Daniel Teklehaimanot | Pride of Africa

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I first spoke with GreenEDGE’s first signing Daniel Teklehaimanot at the Bay Crits in Melbourne a couple months ago. He speaks a little English, but first language is Tigrinya, so it wasn’t as detailed of a conversation as I had hoped. In this feature, European based cycling journalist Gregor Brown speaks to Daniel and various people who surround him in Italy to form a better picture of his incredible story.

Daniel Teklehaymanot lives in the best place possible for a budding champion, in Pietro Scampini’s home near Varese. Scampini hosted Cadel Evans when he first came over from Australia and now, over ten years later, he welcomes the WorldTour’s first black African.

“It’s a little colder here, but the weather is nice,” 23-year-old Teklehaymanot explains in his limited English. He arrived on Tuesday from his home country, Eritrea in east Africa. “It’s a bit difficult to train in the [cold weather], but I am leaving on Saturday to Spain.”

GreenEDGE welcomed Teklehaymanot to its headquarters on Lake Varese after he passed the winter months in Australia with Baden Cooke and at home in Africa. He spent this last week getting acquainted with the area, catching up with Scampini and training. Teklehaymanot first met Scampini after the Tour Down Under, but afterwards, GreenEDGE General Manager, Shayne Bannan sent him back home to Eritrea because it was still too cold in Italy.

“He only has 3 to 3.5 per cent body fat,” Bannan says, “The weather was too extreme.”

Scampini is a sculptor and a fan of Australian cycling, serving Bannan lunch at his home the day Evans won the Tour de France in Paris. He provides Teklehaymanot a base where he can learn the Italian culture and have a life outside of cycling.

“We are really fortunate that Pietro accepted to have him stay in his home, it’s a great family environment,” Bannan says. “Pietro has spent a long time in Africa and sponsored a number of African artists who came to Italy. He really brings a lot a value to us, bringing culture to our riders, Italian culture, life in general.”

Evans’ roots grew in the Varese area because of his links with team Mapei and Aldo Sassi. He now lives just over the boarder in Stabio, Switzerland, just 20 kilometres away.

Thanks to the centre

Teklehaymanot, like Evans, began mountain biking, albeit at a lower level in Eritrea. Like him, his country is developing rapidly. It was stifled by a 30-year war, only gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Before that, it suffered from colonisation by Italy and the United Kingdom.

He rode with his six sisters and five brothers, and used his bicycle to ride away from Eritrea’s problems. He created a new opportunity. He started road racing in 2005 and progressed. In 2008, racing with the national team, he place fifth overall in the Tour of the Ivory Coast.

The Union Cycliste International (UCI) took notice. After seeing him race in Morocco in 2008, trainer Michel Theze invited Teklehaymanot to come to the UCI’s World Cycling Centre the following year. He did.

The centre helps poorly funded nations by inviting its cyclists to train and develop at the UCI’s headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland. In those three years, 2009 to 2011, Teklehaymanot developed and had greater opportunities than what would have been possible at home. The centre’s medical check also revealed a heart problem, it diagnosed Tachycardia, helped him have an operation in Lausanne in early 2009 and recover.

He placed sixth overall in France’s Tour de l’Avenir in 2009 – in the top ten with Tejay Van Garderen and Romain Sicard – and won a stage in the Under 23 Nations Cup in Canada in 2010. Thanks to the Theze’s help, he rode as a stagiaire Cervélo TestTeam in late 2010, competing in two Italian one-day races. The experience paid off back in Africa, as well. In 2010, he also won the Tour of Rwanda. Last year, he won several home races, including the continental time trial championships and the Kwita Izina Tour.

“He hasn’t specialised in one aspect, but he was a good time trialist and good climber at the amateur level,” says Theze. “He’s really an all-rounder. He will do well on the small mountain days in stage races.”

Frenchman Theze is now semi-retired, leaving the centre along with Teklehaymanot at the end of last year. He still helps recruit riders, though. He explains that there are around eight African cyclists training at the centre’s headquarters in Aigle this year. The star is also from Eritrea, Natnael Berhane.

“He’s more of a sprinter,” adds Teklehaymanot, “I am one for stage races.”

He hopes the World Cycling Centre’s work pays off and more Africans will be racing with him in the coming years. The centre paid off for him. He had an internship with Cervélo, developed, gained UCI points and, partly thanks to his skin colour, gained attention.

GreenEDGE signed him early on during its structuring last year. It offered a two-year contract, earning the minimum wage, €33,000 annually.

“I had a look at his results, which were quite a good, he was sixth in l’Avenir two years ago but what really impressed us were his test results, his physiology,” Bannan says. “To do what he’s been doing when he hasn’t been long in the sport… We see it as a fantastic project, helping him achieve what he’s physiology offers.

“Off the bike, as well. There are big culture differences, so we want to help him make improvements, understanding the Italian life and the European culture. It’s a fantastic project: first of all, developing the person, and secondly, getting as much out of him as possible on the bike.”

Bannan explains the UCI points that Teklehaymanot brought to the team were not a factor.

“His points were pretty valuable for us, but that wasn’t the main reason. We’d already started the discussions early in the year, which was possible because he wasn’t in a second division team. It was really based around him being a fantastic project, which we hope is for five years, so that we can both grow together.”

Daniel Teklehaimanot photographed at the Bay Crits in Melbourne in January. His first race will be Volta a Catalunya in Spain at the end of March

A green period

Teklehaymanot and GreenEDGE are going hand-in-hand into the first division or WorldTour: black Africa’s first cyclist and Australia’s first team. Teklehaymanot needs to learn, though, before he is able to help the team, to win or to compete in the Tour de France.

“I was serious when I was with the UCI in Switzerland,” Daniel says, “but now it’s different, it’s another level, the training, the team… everything.”

Bannan sent him to Baden Cooke’s home in Benalla, Victoria over the European winter. Cooke welcomed him with open arms. The two trained together, spent Christmas together and planned for something new.

“Baden took him under his wing. It was perfect, he was able to give me feedback and tell me how the team could help Daniel,” Bannan explains.

“The World Cycling Centre did a great job with him, but going from an amateur level to a pro level is different. A normal 24-year-old pro may have 70 to 80 races per season over the last five years, but Daniel has only had half of that. So he comes with half the experience, getting that experience wil be critical over the next couple of years. We have quite of few experienced guys in the team who are working with him.”

“GreenEDGE is the best team for Daniel. A French team wanted him, but he can’t speak French. Plus, GreenEDGE has a base and he can live near the team, have a family in another country,” adds Theze.

“He needs time to adapt, it’s very different for him. Plus, last year, he was at home for a long time due to visa problems.”

Teklehaymanot travelled to the centre for the month of May and then spent two months there ahead of the World Championships, a total of three months. He is now in Europe and embarking on a journey.

The pressure is on

Only a week after arriving in Varese, he travels with the team to Spain for a training camp ahead of his first race, the Volta a Catalunya.

“Nervous? A little bit, but it’s okay,” says Teklehaymanot. “I’m exited.”

“He’s potentially a very good climber. He has the ability to time trial, as well,” adds Bannan. “We have to work on his core stability, his strength on the bike. They are the main areas. If he can do that… It’s a long term project, we don’t expect anything from him this year, just gaining experience and racing. The idea is that we will have a partnership with Daniel for four to five years, at the end of that period, we will have an extremely good pro cyclist.”

Theze says that we could see Teklehaymanot race the Tour in three years time, in 2015, when he is 26 years old. Teklehaymanot add, “Just riding in the WorldTour is a dream.”

He hopes the World Cycling Centre’s work pays off and more Africans will be racing alongside him in the coming years.

“The extra attention,” he says of his skin colour. “I like it, but sometimes I get a bit nervous. It’s not easy.”

“We have to be careful,” Bannan explains. “No doubt, there will be pressure this year. It’s about trying to get to him early and provide him with the skills to deal with everything.”

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