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Left both shocked and psyched by MTN-Qhubeka’s historic invite to its first Tour de France on Wednesday, Team Principal Doug Ryder has said that the team is determined to show it deserved its place and will do what it can to animate the race.
Ryder made clear that the first African-registered Pro Continental team in the Tour wasn’t there to make up the numbers, but rather would get stuck in and take the fight to the bigger squads.
“We definitely want to go for stage wins,” he told CyclingTips on Wednesday. “We don’t have a team now for GC, but we will definitely go for stages and try to wear a leader’s jersey. Either a points jersey or a king of the mountains jersey.
“We feel that we have got the talent to really succeed in those competitions and it is something that we want to do.
“We will obviously respect the wildcard invitation. We will be very aggressive and try to send a very visible message. We will make sure that we will honour the invite that we have been afforded.”
While the South African-backed Barloworld team competed in the Tour in the past, MTN-Qhubeka has a much greater African character. The older team was registered in Europe and had a more limited percentage of riders from Africa.
In contrast, MTN-Qhubeka is registered and based in South Africa. Thirteen of the team’s current 22 riders are from there, with five of those being black competitors.
That number will rise to 14 and six respectively in the near future; general manager Brian Smith told CyclingTips this week that he planned to take on another African competitor as well as one from outside the continent.
The aim is to reinforce the team sufficiently for it to be able to mount strong campaigns in both the Tour and also the Vuelta a España, for which it is currently seeking an invite.
Youth and experience combine
In addition to that strong African presence, the team also has a high number of older professionals from Europe and the US. Short term, the aim with these is to give the team visibility and to help it chase results across a range of events while the African riders continue their development.
It is also expected that these riders will guide the younger ones, helping to speed their progression and development.
The 2015 roster includes former Milan-Sanremo winner Gerald Ciolek, who remains on board, as well as new signings Tyler Farrar, Matt Goss, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Theo Bos.
These riders added weight to MTN-Qhubeka’s candidature, ensuring that ASO had well-known names on its radar when making it choice.
Despite that, Ryder and Smith both admitted to CyclingTips that they were both under pressure while the wildcard names were being dripped out by ASO, and also immensely relieved afterwards.
“I saw it on social media when they were starting to announce the teams,” Ryder said, describing his emotions. “They did the first three tweets and then the fourth one took a while. Honestly, I had chest pains. I wasn’t breathing.
“I was thinking, ‘oh my goodness, the announcement has come so soon.’
It had been expected that ASO would announce its decision at the end of the month, and so Wednesday’s unveiling of the names was a big surprise.
That made the final result all the sweeter.
“It is overwhelming for us. It is something that we have worked hard for. When I got the final realisation that we had got the nod to go I just had a flash of the last ten years of working towards this goal. It is just exceptional for us.”
Smith spoke to CyclingTips shortly after learning the team was in the race and he was choked up. Voice trembling and clearly very emotional, he was deeply moved by the news.
“I had just finished a conference call with a leadership group at about quarter past ten. Then Douglas told me via Skype that they were announcing the teams on Twitter. I went on Twitter, I saw it and I said, ‘this isn’t real.’”
Smith admitted on Twitter that he had cried when he heard the news.
“It is a big thing, it rates up there with my first British title,” he continued, referring back to his own pro career. “I feel pretty emotional about it, to be honest.”
That said, he was clear that the first rather than the final goal has been reached. “The pressure is now on to deliver the next stage, which is our goals of stages wins and going for a competition jersey.”
In other words, the team will celebrate today, but knuckle down again tomorrow. Getting into the Tour is huge, but it must be regarded as an intermediate step.
“I think it will transform cycling on this continent”
As mentioned here on Tuesday, the Nelson Mandela Foundation had lent its backing to the team’s push to get into the Tour. That foundation wrote to ASO and listed a number of steps it wanted to take on Mandela Day on July 18, including featuring a 13 minute video of the Tour in images it will transmit on large television screens situated in locations around the world.
It also said that it would like the team to wear a specially-designed jersey on that date, one which would commemorate Mandela’s memory.
Ryder said Wednesday that he wanted to take that suggestion and modify it.
“You are allowed to change the jersey in the Tour. We will probably actually do something for the full three weeks,” he stated. “That is something that we would love to do. It is not just about one day. We are super excited.”
“The foundation came to us at the end of last year and said it would love for us to represent it and Mandela Day in the Tour.
“It is such a great honour that they came and approached us to represent him and his legacy, which is just exceptional. It talks to everything that he stood for, that sport changes people’s lives and that is what our team does.
“Our team changes people’s lives every day through our Qhubeka charity. The proceeds of all the support that we give and get from the Nelson Mandela Foundation during the event will go to buying bicycles for kids who actually go to the Nelson Mandela library schools. That is pretty impactful.”
Aside from boosting Qhubeka’s goal of putting more children on bikes, Ryder knows that there could end up being a huge general effect on the sport in Africa.
The continent has a land mass of 30.2 million kilometres and has 1.1 billion people. Fifty percent of these are 19 years old or younger.
Those factors equal a huge potential audience for the Tour and cycling in general, and also a massive possible grassroots from which future champions could come.
Middle and long distance running is dominated by African athletes, as are many of the world records. Many observers have long suggested that the same could happen in cycling once enough get involved and the necessary support and guidance structures are in place.
Ryder is clear that the team’s Tour ride is of massive importance for Africa. “It is huge,” he said with certainty. “When Daryl Impey wore the yellow jersey two years ago and Chris Froome won, we saw how big the sport is on the continent and how massive the Tour is. There was massive support and interest across Africa. It was just huge.
“That started to unlock a potential and open people’s minds. Now, as the first ever African-registered team to go to the Tour de France, this is just the next step and the evolution of that. I think it will transform cycling on this continent. It will open the door to the future, which is absolutely brilliant.”
As much as he and the rest of the team are psyched by the thoughts of helping advance future winners of the Tour – and potentially the first black champion of the race – Ryder is also clear that the charitable aspect is of equal importance.
“Qhubeka is absolutely close to our heart. It is something that we believe in and it is something that we support in every single thing that we do,” he said, talking about the charity which gives bikes to those from underprivileged areas.
“Every single rider has invested in it. The impact that we can make in the world’s biggest annual sporting event to the charity and to kids and communities and other people is significant.
“For me, the biggest dream for wanting to go to the Tour is because we are in a platform now to be able to make a much bigger impact on other people’s lives. That was our major incentive all along.
“Qhubeka is going to benefit hugely from this and that is significant. That is what drives us forward every day.”