The sweltering conditions would have been familiar to Daniel Teklehaimanot as he rolled down the start ramp on Saturday but not the wall of noise that hit him seconds later. The first black African to ride the Tour de France was given the honour of being the first of the 198 riders to set off in the medieval Dutch city of Utrecht where crowds estimated at 700,000 gathered to watch a 14-kilometre individual time trial. The 26-year-old is part of debut-making team MTN Qhubeka, the first African pro-cycling outfit to line up in the world’s greatest race.
“(The organisers) phoned me last night and said ‘do you want to kick off the race?’,” team president and founder Doug Ryder told Reuters as Teklehaimanot and his team mates, including American Tyler Farrar, Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen and South African Louis Meintjes, sweated on the rollers as the minutes ticked down to the start of the first stage. “Most teams don’t want to start first, but when they said do you want to kick off the Tour I was like ‘OK, we’d be honoured’. “When I told Daniel he was starting he said ‘fantastic’.”
Eritrea’s Teklehaimanot, one of 17 children, is not just making up the numbers in a team backed by MTN, the South African telecommunications company, and electronics giant Samsung. He won the king of the mountains jersey at the recent Criterium du Dauphine and will expect to be mixing it with the world’s best climbers when the race reaches the Alps.
The MTN Qhubeka bus, emblazoned with #bicycleschangelives, was thronged with people on Saturday, with Ryder’s pride clear as he explained his dream to the media. Cheered on by fans waving Eritrean flags, Teklehaimanot did not quite produce the ride he would have liked over the 13.8km course — clocking 16 minutes 30 seconds. But along with Meintjes, fellow Eritrean Merhawi Kudus, the youngest rider in the Tour at 21, and South African brothers Jacques and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, the days ahead will provide many chances to showcase the African continent.
“It’s David v Goliath, why not?” Ryder said. “But we are here on merit and not because we are an African team. We want to be aggressive, show off the team’s colours, show the potential of African cyclists and, of course, our Bicycles Change Lives campaign.” That last part sums it up as Qhubeka is a foundation that hands out bicycles to young Africans. “If we can go back to (Tour organisers) ASO and say not only were we successful but we put 5,000 students on bikes so they can live their dreams and realise their potential, then that’s fantastic,” Ryder said.