For the Win: Star Cyclists of Africa Say More Bikes Equal More Kids in School
Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus may not have won a stage or worn the yellow jersey at this year’s Tour de France, yet they’re thrilled. The first-ever black African riders to complete the 2,088 arduous miles of the world’s biggest cycling event, Teklehaimanot, 26, and Kudus, 21, are excited to see what’s in store for the future of cycling.
At home in Eritrea, the two have become much adored superstar athletes. Teklehaimanot, who has been racing in Europe for five years, paved the way for other African riders, according to Kudus.
Cycling has primarily been a white man’s sport, dominated by Europeans and Americans. However, this year’s Tour de France marked the emergence of the first registered African cycling team: MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung. Given the success of the MTN squad at this year’s Tour (they placed fifth overall as a team), there could be more opportunities and funding for African riders.
The team came together in 2007 under the guidance of Douglas Ryder, a former cyclist, and has 18 African riders on its roster. It’s funded by MTN, the largest telecom company in Africa, but it also has a social mission at its core. The name Qhubeka (from team name MTN-Qhubeka) refers to a World Bicycle Relief program in South Africa that donates bicycles to children who have to walk long distances to school. Throughout the Tour, the team has been promoting the campaign “Bicycles Change Lives” and has committed to raise funds to provide 5,000 bicycles for students across the continent. More than 3,000 have already been funded.
Below, Teklehaimanot and Kudus discuss the Tour de France, their campaign, and the future of cyclists in Africa.
TakePart: Where do you train at home, and are the amenities sufficient?
Daniel Teklehaimanot: Cycling is very popular in Eritrea. When at home, I train a lot in my home region. It’s in altitude and is good for training.
TakePart: At what age did you start riding?
Teklehaimanot: I started riding when I was 13. My family had a bike, a mountain bike, and I was attracted by riding it. My first races were about 15 kilometers long.
TakePart: When did you start training for the MTN team?
Teklehaimanot: I signed for MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung two years ago after coming off a contract from Australian team Orica. My former coach and mentor, Michel Theze, helped me with this move and I’m really happy to be on the team. I experienced some visa problems in the teams I rode for before, so I was really happy when this deal came about.
Merhawi Kudus: I came as a trainee to the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle [Switzerland]. I was able to develop as a rider there and eventually attracted MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung. This was two years ago. I can’t imagine riding for another team.
TakePart: At what point did you come to the realization that you could be doing this professionally? How hard was the journey from amateur to professional?
Teklehaimanot: It was not always easy to follow this dream. I came to the World Cycling Centre a few years ago and left home with the goal to sign a professional contract. This was when I met Michel Theze. He believed in me, which was a big help. I managed to ride as a stagiaire [trainee] for Cervélo TestTeam and later signed a contract with Orica, before joining MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung. When I was allowed to come to Switzerland to train at the UCI center, I was sure I could become a professional rider.
Kudus: In a way, Daniel showed us the way. He went to the World Cycling Centre and became a professional rider soon after. I am only 21 years old but was fortunate enough to win a few races and get some good results in Africa in the past few years. This helped me to also get to the World Cycling Centre. Being able to make that step was when I realized that I could turn professional, which happened soon after with this team.
TakePart: Before you can get the attention of a professional cycling team, what kind of local races can an aspiring cyclist participate in? Any in Africa that you can name?
Teklehaimanot: To attract the interest of other international teams is difficult in Eritrea. If we take part in national races, and bigger races in the capital, Asmara, and the African Championships, then we have the chance to be seen by the UCI and might get an invitation to join the World Cycling Centre. There’s also a UCI World Cycling Centre in Africa, which is some sort of feeder team for MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung. Getting there will help to get to more important races. From there on we have the chance to show ourselves. It’s a long way.
TakePart: What was the highlight of the Tour de France experience?
Teklehaimanot: The highlight of this Tour was when I first put on the polka-dot jersey. I had dreamed of that moment since I was young, and suddenly this dream came true. It was also very nice to experience the happiness about this [donning the jersey] in the team. We rode strong for three weeks and had great support. For Merhawi and me, it was a great help to see all the Eritrean fans coming out to cheer for us and the team.
Kudus: The Tour is definitely a special race. I have never experienced racing like that before. Especially the first week was very hectic. The atmosphere in the team was great all the time and got only better with Daniel’s days in the polka-dot jersey for winning best climber, and Steve Cummings’ win on Mandela Day. A highlight for me is that we were able to finish fifth in the team classification, since this is something the whole team contributed to and achieved together. This makes me very proud.
TakePart: What do you take back to Eritrea from the TDF? What lessons have you learned about professional cycling that would be helpful for other cyclists at home?
Teklehaimanot: Cycling is the hardest sport one can imagine. It takes a lot of suffering, but if one is willing to suffer, one can achieve big things. I think this is something that I can forward to young cyclists at home.
TakePart: The team has been supporting Qhubeka, the charity based in South Africa. Have you all visited and seen the program in person?
Teklehaimanot: Yes, last year in November we went to a township together with the whole team. It was an experience that is very motivating. It feels good to know that as a rider I am also racing to help people, that my performance can help to change their lives.
TakePart: You are now role models in Eritrea and more broadly on the continent. How do you plan on using that platform to encourage more youngsters to consider cycling as a sport?
Teklehaimanot: Because cycling is very popular in Eritrea, we were very warmly welcomed. But cycling still needs development as a sport. The achievements of Merhawi and me, but also of our teammate Natnael Berhane, can show the younger riders that they can succeed as cyclists if they are willing to.
I would also like to encourage more people to start cycling. This is also something we try to realize through our “Bicycles Change Lives” campaign.
Kudus: Our example with the team and its commitment and support can also show them that there is a good environment to develop as a rider and to grow as an athlete.
I don’t know if we are role models, but the people here in Eritrea are really nice and happy about our results at the Tour. I hope this will help more riders from Eritrea and Africa to pursue their goals in becoming professional cyclists.
TakePart: What are your personal goals going forward?
Teklehaimanot: I would like to win a stage in a big race.
Kudus: I want to further develop as a rider and play a role in the development of the sport in Africa.