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by Shane Stokes
January 14, 2015
He passed away over a year ago but the memory, the legacy and the image of one of Africa’s most famous sons could help make history in the Tour de France this July.
Mandela Day will be held on July 18 and a tie-in between the celebration of the iconic South African and the team hailing from that country could potentially play a big part in ASO’s decision about which teams should be allocated wildcards for the race.
MTN-Qhubeka’s general manager Brian Smith has been part of a big push to earn the team an invite. He told CyclingTips on Monday that the team had been given important symbolic backing and, if selected, that it would seek to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela during the race.
“A lot of people are saying to me, ‘it looks like you will be getting in the Tour,’ but I am not going to take things for granted,” he said, making clear that he didn’t consider the team’s participation a given.
However, he is clearly hopeful that Tour organisers ASO will see the value of granting the team an invite for the race.
“The big plus for us is that the Mandela foundation have come to us and we are looking at supporting each other to celebrate Mandela Day on July 18,” he explained.
“Their dealings are with the French government. They have made it clear they would like to see an African team in the Tour de France, and maybe wearing a special jersey of 67 for Mandela Day.”
That number denotes Mandela’s 67 years of service. He fought against apartheid in South Africa, was jailed for 27 years, then was released and went on to become the country’s president between 1994 and 1999.
He passed away in December 2013 and will be honoured each year on July 18, his birthday.
According to Smith the Nelson Mandela Foundation has written to ASO and told it that if the team is given access to the race, that it has been given permission to wear a specially-designed cycling kit.
The modified team strip would then be used to generate awareness for the Mandela Day school library programme plus the Qhubeka education mobilisation programme.
The latter is the charity partner of the team and works to increase the number of Africans cycling, providing bikes to disadvantaged communities.
What could prove of particular interest to ASO is that the Mandela Foundation is planning big screen televisions positioned in public places around the world on July 18, with these acting to relay the Mandela message of support.
In the letter to ASO, the foundation said that it would hope that the Tour riders would join the MTN-Qhubeka team in a 13 minute video campaign. This would presumably feature on those global screens, thus bringing images of the race to the world’s population.
The foundation said that it would also like to discuss with ASO the possibility of every rider in the peloton wearing ‘a band or icon recognising Mr Mandela on his global awareness day.’
“That was sent directly to ASO and they are aware of it,” said Smith. “If they [the foundation] are planning on doing something global around that, then it is a pretty powerful message and pretty powerful backing.
“So, globally, ASO may be thinking, ‘well, this could be huge publicity for us.’”
The MTN-Qhubeka team is currently counting down the days until Tour organisers ASO announce which teams will fill the wildcard slots for this year’s event. The team has already beefed up with a number of strong signings, including the sprinters Matt Goss, Tyler Farrar and Theo Bos, the all rounder Edvald Boasson Hagen and the climber Natnael Berhane.
Also coming on board are Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg, Steve Cummings and Serge Pauwels.
According to Smith, it will make two more signings in the near future in order to further strengthen the squad. A non-African is on the team’s radar and it is also searching to bring another black African climber on board. Both names will be announced once those are in place.
The team already has a Grand Tour under its belt after doing the 2014 Vuelta. Smith reasons that the progression it has made plus the new signings mean that it is capable of riding strongly in both the Tour de France and also the Spanish race this year.
Of those two races, the Tour’s wildcards will be announced first. In 2014 four invites were handed out, with this number adding to the eighteen WorldTour teams that had automatic entry to the race.
This time around, there are only 17 WorldTour teams but the battle for participation is just as intense.
One of last year’s wildcards, IAM Cycling, has become part of the WorldTour while another, the French team Europcar, has slipped down a notch due to a financial shortfall.
The total number of teams is down one due to Cannondale’s cessation and the merger of the sponsor plus transfer of some of its riders to the former Garmin-Sharp team.
If ASO sticks to the same overall number of Tour teams as in 2014, five wildcards will be handed out. Europcar seems guaranteed to land one of those; Cofidis, another French squad, appears destined for another. Ditto for Bretagne-Seche Environnement, which was granted a place last year.
That leaves two other slots to fill. Bora-Argon 18 is pushing hard for a slot, having made its debut in 2014 under the title of previous sponsors, NetApp Endura. Thanks to an agreement announced last week by ASO, it’s position seems almost certain. German free to air TV is back on board, with ARD committing to showing the race live each day.
“With five wildcards, you are talking about Europcar and Cofidis and Bretagne-Seche, which leaves two outside of France. One would possibly be ourselves,” said Smith.
“There is a lot of attention to ASO looking at different continents. I believe that Bora may get a place because of the German market.
“But the African market is also pretty big for them. I think there are about 130 million in Africa and half of them speak French. Lining up, it looks quite interesting with ASO, but again we have to wait for confirmation of that.”
The team will begin racing shortly and is keen to get things off to a strong start. Smith said that it had three clear targets in 2015.
The first is the spring Classics, where riders such as Gerald Ciolek, Boasson Hagen and the others could potentially fare very well. The second is the Tour and the third is the Vuelta.
“We would like to target all those three areas this year. That is important for the brands that we have got in developing the team,” he said.
Further ahead, he sees next season as being a very important year. “I believe the future looks good. Our goal is to go WorldTour in 2016. There will definitely be one place open and I think there could be another place open because I can see another possible combination of two teams happening.”
Moving up with bring with it guaranteed entry to the Grand Tours. However, as Smith makes clear, the ideal scenario is to be in the world’s biggest race one year ahead of schedule, lining out for Africa and in memory of Mandela this coming July.
Follow-up: MTN Qhubeka, Bora Argon 18 and French trio of squads confirmed for Tour de France