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His team’s name was missing this week from the list of those applying for WorldTour licences, but its fans need fear not; MTN-Qhubeka, soon to be renamed Team Dimension Data, very much feels ready to step up a level.
The team made substantial progress in 2015, winning almost 20 races, riding its first Tour de France, taking a stage win in the French event and also leading the King of the Mountains classification for several days.
In addition to those performances, it also racked up a stage win in the Vuelta a España and placed a rider – Louis Meintjes – in the top ten overall.
More recently, it confirmed the signature of Mark Cavendish, Mark Renshaw and Bernhard Eisel, a transfer arrangement which the team feels confident will lead to an upsurge in the victory tally next season.
Factor in healthier financial backing and it is little wonder that Team Principal Douglas Ryder is bullish.
“Our team has been amazing this year, you can see it is a cool team,” he told CyclingTips. “We have had lots of good things happen to us and we have been very fortunate, I think. We have now brought on some amazing partners that love cycling and want to make a big difference in the sport.
“I think Deloitte will be an amazing partner for cycling – not only for us as a team, but for the total benefit of cycling.”
MTN-Qhubeka’s evolution has been one of the big stories of the season. Its Tour debut was a deeply impressive one. That wasn’t just down to the results mentioned above; the African squad was also fifth in the best team classification, beating many WorldTour squads. It also enjoyed huge media coverage and a substantial feel-good factor.
The latter was due in part to its status as Africa’s first trade team to take part in the event, and also because of its work for the charity Qhubeka.
In a sport known for an at-times cynical results-at-all-costs approach, MTN-Qhubeka seemed different.
But what about 2016?
“They will probably give us a call”
Speaking in the past fortnight, Ryder seemed more and more focussed on a place in the WorldTour. Cavendish’s signing gave the team momentum in that regard. So too the confirmation that Dimension Data and Deloitte had both committed to being team sponsors.
However some were left scratching their heads this week when Team Dimension Data was not listed as one of 17 squads applying for a WorldTour licence. Instead, the team appeared on the UCI table of those who had applied for a Pro Continental licence.
Team supporters need not be too concerned.
The deadline for applications was August 15; as general manager Brian Smith told Procycling.no, that came prior to the team’s completion of the Dimension Data sponsorship deal, and also before Cavendish’s signing. Circumstances have changed significantly since the paperwork was lodged.
A significant factor is that only 17 teams have thus far applied for a WorldTour licence. The same situation occurred last season and, with the UCI requiring and needing 18 WorldTour teams, IAM Cycling was invited by the UCI to step up a level.
Ryder believes the same could happen for 2016 and, given its status, he believes MTN Qhubeka is the most likely candidate.
“The process is with the UCI now,” he said. “They look at all the contacts that you have in place, and on the 20th of October, with all the rider contracts that have been submitted for the 2016 season, they take your five best riders, add those points together and put you in a bucket against all the rest of the teams that have applied.
“Then they rank you based on your best five riders that have the most points. They look at the top 18 teams and on the first, second, third of November – whenever Ernst and Young have checked all of your documentation, your bank guarantee, your sponsor contract, your financials, your administration, your ethics and your sporting criteria, then they decide what teams will be eligible.”
He’s optimistic. “They will probably give us a call,” he said. “If there are teams that are close they will have discussions around that as there can only be 18 teams. Then there is a possibility that they will give us a WorldTour licence.
“We know that we are the number one ranked Pro Continental team in the world in the moment. So that is good. Then, with Mark [Cavendish] coming, that is also not bad in terms of his points. After that it is just a waiting game with the teams.
“The UCI definitely wants 18 teams and there are just 17. So it is all about the points and about the ranking.”
”We have always said that we would rather crawl before we can walk”
Ryder also believes that its backers are a major plus. In fact, he says the support of the second of those, Deloitte, reflects a major change in how cycling is perceived after years of scandals.
“I had this discussion with the UCI,” he said. “Think about it – Deloitte, the biggest consulting firm in the world that has audits, tax, consultancies in their environment, is sponsoring cycling. What does that tell you? It shows you absolutely, absolutely, categorically, that cycling has turned a corner. The fact that we got Deloitte, a 250,000 employee company to get involved in cycling in a significant way tells you something.”
His team is the direct beneficiary of that sponsorship deal, but he believes that other teams can also use it as leverage.
“Any other of my colleagues that own teams as well can go back to their sponsors and say, ‘guys, look at this, a big blue chip company has got involved in cycling.’ They can say if this is happening, cycling has turned the corner.’
“Deloitte would never put their brand behind something that is not morally and ethically in a good way.”
Factor in the UCI’s known recognition that an African team is a plus for the globalisation of the sport and it’s quite possible to envisage the team moving up to the top rank in three months’ time.
Fortunately, if that happens, the team is in a position to do so.
“We have a bigger budget for next year,” he confirmed. “That is fantastic. That is why the potential to go to WorldTour level now is possible for us.
“We have always said that we would rather crawl before we can walk and we always want to do things sustainably and step by step. We don’t want to jump into an environment that we don’t think we can sustain. I think that is what has happened now. We have built steadily, we have grown steadily, we have supported riders that have been committed to the cause and have supported the team on and off the bike for charity and the performance level.
“Now with Mark and these guys coming on board, we are in a good position to go to the World Tour level.”
Ryder points out that being a Pro Continental team requires a completely different approach. Firstly, teams don’t have guarantees about race participation, making it much harder to plan the season and map out riders’ racing schedules.
Secondly, teams need to be aggressive, to fire riders up the road and continuously remind race organisers that they are there and warranting their wildcard selection.
He said that being the next level up requires a different behaviour. “Maintaining your position in the WorldTour rankings, you have got to be successful and win races. We have never had that pressure before,” he explained.
“If we were WorldTour, we would know exactly which races we are in. We could plan the riders’ schedules, we could give them massive motivation because, with three Grand Tours, we can put so many more African riders into Grand Tours. Everyone can get an opportunity.”
He believes a higher licence status would automatically motivate the riders to step up a level.
“Everyone wants to play in the premier league, they don’t want to pay in the club league,” he said.
“So the fact that we could be Africa’s first-ever WorldTour team – everyone is going to be like, ‘wow, I am on a WorldTour team. We are not on a Pro Continental team fighting for the scraps that fall off a table. We are in a WorldTour team now, and that means something.’ That is significant.”