African cycling team takes on Europe


2 May 2013

These are exciting times for South African cycling. The country’s first ever Professional Continental cycling team, MTN-Qhubeka powered by Samsung, is making waves in Europe, the hot-bed of world cycling, and it’s making history along the way.

Team principal Douglas Ryder, who retired from competitive cycling a decade ago, was one of South Africa’s leading riders in his time. Even before his cycling career was over, he formed his first team, Lotus Development. That morphed into IBM Lotus, then Microsoft before becoming MTN-Microsoft in 2007.

In 2008 it became MTN-Energade, and in 2011 it evolved into MTN-Qhubeka after 50 percent naming rights were given to the non-profit organisation that is about mobilising people on bicycles in return for work done in their communities.

MTN-Qhubeka is made up primarily of South African cyclists, but also includes team members from Eritrea, Rwanda, Lithuania, Italy, Spain, Ethiopia, Algeria and Germany.

Making an impact internationally

Former German road race champion Gerald Ciolek scored the team’s biggest win yet in the Milan-San Remo Classic in March, overcoming snow and rain to take victory in the race ahead of favourite Pete Sagan, who excelled with three stage wins in the Tour de France in 2012, and Fabian Cancellara, a multiple world time trial champion, the winner of the race in 2008, and a leader for 28 days in the Tour de France during his career.

“We’ve had an incredible amount of support internationally, and it just shows how big the sport is internationally,” Ryder told SAinfo this week. “When Gerald won the Milan-San Remo, we were on the front page of La Gazzetta della Sport, Italy’s biggest sports newspaper. We were on the front page of Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium. We were in the Korean Times in Korea. It was phenomenal.

“In South Africa, people don’t really understand what we achieved, what winning a World Tour race, one of the five ‘monuments’ of cycling, means,” said Ryder. “It wasn’t shown live on TV, which was really sad.”

The five monuments – Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia – are considered to be the oldest and most prestigious one-day races on the calendar.

First black South African in World Tour

“The fact that we started Songezo Jim, the first South African ever of colour to race a World Tour race, got as much exposure as we got on Gerald winning, which just shows the impact that had on world cycling, because it had never happened before – and it was hardly mentioned in South Africa.”

Songezo Jim, aged 22, first rode a bicycle at the age of 14, by which time he had already lost both of his parents. He was recently profiled by CNN’s Human to Hero series, during which he revealed his dream: to ride in the Tour de France by 2015.

A week after the Milan-San Remo, Tsgabu Grmay, a 21-year-old rider on MTN- Qhubeka, became the first Ethiopian cyclist to ever win a pro race when he won a stage in the Tour of Taiwan in which he also finished second overall.

“You know how good they are at their running,” Ryder said. “From an Ethiopian point of view, that starts to change the way they think, and they can see that they can achieve in another sport. That is so powerful on the ground.”

Making history, inspiring others

Ryder continued: “MTN-Qhubeka is a historical team, being the first African registered team – with 70 percent of its riders from Africa – to race on the World Tour.

“It just shows that there is a need for our team, and it is an inspirational team, and it is a team that South Africans will follow, like they followed Barloworld, even though Barloworld was only South African sponsored, and it was British-registered and an Italian team that had only three South Africans on it.

“We have 15 riders from South Africa and Africa and only six Europeans.”

Yet the MTN-Qhubeka story is about much more than cycling alone, as their motto “Mobilising change in Africa – one bicycle at a time,” suggests.

Through Qhubeka, which means “keep on going”, children are able to earn bicycles by two methods, both of which are good for the environment and their personal surrounds: if they grow 100 saplings or collect 1 200 kilograms of recycling, they are rewarded with a Qhubeka Buffalo Bicycle, designed by World Bicycle Relief and built locally to handle the harsh African conditions.

The cycling team is also about showing the world that Africa has the ability and the ambition to excel on the sport’s world stage. MTN-Qhubeka is the front-runner, and, listening to the team members talk, they know they are part of something bigger than a cycling team alone.

‘We have to spread our story’

Directeur Sportif Jens Zemke has held a similar position with other cycling teams, but there is something exciting and new about MTN-Qhubeka. “We have to spread our story,” he said in a recent YouTube video. “It has never happened before that a team from Africa has competed as this level.

“We are not a bobsled team. We are very competitive. If we show up at these races, we will do something for sure,” Zemke said. “We want to spread that story that with our beneficial background, with Qhubeka bringing one-million kids on bikes, it’s a story that we have to tell.”

Star sprinter Gerald Ciolek, also interviewed for the video, commented: “It’s a different team. I think there’s more to the team. It’s not only about winning races and going to races. We want to put people in Africa on bikes.

“We want to make cycling more famous in Africa and show the world that an African team can be successful, so for sure we want to be successful in winning races, which could make us more interesting for the race organisers, but first of all there’s a point about us doing something different,” Ciolek said.

Ryder believes the team has plenty to offer from a marketability point of view as well. “There are a billion people in Africa, and I think that the more they put our team into races in Europe, the more that they’ll see the support of what our team races for, which is the bikes for kids, mobilising kids on bikes in Africa.

“We are unique as a team in that sense. I think when the media sees and the race organisers see the following of our team as we hit Europe with our yellow and black clothing that looks like the African sun, I do believe that we’ll be wanted by everybody.”

Developing an African world champion

Ryder also has an underlying dream. “We want to develop an African world champion,” he said.

That thinking is based upon the success of African athletes in long-distance running. Africa has long dominated world long-distance running, so why should it not do the same in cycling?

Getting to Pro Continental level – one of only 20 teams in the world to achieve that status, including a number that have competed in the Tour de France – has not been an overnight thing. That achievement has come about due to long-term planning and hard work.

“We focused on putting a core staff together, that knows what is going on, and understands the sport in its total sense,” Ryder said. “And then we focused on training riders and coaching riders to race at the international level.

“For the last five years, we’ve had dedicated coaching on our team. We’ve used powermetres, the best in the business, the SRM, so we know what the international standard is. For the last five years, we’ve been training our riders for international racing, and not to race 100 kilometre races as we do in South Africa.

“I’ve had some coaches say to me I’m over-training my riders, but we never trained our riders for local conditions. We are always training our riders to be able to race internationally.”

Aiming for the Tour de France

That approach proved successful in 2012, when Reinhardt Janse van Rensburg won 15 races in Europe. Others may have been surprised, but not Ryder and the team; they understood the planning and hard work that went into those victories.

To help pave the way, Ryder tried to make the best of opportunities the team was offered. “Whenever we got invitations, we would go [to Europe].”

Looking ahead, he said: “We have a full three-year programme of taking an African team and South African registered team to the Giro d’Italia and World Tour races.”

Beyond that, Ryder wants to see MTN-Qhubeka become the first South African team in the Tour de France.

Lithuanian rider Ignatas Konovalovas, also interviewed for the YouTube video, said he believes the team has the ability to achieve that standard. “We have a strong team, not only because of our European riders, not only because we have Ciolek on board, but also of the local riders. They are strong.”

“The thing that MTN-Qhubeka does from the Qhubeka side, the charity programme, is also very important. That is what can bring more attention, more sponsors for those kind of things,” Konovalovas added.

“We can change people’s mind and they can learn more about Qhubeka, about the problems there are in the world. It’s not only about sport.”

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