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LE HAVRE, France (CT) – There’s a real sense of excitement around the MTN-Qhubeka team at the 2015 Tour de France. The Pro Continental outfit is the first African-registered trade team to race the Tour and, in its first outing in the race, MTN-Qhubeka is doing far more than simply making up the numbers.
On today’s sixth stage into Le Havre, one of the team’s two Eritreans, Daniel Teklehaimanot, got himself in the day’s breakaway with the express goal of landing the polka-dot jersey of the mountains classification leader. He managed exactly that, taking maximum points on the stage’s three, fourth-category climbs and overtaking stage 3 winner Joaquim Rodriguez in the KOM classification as a result.
In doing so, Teklehaimanot becomes the first African to wear the KOM jersey in the Tour de France and the first black African to wear a Tour de France classification jersey of any kind. In all, just three Africans have worn a leader’s jersey at the Tour de France: Robbie Hunter with the white jersey in 2001 and Daryl Impey with the yellow jersey in 2013.
“I’m really happy about what happened today. I can’t believe it,” Teklehaimanot said after the stage. “It is a big step for African cycling and I feel really proud at the moment because I have this jersey. That was my childhood dream to get the polka dot jersey at the Tour de France.”
“I followed exactly the team’s plan we had this morning; I made it in a group of three riders. After I scored two points, I was nervous that I wouldn’t take one more, otherwise I would be left with nothing.”
Despite being challenged by break-mate Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar), Teklehaimanot was able to score the necessary final point, securing the lead in the KOM classification. As team principal Doug Ryder told CyclingTips just before the end of the stage, Teklahaimanot has a particular affinity for the polka-dot jersey.
“Daniel actually said when he was wearing the jersey in the [Criterium du Dauphine] that it was the jersey that he always wanted to wear,” Ryder said. “The king of the mnountains jersey was a jersey that he felt was far more important than the yellow jersey because the yellow jersey’s all about biding your time and losing as little time as possible over a stage race.
“The king of the mountain jersey is all about showing aggression, being determined, taking chances. That’s our team; that’s African cycling.”
Back in June Teklehaimanot took control of the Criterium du Dauphine’s KOM classification on the opening stage and would hold it all the way to the end of the eight-stage race. It was the first jersey the team had won at a WorldTour race since its inception back in 2007.
Having the polka-dot jersey at the Tour de France takes things to the next level for MTN-Qhubeka, even if it is for one day so far.
“For him to wear it today … was a big objective of ours — to wear a leader’s jersey in the Tour de France, even for a couple days,” Ryder told CyclingTips just before the end of stage 6. “It’s going to motivate the team incredibly.
“Daniel’s going to go now and wear the leader’s jersey and stand on the podium at our first Tour de France. It’s incredible — this is honestly a dream come true race for us.”
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After three years spent riding with the UCI Cycling Centre Teklehaimanot joined the WorldTour ranks in 2012, spending two years with Orica-GreenEdge. He had limited success at the team and moved across to MTN-Qhubeka in 2014.
In 2015, Teklehaimanot appears to have stepped up a level. Doug Ryder puts this down to psychological factors as much as anything.
“Daniel got married at the end of last year, he’s incredibly happy. The Eritrean Cycling Federation has supported [the Eritreans on the team]; the president of Eritrea gave them his blessing just before the Tour de France and said ‘you’ve really done an amazing job for the country and you guys are incredible ambassadors’. So that’s given him huge motivation too.
“This year for the first time he’s really believed in himself and believed in the training. He’s just at another level for sure.”
And Teklehaimanot isn’t the only one.
“It’s amazing what you can do when you get an opportunity,” Doug Ryder told CyclingTips. “When we announced we’d have our team in the Tour de France, it was kind of like a door was lifted off [the riders’] heads.”
“Then they were like ‘well, we’re in the biggest race in the world … we’re here to compete and we’re here on merit; we’re not here because we’re African.’ We are absolutely here on merit and it’s given them that extra few percent in mental confidence. Physically they were there and now they’re racing like they own it.”
Teklehaimanot said after the stage that while he’s happy to have the polka-dot jersey for even one day, he will ride to protect it on the stages that follow. So how long can he hold it for?
“I think he can hold into Tuesday [stage 10],” Ryder predicted. “It’s possible, with a bit of luck — we love luck and African sun shining on our back — it’s possible that he holds it until the rest day.
“If he holds the jersey until the rest day he’ll rest well.”