UTRECHT, The Netherlands (CT) – It was, almost certainly, the biggest day in the history of Team MTN-Qhubeka. Saturday’s opening stage of the Tour de France marked the first time an African-registered trade team lined out in the Tour de France and was the culmination of many years’ hard work to take part in the biggest race in cycling.
The debut Tour campaign started off in a very visible way for the team, which MTN-Qhubeka Principal Douglas Ryder referenced when he spoke at the time trial start location to CyclingTips.
“It is an amazing day,” he said. “To be here is a dream come true, for sure, for the riders and for us as a team, but for Daniel Teklehaimanot to be the first rider start and kick off the 2015 Tour de France as the Eritrean national champion [is huge]…
“When the ASO phoned us and asked us if we would mind doing that, kicking off this year’s race as it was the first time for an African team…unbelievable. So everything has come together. It honestly is a dream come true for this team and for the riders…when they were little boys they wanted to ride the Tour and now they are here. They never thought it was possible.”
The team is a Pro Continental squad which gained access to the race thanks to a wildcard invitation from ASO. It had got to that point gradually; after stepping up a level to Pro Continental in 2013, German signing Gerald Ciolek and the team stunned the bigger WorldTour squad with victory in Milan-Sanremo.
It made its GrandTour debut in 2014 with participation in the Vuelta a España and, after a number of big name signings last winter, got the nod from ASO in January to ride the 2015 Tour de France.
Ryder stresses that there is no major pressure on the riders, but also said that the team was gunning to make a big impression if it could. It has studied the possibilities and come up with strategies to try to maximise the riders’ chances.
“Our over-arching goal is to put 5000 kids on bikes through the Qhubeka Bicycles Changes Lives campaign,” he said. “That is ultimately what this team races for. To do that, we want to be incredibly aggressive and we want to be very visible. We want to try to win a stage. We definitely want to try and wear a leader’s jersey.
“We do have a plan to try to get the yellow jersey in the first week. It is a lofty plan, but of course if you don’t dream big you don’t achieve anything. So our riders are committed to trying something every day. We have broken every stage down into what we want to achieve and I think we are going to do something significant.
“But like I said to the riders, we achieved our goal by coming here. Everything on top of that is a bonus. So there is no pressure on them and they are looking forward to hopefully doing something significant.”
Ryder named Steve Cummings as a rider who could do something in Saturday’s opening 13.8 kilometre time trial. This proved to be spot on with the Briton netting a very solid 10th place.
Asked who on the squad were in particularly good form, he was upbeat about the entire nine riders.
“Everyone,” he replied. “If you look at the Critérium du Dauphiné, it wasn’t one rider that performed incredibly. We had first and third in the King of the Mountains, second in the points, five top tens, two podiums from all different riders. So everyone is on good form, so that is amazing.
“The same team is here from the Critérium du Dauphiné, just with added Merhawi Kudus. He is the youngest rider in the race, so we wanted him to rest and not over-race to get to this point. I think they are all flying…mentally, they are on another level for sure.”
After the opening time trial, the next few stages take place over varying terrain and conditions. Sunday’s stage may see the peloton break up due to expected high winds, but could equally finish in a bunch sprint. Monday’s third leg concludes atop the wall-like Mur de Huy, the famous finishing climb of Flèche Wallonne. On Tuesday the riders will clash over cobblestones, and this is a stage which could appeal to Classic specialists in the peloton.
Three flat days then follow, and should appeal to the sprinters, then stage eight concludes atop the tough Mûr-de-Bretagne climb.
“There is Tyler [Farrar]…Edvald [Boasson Hagen] is going to go for a stage. Then there’s Reinhardt [Janse Van Rensburg]…the Mur de Huy is also good for him. He is very strong, powerful rider, loves that climb, loves that race. So that is possible. And then of course Edvald is also in super form.
“So the three of them in the first week are going to be riders to look out for.”
“Then in the hilly stages, Louis [Meintjes], Merhawi [Kudus], Daniel [Teklehaimanot], Jacques [Janse Van Rensburg]…good aggressive riders. We are going to be visible, for sure.”
Ryder and others had originally envisaged that the team would aim for WorldTour status in 2016, but he now states that there is a chance the team might slip into over ambition and grow too quickly. Because of that, he said that 2017 was the new target.
Postponing that will require another wildcard invite from the Tour next season. He knows that the best way to ensure that call back is for the team to shine in its debut, and so he’s hoping that the riders impress over the next three weeks.
Each of them will be aware of the importance of the Tour start and that they are part of something bigger. That notion could well give the riders a bigger sense of focus; if so, MTN-Qhubeka’s first Tour campaign could be an impressive one.
“The riders from the African continent, the South Africans even and the Eritreans for sure never thought that this was possible,” said Ryder. “I think our team came around at the perfect time for them, in terms of their careers – there have been many riders who have been on this team in the past, who have built it over the last ten years, that missed out on this opportunity today as they were older and they didn’t make the grade, I guess, into Europe.
“So, we of course are thankful to all the partners who have come during the years and obviously the riders who have helped us get to this point.”