MTN-Qhubeka will race the Tour de France this...

MTN-Qhubeka receives historic Tour de France invitation

The South African-Registered squad is one of five to receive an invite from Tour organizer ASO

MILAN (VN) — Africa will send a team to the Tour de France for the first time in 2015 with South Africa’s MTN-Qhubeka receiving one of five wildcard invitations Wednesday from race organizer ASO.

France’s Bretagne-Séché Environnement, Cofidis, and Europcar, along with Germany’s Bora-Argon 18, will also race July 4-26 with the 17 UCI ProTeams.

“OK, we had Chris Froome win the 2013 Tour de France, Daryl Impey wore the yellow jersey, but to have a whole team in the Tour de France … For Africa and South Africa, it’s going to be huge,” MTN general manager Brian Smith told VeloNews. “And it’s going to happen on Nelson Mandela’s Day, on July 18.”

MTN began racing as a Pro Continental team in 2013 and raced its first grand tour in 2014, the Vuelta a España. The team aims to join the first division in 2016.

ASO announced MTN among its five wildcard second-division teams on its Twitter account. It also confirmed the 17 ProTeams with guaranteed spots in the WorldTour races.

“[MTN’s] participation in the Tour will help accelerate the progression of African cycling,” Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme told AFP.

The same 17 ProTeams were confirmed for ASO’s WorldTour stage races, Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné. For the races’ wildcard teams, ASO invited Cofidis, Europcar, and Bretagne to Pairs-Nice (March 8-15), and MTN, Bora, Cofidis, and Europcar to the Dauphiné (June 7-14).

Cofidis, Bretagne, and Bora, racing as NetApp Endura, competed on wildcard invitations in the 2014 Tour. IAM Cycling, for 2015 in the first division, was the fourth of four teams invited.

Scotland’s Smith helped beef up the mostly African squad for 2015 by signing several riders from first-division teams, including American Tyler Farrar (from Garmin-Sharp), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), and Theo Bos (Belkin). When Smith met with the team in South Africa over the winter, he outlined his goal for 2015: win a classic, a stage in the Tour de France or the Vuelta a España, and one of the classification jerseys in the Tour or the Vuelta.

“The team has reinforced its youngsters with experienced riders to continue its progress,” Prudhomme said. “In recent years, people have said of Boasson Hagen that he would dominate world cycling. As for Bos, Farrar and Goss, they’re very good sprinters.”

Added Smith: “We have the riders to win a stage and compete for the green, white, or mountains jersey. I know a few people will raise eyebrows, but two years ago, riding the Tour was a big goal, and we are here now.”

Smith said his nine-man Tour team will include a handful of Africans. The Tour ride, he said, will help the team’s budding Africans like South African Louis Meintjes and Eritreans Merhawi Kudus and Natnael Berhane.

“These young Eritrean riders are the grandchildren of Coppi and Bartali,” said Prudhomme, referring to legendary Italians Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, and to the more than 50 years of Italian occupation of the country that ended during World War II.

Said Smith: “The team is different and the Qhubeka foundation makes a difference, that’s why I took the job on. When I stood in front of them at the team camp in South Africa, I told them that I’d help them reach their goal.

“The Tour de France invitation … It’s emotional. I shed tears realizing that this team is coming along. I’ve seen how Qhubeka makes a difference in the townships. This will make the world ask, ‘What is Qhubeka?’ And it will give so much brand awareness.”

MTN-Qhubeka receives support from Africa’s telecommunications giant MTN and from electronics manufacturer Samsung, but gives Qhubeka, which means “progress” in zulu, title space in its official name. The non-profit group provides poor Africans with bicycles in exchange for good deeds, such as growing 200 trees to 30 centimeters or collecting 4,500 plastic bottles. Since 2005, it has distributed 51,000 bikes.

Information from AFP was used in this report.