MENDE, France (CT) – Getting a wild-card entry to this year’s Tour de France was victory enough for the Pro Continental MTN-Qhubeka squad — in doing so they became the first African-registered trade team to compete in the world’s biggest bike race. But in the two weeks since the Tour began MTN-Qhubeka has not just justified its inclusion in the race; it has performed beyond all expectations, including those of the team itself.
When Daniel Teklehaimanot stepped on to the podium on stage six as new leader of the mountains classification he created a slice of history for his team. The first African to wear the Tour’s polka-dot jersey, Teklehaimanot would retain the lead in that classification for four stages.
But on today’s 14th stage of the Tour, MTN-Qhubeka had its biggest success yet — a thrilling stage win courtesy of 34-year-old Stephen Cummings.
The team had gone into the stage with the plan of getting Cummings into the breakaway; a plan that came to fruition when a 20-strong group got clear after the day’s intermediate sprint.
“Edvald [Boasson Hagen] guided him into this leading group and he stayed calm,” MTN-Qhubeka director sportif Jens Zemke said after the stage. “[Stephen] has a killer instinct to succeed. We were pretty scared in the car because he rode very far in the back [of the break] but it was again good timing from him.”
Cummings’ winning move was a masterclass in patient racing; a win borne of great experience. While attacks rained down in the breakaway on the steep 3km climb just before the finish, Cummings bided his time.
“I think there was a lot of climbers in that group better than me,” Cummings said post-race. “I just time-trialled my way up the climb and with a kilometre to go I went full-gas.”
By the top of the climb Cummings had the two leaders — Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Thibault Pinot (FDJ) — in sight. On the downhill run to the finish the two Frenchman hesitated momentarily, allowing Cummings to bridge across.
“Those two didn’t cooperate in front and I caught them and I went straight to the front because I knew there was a few corners [before the finish],” Cummings said. “I know [Pinot’s] a little bit cautious in the corners so I tried to do the corners as fast as I could.
“I came out of the last one and I saw he wasn’t in the wheel and then I went for it,” said the 2006 Commonwealth Games team pursuit gold medalist. “I think it was 400m-500m to the finish — it’s hard for a climber to stay in the wheel of a track rider if he’s going hard.”
And so it proved to be. Cummings held off Pinot and Bardet and powered across the line with enough time to sit up and celebrate with a raised right hand — a symbol used by team co-sponsor Qhubeka.
The win is certainly the most significant in MTN-Qhubeka’s eight-year history as a UCI-registered team and one that takes on an even greater significance given the fact today is Mandela Day — a day celebrating the legacy of South African anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela.
“I had a talk with the riders before the start of today and said it’s such a special day for our team, the world,” team principal Doug Ryder told CyclingTips. “Mandela did so much for South Africa in terms of how kind he was as a person and what he did in terms of forgiving people.”
All riders on the South African-registered team wore special edition helmets during stage 14 to commemorate the sixth Mandela Day, which falls on the birthday of the late politician.
“We always said that ‘I feel sorry for anybody that races us today because we’re going to have a third dimension, a third leg, an extra gear on our bikes'”, Ryder told CyclingTips. “The guys really feel inspired to be part of this team. Just to be here as the first African team was already a massive achievement and Mandela Day just gave us an extra push.”
As could be expected, the mood at the MTN-Qhubeka bus post-stage was one of great jubilation. From directors sportif to soigneurs, bus drivers to riders, the satisfaction was clearly apparent and shared by all.
“For sure we [will] have a big party,” Cummings’ Eritrean teammate Merhawi Kudus said after the stage. “Bigger than Paris.”
While MTN-Qhubeka had set itself two goals for this year’s Tour — to wear a leader’s jersey and win a stage — team principal Doug Ryder admits he didn’t expect to achieve those goals.
“The dream was just to get here — everything we did over and above that was a bonus,” Ryder said. “It’s nice that we’ve been able to wear a leader’s jersey and the biggest dream was to win a stage. To be able to win a stage is much more than expected.”
And so, with two weeks of the 2015 Tour de France now completed, MTN-Qhubeka has achieved both of its lofty goals. Not only that but the team sits eighth on the teams classification, ahead of the majority of WorldTour teams, and is one of only eight teams to win a stage. So, what’s next?
“[Winning a stage] was a lofty goal but now we’ve done it and it’s fantastic,” Doug Ryder said. “Maybe we can try for another one!”