It’s been a stunning year for African cycling in many ways. MTN Qhubeka received a wildcard early on for its first Tour de France, then the team picked up a range of victories including overall wins in the Tour de Langkawi and the Settimana Coppi e Bartali.
It went on to have a very successful Tour, with Steve Cummings winning stage 14 on Mandela Day, Daniel Teklehaimanot wearing the King of the Mountains jersey for several stages and the squad finishing a superb fifth overall in the teams classification.
Given that it was a wildcard team competing against established WorldTour squads, the Tour performance was remarkable.
So too the sprint victory clocked up by Kristian Sbaragli on Monday’s tenth stage of the Vuelta a España, making it two wins from two Grand Tours this season.
Racing aside, the team management has been working hard on plans for the 2016 season. With a bigger sponsor expected to sign on and ever-growing confidence, there is a belief that a real momentum is building for both the team and African cycling in general.
In considering where the team is at, it is also important to see where it has come from. Many of the most promising African riders on the team have progressed through the World Cycling Centre Africa, a wing of the UCI’s World Cycling Centre (WCC).
Jean Pierre (JP) Van Zyl is a former rider who set up the centre in 2005. Ten years ago he spoke with Frédéric Magné, the director of the World Cycling Centre about what he was planning to do. Magné saw logic to it and that secured the support of the WCC.
Initially run on 40,000 Swiss Francs, the centre in Potchefstroom, South Africa, has gradually grown. It receives four fifths of its backing from the UCI centre and, over the years, has worked with some of the best riders from the continent.
“The main guys are Tsgabu Grmay, Youcef Reguigui, Merhawi Kudus, Natnael Berhane,” Van Zyl told CyclingTips. “Adrien Niyonshuti, the flagbearer at the Olympic Games, stayed with us at the centre for maybe three years.
“We have also had Daniel Teklehaymanot at the centre although he was not one of the key persons who benefitted as much. He was already part of the World Cycling Centre in Switzerland.”
Europcar rider Dan Craven is another who received support from the WCCA. “He worked with our youth team. We had a very close understanding, actually, myself and Dan,” said Van Zyl. “He believed in my passion. He mentored a lot of my riders and I always like to take him with me because I knew he would teach them within the racing. That is one of the key parts going forward that we will concentrate on.”
As for Chris Froome, he is another rider who went from Africa to a professional contract. In this particular case Van Zyl said that Froome wasn’t part of World Cycling Centre Africa, but he did say that he helped the future Tour winner make contacts that led to his WCC slot.
Still, he’s quick to say he is not claiming a part of that rider’s success. In fact, he is keen that each riders’ own determination is understood. “Everybody want to claim everyone and I am not claiming anyone,” he said. “I think all my riders knew what a hard road there was ahead for them. They are the ones who make it happen. We were just a small stepping stone for them.”
Modesty aside, though, it’s clear the centre has played a big part in developing the sport in Africa and acting as a stepping stone.
How it works
Asked to explain the structure, Van Zyl said that there are training camps run for the development riders coming from the various national federations in Africa. He said that the centre takes two to four athletes from each national federation.
“We let them train, we let them get some nutrition knowledge and testing done at the high performance institute at the university here… We teach them how to prevent injury, how to basically become self-sufficient in preparing themselves when they go back to their African country.”
This portion is backed by the UCI’s WCC, and he believes the support will continue.
The remaining 20 percent has funded the high-performance portion. It’s generally been used to help the ten to twelve athletes who are permanently based in South Africa, as well as the high performance squad’s racing trips to Europe.
MTN-Qhubeka and its partners have played a vital role in this area, helping for several years. This has led to the MTN-Qhubeka feeder team, a Continental squad based out of the centre.
The input is not just in terms of funding. “In addition to the financial side of things, MTN has been amazing in terms of equipment,” Van Zyl explained. “I think Cervélo has given us 39 bicycles this year. Castelli clothing has given us some clothing for the high performance team that gets past on to the other riders when they come, the older clothing.
“Basically, without MTN’s support we would not have that high performance programme. You need to understand that how important that was for Africa to actually have a stepping stone into the world of professional cycling.”
Some uncertainty about future, Ryder says support will continue
The high performance element comprises that MTN-Qhubeka feeder team, based in the centre and overseen by Van Zyl. It gives the strongest African amateurs the chance to race abroad, and also acts as a potential bridge to the MTN Qhubeka pro team which had such success in the Tour.
However, Van Zyl admitted that he was uncertain as to what would happen in this area. He said that there have been cutbacks and that this has made things more difficult for the high performance wing of the project.
“In January of last year I unfortunately received the news that MTN couldn’t support us in the way they supported us in the years before,” he told CyclingTips. “We had a 50 percent budget cut.
“I had already engaged the riders and so I couldn’t retract from that. It made it very difficult for us to have any finances to travel abroad or to even travel within Africa, just due to the shortfall of the extra money.”
Van Zyl was able to secure temporary finance from someone he refers to as ‘a good Samaritan’ but said that the sum needed to repaid earlier this year.
As a result the racing programme has been seriously affected in 2015. Another effect of the cutbacks is that the sports scientist Andrew Smith lost his role as team manager and coach.
Van Zyl said that he was hoping to be able to use Smith on a part-time basis in the future, but that this would depend on funding and budget.
It is in this area where he admits he has some uncertainty. He said that he isn’t clear at this point in time what funding and support will be in place from the MTN-Qhubeka structure in 2016 and beyond.
He’s hoping that the Pro Continental squad can commit, and ideally increase funding to the former level.
Contacted by CyclingTips, Ryder said that he and the team were committed to having the feeder project in place. However he pointed out that the team is going through a lot of change at the moment and so it will take time for clarity to emerge about the budget that can be allocated.
“We are at the end of an eight year agreement with MTN. We are restricting and bringing a new partner on board,” he explained. “We are not 100 percent confirmed about the final budget for next year, and so of course that is a factor. That is a fact of life.
“We are one of the few teams with the budget of our size that have a feeder team in place that is really working. Look at the riders who have come through the feeder team. We have just taken Jayde Julius from the feeder team onto the Pro Continental team as a stagiaire. We have a great feeder team that is working and the riders are coming through that feeder team.
“We have taken Nic Dougall, we have taken Jayde Julius. Merhawi Kudus came from there. The system is working. We just don’t have our final budget yet for next year.”
“Our intention is always to continue to have a feeder team”
Ryder knew that MTN was ending its title sponsorship, although he was blindsided by the announcement at the end of July that it would withdraw entirely from backing the team. The company has been under financial pressure in recent years and, despite an extraordinary Tour, it will no longer remain involved.
Ryder has been actively searching for a new sponsor for several months. He told CyclingTips at the Tour de France that he was hopeful that Dimension Data could come on board in a major capacity; since then rumours have suggested that this might indeed be the new title sponsor, but nothing is confirmed as yet.
He said that the team is aiming to have the title sponsorship deal finalised in a week to ten days, and that an announcement will then be made.
At that point there will be more clarity about the identity of the backer, the team size and roster for 2016 and, also, the budget for feeder team at the World Cycling Centre Africa.
“We are waiting to confirm everything, get everything finalised,” he explained. “Our intention is always to continue to have a feeder team. It depends on what is available and where we are going.
“Nothing has changed, we want to develop as many African riders as we have. We are completely transparent in terms of what we are doing.”
As Ryder points out, the team is competing against WorldTour squads with budgets three or four times greater. Despite that, it is also managing to fund a feeder team at the same time.
It’s a juggling act, and one which became more difficult in recent years as the Pro Continental team expanded. It has taken on some big name signings in that time and reached the level where it is now riding Grand Tours and, in the case of Cummings’ and Sbaragli successes, able to win stages in those three week races.
Doing what it has done as a Pro Continental squad is admirable.
The hope now is that the new title sponsor and any other partners the team has in place will increase the overall budget and thus enable it to further expand at the top level while also continuing to develop its base.
If the funding is there to do both, Van Zyl believes this will have clear long-term benefits for African cycling and the team itself. He knows that the future success of the team will depend in part on how the next wave of riders progress and grow.
“Stability is everything,” he said, talking about the ideal scenario where the original level of funding can be committed. “It will mean staff members have a stable environment where they can see their future. It means riders will know that they can come to the centre and that, even if they don’t have a good three or four months it doesn’t matter, as they are not going to get dropped.
“It means that if they have shown their potential, we believe in them, we will continue to support them.”
Van Zyl also believes it is vital to plan forward. “For Africa to actually reach its goal of becoming a continent that is competitive on the international level, it needs to be stable. It needs to be a continuous programme over the next five to ten years with goals.”
Ryder will likely see it the same way. The centre and the MTN-Qhubeka feeder team have done much in recent seasons and he knows that discovering and developing the next stars will ensure the project continues to gain momentum and that African cycling thrives.