By Sean Lee,
The rain was falling in sheets, sometimes solidifying to hail, and snow had fallen further up in the hills. The ground had turned to slush because of sleet and the roads were perilously slippery.
Daniel Teklehaimanot had been ordered to the front of the peloton by his team director and was working hard. For 20 kilometres he set the pace, but still the wind stabbed at him with an icy fury.
He could not keep warm. He pulled to the side of the road, dismounted, and with teeth chattering, climbed into the climate controlled interior of his team car.
While the weather at this year’s Volta a Catalunya was a far cry from the equatorial heat that Teklehaimanot is more accustomed to, there was no shame in his withdrawal.
GreenEdge teammate Julian Dean had already crashed out and was in hospital while notable riders such as Frank Schleck were included among the 34 to abandon that day.
A further five had taken one look at the weather in the morning and decided to not even start.
For Teklehaimanot, from the northern African nation of Eritrea, the conditions were nothing short of torturous.
The fact that the lanky African (190cm tall and with only three percent body fat) lasted so long is testament to his determination to succeed at the elite level – a determination that now sees him on the eve of his grand tour debut.
Included in Orica-GreenEdge’s squad for the Vuelta a Espana, Teklehaimanot’s career continues to advance at a steady rate.
The man who claimed the 2010 Tour of Rwanda and then cleaned up at the African championships that same year (snaring six continental titles – road race, ITT and time trial at both under 23 and elite level), was first noticed by the UCI in 2008.
Fresh from becoming Eritrea’s road race champion, Teklehaimanot was invited to attend the World Cycling Centre – an initiative set up by the UCI to develop and nurture riders from poorer nations with limited cycling infrastructure.
Based at the UCI’s headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, the World Cycling Centre assists its students with training programs, tactical knowledge, nutrition, language lessons and medical testing.
It was while undergoing one of these routine medical tests that Teklehaimanot was diagnosed with tachycardia, a heart condition similar to the one that brought a halt to the career of former under-23 Australian national champion Will Walker.
Affecting the natural rhythm of the heart, it is a potentially life threatening condition, especially for athletes where exertion is a normal part of their day.
An operation early in 2009 rectified the problem, and his trainer – acclaimed French coach Michel Theze – was astonished at Teklehaimanot’s powers of recovery.
He resumed riding in May and within a month had returned to near his best. Soon after he finished sixth at the Tour de l’Avenue, keeping company with Tejay Van Garderen and Romain Sicard, who also finished in the top 10.
His transition from World Cycling Centre trainee to WorldTour rider came via a stint as a stagiaire for Cervelo, a vital learning experience for someone from a non-traditional cycling background.
Yet he still came to Orica-GreenEdge with only half the number of races that a similarly aged pro rider would have accumulated.
As such, his Australian team directors originally considered him to be a long term project.
That he has been included in the team’s roster for the Vuelta a Espana shows that he is tracking ahead of schedule. They must be quietly confident of the young African’s future.
Not everything has been easy though. Teklehaimanot still struggles with the weather (GreenEdge general manager Shane Bannan actually sent him back to Eritrea earlier this year as the winter in Italy was too extreme) and his limited English is a drawback.
While time spent at the Benalla home of team mate Baden Cooke over summer no doubt expanded his vocabulary, one gets the impression that the quietly spoken Eritrean prefers to let his actions do the talking.
To understand the depth of Teklehaimanot’s achievements, you must first understand where he has come from.
While Eritrea has been independent for almost 20 years, it took a bloody 30 year civil war against Ethiopia to get there, the scars of which do not heal over night.
Shadowed by such a backdrop, and with no competitive cycling infrastructure or culture in place, Teklehaimanot has achieved the impossible. He has made the WorldTour.
A shining example to not only his fellow countrymen, but to all young athletes, Teklehaimanot is a trail blazer.
Already another eight young African riders have taken their places at the World Cycling Centre, among them Natnael Berhane, also from Eritrea.
At just 23 years of age, Teklehaimanot is a stage racer in the making.
Already a handy time trialler, his physiological testing has indicated that he has the potential to develop into an accomplished climber.
His role at the Vuelta will be to assist Cameron Meyer, but further down the track it is possible that we may see the WorldTour’s first black African rider leading a team of his own.
For many of us, the Vuelta will be the first real look we get of this young rider in action, but whatever the result, he deserves to be applauded for his endeavours thus far.