Daniel Teklehaimanot rode into the history books in the Tour de France when he became the first African to wear the climbers’ polka-dot jersey.
The 26-year-old Eritrean, riding for South African team MTN-Qhubeka, took charge of the mountains classification yesterday with an escape during stage six. Today, wearing the famous white top with red dots, he escaped again to re-enforce his lead.
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“I was really proud yesterday on the podium,” Teklehaimanot said after stepping out of the bus today among cheers and applause.
“[At home] they’re really very proud of us and they are really supporting. Yeah, of course, they are following us from the beginning to the finish. With this jersey, it is a dream that has come true.”
South African Daryl Impey became the first from the continent to wear the yellow jersey in 2013. Robert Hunter, also from South Africa, won the first stage in 2007.
Besides making Tour history with Merhawi Kudus, becoming the first Eritreans to race in the Tour when it kicked off in Utrecht, Teklehaimanot is the first to wear the polka-dot top.
In the Critérium du Dauphiné last month, he won the mountains competition and gave MTN its first classification jersey in a WorldTour race.
For riders from Eritrea, who have to obtain an exit visa to travel to Europe for racing, the polka dots have special significance.
“It’s a big challenge to get them out of Eritrea, but the president gave Daniel, Natnael [Berhane] and [Merhawi [Kudus] his blessing,” MTN’s general manager, Doug Ryder explained.
“He said that we believe that you guys will return, that they are fantastic citizens.”
For a country wrecked by wars and colonisation through the years, Teklehaimanot and Kudus’s history-making ride is important. One hundred or so Eritrean fans surrounded the bus daily in the early days shouting, singing and expressing happiness for their compatriots who have come so far from a country with so little.
“I was called by the sports minister of Eritrea,” Ryder added. “He said that what they are doing is incredible and is having positive feedback at home.”
Teklehaimanot began as a professional with Australian team Orica-GreenEdge. When he rode by the team’s bus this morning, General Manager Shayne Bannan and Sports Director Matt White applauded their former rider. Teklehaimanot, of course, stopped, smiled and shook their hands.
Kudus is seen as the bigger talent. Ryder explained that if he can improve on the descents and in the time trials, he may one day stand on a Grand Tour podium.
The only sour note in MTN’s celebrations was news that a rival rider made a racist slur to its rider Natnael Berhane in the Tour of Austria. Belarusian rider Branislau Samoilau with team CCC Sprandi Pokowice, reportedly paid one month’s salary to the Qhubeka charity that helps give African bikes in exchange for good deeds.
After the slur and fine, Berhane began today’s stage. The bigger news, however, was in France.
Video: Tour de France – Stage seven highlights