularly in running, convinced him of Africa’s potential in cycling.

“I thought that if we can get African guys onto bicycles, there’s no way that they won’t be successful,” he said.

Ryder went off to have a career with IBM and Microsoft, but about a decade ago he began working on what ultimately became his team.

There were several obvious hurdles that needed to be overcome in Africa, starting with inadequate and overcrowded roads and simple access to bicycles.

But Ryder, who is white, found that among black Africans in many areas, riding a bicycle carried a social stigma.

“Africa is a continent of walkers,” he said. “There’s a perception in Africa that if you own a bike, that means you’re too poor to own a car. So you’d rather walk because it becomes a bit of a status symbol.”

Not everywhere in Africa, however. Because of its past as an Italian colony when it was part of Ethiopia, Eritrea has had a road-racing scene off and on since the 1940s, and it sent riders, as Ethiopians, to some Olympic Games.

The soft-spoken Teklehaimanot said he followed the Tour as a child on television, and he started road racing when he was about 13, using a sluggish mountain bike. “I just loved to ride the bike,” he said.

In 2009, he was selected by the International Cycling Union, or U.C.I., to join a program at its headquarters in Switzerland to develop promising young riders from regions that were underrepresented in the sport.

“When I came to Europe, for me the weather, everything was difficult,” he said while sitting on the steps of the team bus as a number of Eritrean autograph seekers gathered behind a barrier. “But I wanted to be a professional, so I was happy that the U.C.I. could teach me everything I needed to know.”

The next year he finished sixth in a major race for young riders and was invited to join a team sponsored by Cervélo, a Canadian racing bike maker. The Australian Orca Green Edge team took him on but found sorting out his visas to be an almost insurmountable problem because of the political instability in Eritrea.

The creation of MTN-Qhubeka solved those issues.

“It’s really special for me because they look after us, everything,” he said. “We don’t have any problems now about visas or anything.”

The MTN in the team name is a traditional sponsor, a telecommunications firm. Qhubeka is the African branch of World Bicycle Relief, an American organization that hopes to improve people’s education and economic status by providing inexpensive yet durable bikes.

Ryder also hopes that as more Africans cycle, the social stigma associated with the activity will diminish, and some will take up the sport.

“We’re trying to fill our own pipeline to draw from for the team for the future,” he said. “If we can make it cool with African riders doing so well in races, people will say: ‘Gee, the bicycle is a cool thing.” While Froome races under British citizenship, he was born in Kenya and did much of his early cycling there.

On Saturday, Froome predicted great things from that part of the world.

“I believe riders from East Africa are potentially the best riders in the world,” he said noting the hurdles they need to be overcome. “I don’t think it’s too long before we start to see some real talent coming out of East Africa.”

Right now, MTN is relying heavily on non-African veterans at the Tour, including the American Tyler Farrar and Edvald Boasson Hagen, a Norwegian who used to be among Froome’s teammates.

Ryder said he has given them an unusual performance objective for the season: help get 5,000 bicycles to young Africans.

“We’re not just here for ourselves, we’re here to show the potential of the African continent,” he said before pointing out a row of African flags down the street from the team bus.
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At Tour de France, Riders From Eritrea Hope to Blaze a Grueling Trail for a Continent Reviewed by Admin on 4:39 AM Rating: 5


  1. I won't be surprised if the Eritrean National Cycling Federation produces thousands of new elite professional cyclist. The next decade to put Eritrea on global map in terms of Tour races just like how East African are in marathon competition.


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