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by Shane Stokes
July 30, 2015
Photography by Shane Stokes and Cor Vos
He sounded somewhat blindsided by the news that MTN had decided that it wouldn’t continue with the team next season, not least because the squad’s debut Tour de France exceeded all expectations, but Douglas Ryder is clear that the future remains bright for his team.
The South African MTN-Qhubeka Team Principal spoke at length to CyclingTips this week, saying that he was taken unawares by the timing of the announcement. However he said that things are looking good for the squad and that a momentum has been building.
“It didn’t really come as a huge surprise, although the announcement itself was a surprise to us,” Ryder said, speaking from Africa hours after the company’s group corporate affairs executive Chris Maroleng told The Times that MTN wouldn’t continue.
“Considering … the tough operating environment in the telecommunications industry, we’ve really had to reassess‚ not just the Qhubeka sponsorship‚ but a number of other engagements we feel don’t have a return on that investment at the levels of comfort to us‚” Maroleng told Times Media.
MTN has been a long-term sponsor, backing the team since it was founded in 2007. It was there when it grew from a Continental to a Pro Continental squad, and also when it got an invite to the 2014 Vuelta a España [its first Grand Tour] and then the 2015 Tour de France.
Ryder said that he anticipated the company would step back from the level of commitment it had, but didn’t expect it to depart altogether.
“We were obviously hoping MTN would continue in a smaller way,” he said.
“We knew of the business pressures that that they are under. We already knew that since October of last year. They have been through quite a lot of challenges and strikes.”
While he was diplomatic, his tone of voice had hints of frustration. “I was a bit surprised in terms of them putting that statement out,” he said. “One of the reasons I came back from the Tour and didn’t stay on in Europe was to do a debrief of the massive successes, not only about the bike but also around the world in terms of the media interest. Then, to have a face-to-face discussion with them on it.
“However they seemed to feel otherwise that it was time for them to make their feelings felt, I guess. To put it out there without having a discussion with us. To me it was a little surprising that it went that way.”
Given the team’s success at the Tour, the timing of the company’s announcement seemed unusual. Why now? Why not later?
Ryder doesn’t have the answer, but sees the bigger picture. The team will be fine.
“I arrived today with a whole lot of messages on ‘now what?’ as opposed to ‘congrats, well done, what an achievement, what an incredible team.’ So that was a little bit frustrating.
“It it is what it is, and they know what they are doing, I guess. But like I said, the team is in a good place.”
The team has grown a massive fan base over time and was one of the most popular at the Tour de France. That’s in part down to its position as the continent’s top team, its role in advancing the worthwhile cause of African – and black – cycling, the work it does for the Qhubeka charity and also because of its willingness to get stuck in and take on the bigger teams.
People see how important it is for the globalisation of the sport, too, not least because of its aim to get 5,000 African children on bicycles.
Whatever the reasons each fan identifies with the squad, it’s built a groundswell of support. As a result, there was some concern Wednesday when the news about MTN emerged.
Ryder says there is no cause for worry.
“Our future is secure,” he promised. “We will announce a title partner in the next couple of weeks. I can’t mention it now. We are talking to quite a few partners that are already involved in our team currently, in terms of stepping up, and then there are one or two others that are also very interested.
“We will be registering with the UCI again in the coming weeks and we do have a title partner that is talking to some of its suppliers as well. We have guarantees of going forward. The team’s future is secure, and that is a good thing.”
As is often the case, negotiations were ongoing during the Tour de France. It’s the most important race of the year and it’s a time when teams, partners, agents and potential backers cross paths. Many contracts are finalised during or shortly after the race, both in terms of riders and also teams themselves.
On July 9 Ryder told CyclingTips that he was hoping Dimension Data would become the new title sponsor of the squad.
“Dimension Data are new into cycling. I have known them a long time,” he stated then. “Jeremy Ord, the chairman, is an amazing guy and Brett Dawson the CEO. Credible people. Love cycling, love this project, have been here, seen it, seen the value that this team could bring to them as a brand as well.
“They were a South African company that went global as well, so it is pretty much what we are doing. It is a nice story and a nice association. It is very exciting; give it a couple more weeks and maybe they will step it up even more and potentially take control of the team.”
Later in the Tour there were rumours that the team had indeed found a new title sponsor and that Dimension Data was the company concerned. Some media reports have since said that this is a done deal, but Ryder says such talk is premature.
“Dimension Data is one of the partners that is involved in the team and could potentially step up, but it is not a guarantee at the moment,” he told CyclingTips. “There are many discussions that are happening. Of course they are one of them.
“They were really impressed with the Tour de France and the team’s performance. They are involved with ASO for the next five years.
“They are one option. We are also talking with Samsung as well. There are two other partners that are very, very interested – one South African one, one European one. The nice thing is that these guys are all like-minded, all love the team and the Qhubeka charity.
“For the first time, I think potentially in cycling and in most sports, all the interested parties are sitting around the table talking about who gets what in the future. So it is a really nice position. This team is a completely open team for partners to do what they can and get the value out of because it does have that third dimension, the charity.
“Those discussions happened towards the end of the Tour de France and are happening right now.
“I guess the main thing is that that the team’s future is secure. We will just find out who gets what at the end of the day.”
Ryder knows he is in a very strong position. The team’s debut in the Tour ensured plenty of initial coverage; the riders then kept that momentum going with some superb performances.
It had a massive debut, taking the mountains jersey early on with Daniel Teklehaimanot. This was the first time a black African rider had worn a jersey in the Tour and his tenure in the jersey for several days earned it plenty of visibility. Ditto the numerous attacks the team was part of.
Another breakthrough happened on stage 14 to Mende when Steve Cummings swooped in the final kilometre to overhaul Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), blasting past the two Frenchmen and nabbing a win they were sure they would fight out between them.
That success came on Mandela Day, a data identified months earlier as being of prime importance to the squad, and was a massive moment.
The triumph further added to MTN-Qhubeka’s confidence and helped it climb to a brilliant second overall in the team classification. It finally ended up fifth overall out of 22 teams, a huge achievement.
Because of that, plus the very important human story connected to the squad, the team’s management is in a good place in terms of negotiations. Even if Ryder tells CyclingTips that it is likely the team will remain Pro Continental in 2016, he knows that the chance of a repeat invite from ASO is very high indeed.
He also believes an invite to the 2016 Giro d’Italia is likely, and that many other races will want MTN-Qhubeka to line out too.
Their story is a compelling one and the momentum it has built will likely keep growing, WorldTour licence or not.
Part of the team’s progression will also include its performances. Ambitions will expand and as the current block of young riders progress, age and gain experience, they should become more successful.
Ryder states that there will also be some new signings, although the core of the team will likely remain the same as in 2015.
Mark Cavendish is one of those who have been linked to a possible move. Ryder won’t confirm whether or not a bid will be made, although he did acknowledge that the team had had initial discussions with his agent.
He knows that there are many factors to consider and weigh up, including the available budget and also how well any one rider would fit into the squad.
He also acknowledges that there is plenty of choice at present.
“It is a crazy market at the moment and a crazy time,” he said. “There are a huge amount of riders on the market on the moment, and some interesting decision made by some teams in terms of who they are going after. Some teams are just trying to get riders onto their teams so that they don’t have to compete against them.
“So it is kind of interesting. It is a crazy market at the moment, but I guess it always is at this time of the year.”
The weeks ahead will determine much; the lineup for 2016, the new title backer and also the budget the team amasses from the other companies involved. The choice about WorldTour versus Pro Continental licence will also be made before the UCI deadline for applications.
Ryder and the others involved in management have a lot of work ahead. There will be many hours in the boardroom and in negotiations as plans for 2016 and beyond are finalised.
However the memory of the Tour experiences will add an energy to this, with the brilliant Tour campaign putting the team in a position of strength as it builds its future.
“The team just punched way above its weight,” said Ryder, thinking back to a French campaign which started with optimism and concluded with celebration.
“It was absolutely incredible.”
That it was, and it is likely the team will have similarly high ambitions in the Vuelta a España, which begins in just over three weeks’ time.