For the world of cycling, he was missing, evaporated since the brutal end of his professional career in Europe. More than 4 years after his last international race, Daniel Teklehaimanot is back, in Rwanda, where he won 5 continental gold medals, in 2010, at the very beginning of a unique career.
Daniel Teklehaimanot will remain the first professional rider from Black Africa, the first to participate in the Tour de France (in 2015, with his compatriot Merhawi Kudus), the first, again, to wear a distinctive jersey on the Grande Boucle, the jersey of the best climber, that same year. A true living legend in Eritrea, the great Daniel finally explains his years of silence and evokes, at the age of 34, his intact appetite for competition and the sport of cycling.
RFI: It seems that you forgot the pins to hang your bib before the first stage. It's true ?
Daniel Teklehaimanot: (He laughs) No, it's not true, it's a joke! I haven't lost my touch, I'm still a cyclist. We may not know it in Europe, but I resumed competition a little less than 2 years ago now, at home, in Eritrea, in local races. I never wanted to stop.
And yet, you left cycling aside, at some point?
I didn't have much choice. At the end of my contract with Cofidis, in December 2018, I did not receive any offers, I suddenly found myself without a team. It was hard, very hard: I wanted to continue, I still had the motivation, the form, but nobody wanted me, so, yes, at one point, I completely withdrew from the professional world, from social networks, of all that… I drove less and less, sometimes several times a week, sometimes just on Sundays, between my home and the capital, Asmara. I then tried to take up duathlon, a sport that combines cycling and running, but hey, cycling is my job, I always had that in mind.
You feel a certain bitterness about the end of your professional career in Europe. Yet you are not totally forgotten...
(He closes) Really? By who ? I'm still sad, it's not what I wanted, but today, I'm making my way. Maybe I wasn't doing all the right things besides cycling. The aspect of communication, social networks, etc. it's not my thing. I prefer to speak with the legs. I did what I had to do, as I wanted to do, I have no regrets. And then I'm not talking about my career in the past tense, I'm not yet a historical figure, I'm looking ahead.
So you have resumed competition at the local level?
Yes, I found myself in front of kids and I trained hard to be at the level, I needed to be pushed to surpass myself to get results. I didn't just want to hang a bib with the name "Teklehaimanot" on it.
This selection for the Tour of Rwanda, you owe it not only to your status, you had to prove that you were still in good shape?
Yes, and so much the better. If I didn't have the legs I would have stayed home, there are plenty of good runners in Eritrea. (A little offended). They are very strong, these young people, but don't worry, I manage to follow them. You may think I'm finished, but I still feel strong.
You are in Rwanda in the role of road captain of the national team, but are you also thinking of playing your card?
If the opportunity arises, if I can take a good breakaway, why not, but the idea is first to stay with my young teammates. For them, it's the first stage race, so they need a guide. I give them very simple instructions: stay focused at all times, pay attention to running movements, etc. Then, it is their talent that must speak.
Speaking of talent, seeing your more and more numerous “little brothers” in the professional teams, should that make you happy?
Ah yes… and unlike them, I wasn't so lucky, during my first professional years, to have other Eritrean or African riders alongside me in the peloton. Today, Henok (Mulueberhan, double African champion) or Biniam (Girmay, winner of the Belgian classic Ghent-Wevelgem and of a stage of the Tour of Italy last year) are stronger than me, but 'to have paved the way is really rewarding, though.