Two cyclists from Eritrea, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus, are making history in the world’s most famous bicycle race. The two riders are members of MTN Khubeka, the first ever African team in the Tour de France, as well as the first Eritreans to take part in the race.
A year after Ji Cheng, the first Chinese rider in 2014, captivated Tour de France fans, it is the turn for Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot to take their own place in the history books as the first black African riders.
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.
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.