For years, every July, we have been sitting for hours concentrating on our television sets to watch Tour de France. The big names in every one’s mind were Armstrong, Contador, Cavandish, and what have you. 2015 Tour de France, however, is different for us. Our attention completely shifted for our guys Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus who are participating in the prestigious event.
Even though they are participating representing Team MTN of South Africa but practically their participation in this grandiose tournament is history in the making for Eritrea and the African continent.
The participation of the two Eritrean cyclists in this world class tournament has created a sense of pride for Eritreans in particular and the whole Africa in general. These two Eritreans are there for the first time in the Eritrean and black Africa history and in their first time participation made their presence felt in the race with Daniel Teklehaimanot wearing the King of Mountains jersey.
Through out the history of the Tour de France we have been watching big European and North American cyclists winning all the jerseys available in the tour, the Yellow, Green, polka spot and white jerseys. No black African had ever participated in the tour leave alone to stand on the podium.
Eritrea has a long history of cycling. Even though many would try to link the Eritrean cycling with that of Italian colonialism the fact of the matter is quite different. It is true that the Italians had different cycling teams but the members of those teams have been all Italians. History tells us that cycling competitions have been introduced by the Italians in 1898 and it was only in 1930s that Eritreans started organizing their own cycling clubs. That is almost after 30 years or so. This is a big indication that the Eritreans took their own initiative without any support and push by the Italian colonizers. The Italian teams have been only the inspiring factors.
In around 1946 a cycling team “Africa” has been organized comprising indigenous riders. And with the course o time many renowned Eritrean cyclists began to emerge. The big names include Fesehatsion Gebreyesus, Yemane Negasi and were among the Eritrean cyclists who participated for the first time at Melbourne Olympics in 1972. Since then cycling has become one of the favorite sports activities after football. Many followed their steps and have registered good results in the national, regional and international tournaments. Yemane Tekeste and others have been the icons of Eritrean cycling for many years and the current heroes Daniel Teklehaimant, Merhawi Kudus and Natnael Berhane are the products of the outstanding history. These riders and others started to dominate and put an impact in the regional and international cycling tournaments.
The UCI Director, Mr. Jean-Pierre van Zyl once said “The Eritrean cyclists have conquered Africa and now they have to conquer the world and have the potential to do that”. His comment came after observing the potential and winning spirit of the Eritrean cyclists at the tours of Rwanda, Gabon, and Burkina Faso and in other regional competitions.
His observation came true in just after some years at the Tour de France 2015. They are not only the first black Africans to participate in the Tour de France but also members of the first African teak to take part. MTN-Qhubeka (which means to carry on in the Nguni language, South Africa) is the first African teak to ever participate in the grand tour.
Daniel Teklehaimanot grew up watching the Tour de France and fantasizing about riding in the peloton one day. And not only his dream came true but also he happened pedaling up the iconic polka-dot King of Mountains jersey. Likewise Merhawi Kudus had significant contribution in the teams over all classification. The MTN-Qhubeka is so far 2nd in the over all team position.
According to observers of the tour, the Eritrean racers are not there to fill out the field; they are there to make history for their country, team and the African continent. They have already received a wide acclamation from all corners of the world and the red-blue-and green Eritrean flags have been seen fluttering among the crowd lining the course.
The Nairobi born Chris Froome, the current holder of the Yellow jersey, said after observing the performance of the Eritrean riders “I believe riders from East Africa are potentially the best endurance athletes in the world. I don’t think it will be too long before we see some real results coming out of East Africa.”
There are others who see the young Eritrean athlete Merhawi Kudus to make more history by wearing the Yellow jersey in the coming few years. That is also every Eritrean aspiration that the history of Eritrean riders grows by the day not only in the prestigious Tour de France but also in other major international events.
This year’s Tour de France will remain in the minds of the Eritrean people for many years to come, especially the moment in which Daniel Teklehaimanot coming to the podium waving the Eritrean flag that no athlete had done it before.
Thank you guys for giving us the opportunity to watch the Tour de France not only to admire the big participants as before but this time to watch our compatriots making history and repeatedly hearing our country being mentioned through your performance. You have already made history and that we Eritreans and your fans take it by heart as mission accomplished.