After seven stages and 1,128.3km of racing in the 2015 Tour de France the peloton has crested a total of nine categorised climbs. The first leader of the climbing classification was the winner of stage three, the renowned climber Joaquim Rodriguez. The second King of the Climbs has created history: Daniel Teklehaimanot is the first Eritrean to contest the Tour. He was the first to start the time trial last Saturday in Utrecht and his presence – and that of his MTN-Qhubeka team-mate and compatriot Merhawi Kudus Ghebremedhin – has lured a new troupe of spectators to the roadside in France.
There’s always plenty of noise at the start of a Tour stage but no pocket of fans was louder than the cluster of Eritreans in Rennes. There aren’t many of them but what they lack in numbers they make up for with enthusiasm.
RIDE caught up with MTN-Qhubeka’s team principle Douglas Ryder to find out more about the rise and rise of Teklehaimanot, the winner of the polka-dot jersey in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné and a rider who has been on the attack day after day at the end of the first week of his first Tour. Here is a transcript of that exchange…
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Ryder on Teklehaimanot and the African revolution
RIDE: I’m speaking with Douglas Ryder who has got a big smile on his face with a couple of polka-dot jerseys in the team bus. Daniel has put on a big show these last few days. It’s the fruition of what you’ve been planning for a long time by the look of it…
Douglas Ryder: “Absolutely. We came to the Tour and, firstly just getting here was a dream come true. We had achieved all our objectives just by putting our wheels on the start line. Everything else over and above that was a bonus.
“Daniel has always said that it was his childhood dream to wear the polka-dot jersey in the Tour, moreso than the yellow jersey because the polka-dot jersey talks about aggression, passion, commitment… being opportunistic, showing your talent.
“The yellow jersey is all of those as well but it’s who can lose the least time and it’s more strategic.
“He is an aggressive guy who likes to jump and attack and go crazy – and the polka-dot jersey rewards you for that kind of stuff. That’s why it was the jersey that he was more interested in and for him to win the competition in the Critérium du Dauphiné gave him so much confidence and belief because the biggest thing is knowing that it’s possible – that you could do it. And then, after that, it was the ultimate dream to go to the Tour de France and try and wear the jersey. The fact that he went and did it – and he had to fight really hard for it, it wasn’t given to him on a plate by two French riders – just shows the passion and the talent.
“It’s a dream come true for him and, of course, for the team as well – and for African cycling too.”
It’s a big evolution for him. I know, for example, at the Christmas party [at the end of 2011] when he joined GreenEdge, he turned up a few days earlier and he had in his backpack a pair of underpants and a toothbrush and not much else. The team basically had to put clothes on his back… how is Daniel now? Has he adapted to the life of a professional? He’s very shy and softly spoken…
“Yes, but we’ve created an amazing environment for them. We’re an African team that needs to survive with these guys because it’s our focus.
“Daniel has professionalised a lot, for sure, with lots of support from us as well but he’s been the pioneer of African cycling.
“When he left Eritrea in 2009 there wasn’t really anybody else who did that and Michel Thèze looked after him and gave him an opportunity and believed in him when he got the ride on Cervélo TestTeam in 2010 – and then that team folded and went back [home]. Then he got the ride on Orica-GreenEdge and then with us.
“He has grown a lot. He’s now helping all the other African riders and making that step to Westernise them a little bit in terms of living, eating… stuff that they need to do.
“He’s so giving and caring, potentially to his detriment – someone could take his job – but he’s been an amazing individual on the team and if he continues in his career for the next five to 10 years, he’ll be the forefather of African cycling, I think.
“When he joined us, I had a discussion with him [and] said, Daniel, you have to ride the Tour.’ And he’s like, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because it was your dream and if you do get to the Tour – and you’ll obviously have to get there on your ability – you will make such an impact on so many more people that can come after you. Let’s work on that together.’
“He’s believed in us and I think that’s the most important thing, and he’s believed in himself and that’s why now he’s fully ‘European’.”
To chase the points these last few days has been an obvious tactic. Is it a dictation from the team meeting or he decides on the road that he’s going to be in the right place at the right time?
“We have a plan for every day. I think we’re one of the few teams that are focussed on every rider across every stage and what we want to do. We’re not leaving any stone unturned and Daniel, for sure, put his hand up to say this is what he wants to do. And he said he wanted to go for a King of the Mountains – or a jersey. We would like to win a stage. We would like to wear a leader’s jersey and Daniel was like, ‘Guys, I’ll do my all to do this.’
“He put his hand up, he wanted to do it. And in our team it’s not a dictatorship because that doesn’t really work. It’s a cohesive collective discussion and Daniel put his hand up, he died for it, and he’s got it, and he’s going to die to keep it.
“It’s fantastic and the next couple of days are going to be amazing. But of course he’s got to get through the race too.”
I expect that we’ll be talking about Louis Meintjes and a couple of other guys in the next couple of weeks but while we’re still talking about Daniel, I wonder if it’s possible to summarise his physiology? When you’re in the lab with him, what sort of numbers are you achieving?
“The numbers are really good. He comes from high altitude, Asmara is 2,200 metres above sea level; that’s where he lives so what does that do for you? It helps you recover quicker…
“He’s an incredible time triallist with his long, long legs – those pistons that go super fast, and he can do that but he’s [also] got a really high VO2-max because of the altitude.
“Numbers are numbers but the biggest thing is the heart and the lungs and the mind and the belief that this is a life-changing thing. And he just wants it more.
“I think at this level, when all the guys are physically really strong, [it comes down to] how badly do you want it?
“The bicycle has changed his life and he just has that deeper desire than most people that we’ve ever seen. And the same goes for Merhawi Kudus, watch him next week! He’s unbelievable. There’s a fire in that guy’s belly like you’ve never seen. We’re keeping him patient and calm, because he’s so young, he’s only 21, but he’s unbelievable!
“I’m looking forward to the next two weeks. We believe in them and we believe in the potential and if there’s a good day… oh my goodness, people are going to go like, ‘Wow!’”
You’re buzzing and I can understand why. I wish you all the best for the next couple of weeks.
“Thank you very much, it’s going to be amazing.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold