The big news from the 2015 Tour de France is MTN-Qhubeka, the first team from Africa to participate. The team was invited to take part as a wild-card entry and have exceeded all expectations. With most of the world’s top cyclists coming from European countries, Africa has never really had an opportunity to break onto the scene – until now. And the continent is taking the hardest professional contest on earth, by storm.
At the start of the day Douglas Ryder’s team, who received a wild card to enter, were ranked second overall in what is generally considered one of the hardest professional sporting contests on earth. How did it come to this? And how have a bunch of Africans and their European ringers come to dominate the 2015 Tour’s storyline?
The fairytale story can be summarised in what team owner Douglas Ryder described as, “The Mandela Day Stage”. On the anniversary of the former South African president’s birthday, Steve Cummings the MTN-Qhubeka specialist sprinter bolted over the finish line first and won the stage.
And as if their success wasn’t enough of a story, there’s talk of a young, determined upstart named Daniel Teklehaimanot. Ryder said this of the young cyclist: ‘Teklehaimanot came seventh on day 16 of the Tour de France! It was super hard. It’s not like these breakaways are easy. You’re seeing the incredible recovery time, which has great potential for the future.’
At 27, Teklehaimanot is still coming into his own and, with riders maturing later and later – Sir Bradley Wiggins won the Tour at 33 – there’s no telling what the bright-eyed Eritrean is capable of.
Bicycles, bicycle parts and team kits are all sponsored by the telecommunications giant MTN. To give readers an idea of scale, MTN-Qhubeka’s budget sits between €7m and €10m, which pales in comparison to a more established team, like Team Sky, whose budget is allegedly as much as €30m. This in itself is a huge challenge.
But money doesn’t play in Ryder’s approach. His is far simpler. Brutal, but simple. It’s a tactic that requires absolute buy-in from the entire team. When the race starts, one of the team needs to be up in front as part of the breakaway.
“Our goal is still to try to win another stage,” Ryder said. “The guys are in really good spirits, and feel like they can do something in the mountains. We’ll continue racing the way we’re racing, and getting in the breakaways. We’re present and we’re up there.”
So what of the future for this team? If rookie manager, Ryder can get so much success, are MTN looking to sign some bigger names?
‘There’s a strategy going forward to build the depth of the team. There are a lot of good riders on the market that could join us and not change the culture.’
All in all, the outlook for the team is positive and is going from strength to strength. But they’re doing more for the sport than just winning stages at the Tour de France. The effect that the team is having on cycling around Africa is phenomenal. Finally people are realising the potential in young African cyclists. It won’t be too much longer before the sport explodes and big European teams come calling. Discipline, focus and determination are just some of the key attributes that the sports promote and there is little doubt that cycling will have an intensely life-changing effect on the youth of Africa.