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Tour de France

African team has given Cavendish a ‘new lease on life’

With two Tour stage wins in the bag and a day spent in his first ever yellow jersey, Mark Cavendish is thriving as a Dimension Data rider

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ANGERS, France (VN) — Mark Cavendish’s new life in team Dimension Data opened opportunities for him to become one of the Tour de France’s greatest ever this July.

Only three days into the three-week tour, Cavendish changed the perception of him and what was possible this year. Given his past couple of seasons, several insiders laughed off his goal of winning in the Tour de France and taking a gold medal in the Omnium at the Olympics.

The 31-year-old Brit, as of Monday’s July 4th stage to Angers near the Loire River, now counts two stage wins this Tour, and has worn the yellow jersey for the first time in his career.

With his first stage victory Saturday, he brought his career stage count to 27 and with this afternoon’s he matched great Bernhard Hinault with 28. Only Eddy Merckx, who is considered cycling’s greatest ever, counts more with 34 stage wins.

No one is laughing now. Cavendish surprised Saturday and again today. There is no reason not to think he will top Hinault before the Tour ends, or perhaps already Tuesday. It is thanks to what began as a small African team run by a little-known former cyclist Douglas Ryder.

“Doug’s an incredible man, really the first time I met him I thought that,” Cavendish said. “He created a team that won a monument, a stage in the Tour last year, and the yellow jersey now. There’s a spark in his eye.

“It’s seems something we say, but it’s real. We have great sponsors with Dimension Data and Deloitte, but we really want to get 5,000 kids in Africa on bikes and ride for the Qhubeka foundation. What’s a better way than winning in the biggest bike race in the world?”

Winning in a stage in the biggest bike race in the world appeared impossible for Ryder’s South African team — then known as MTN – Qhubeka — when it established its European base in Lucca, Italy, in 2012. In 2013, it had six non-Africans in its 21-man team. The big names like German Gerald Ciolek were signed to help the young Africans from countries like Eritrea and Rwanda develop and win.

Ryder pushed for his Professional Continental team to be included in WorldTour races in hopes of riding a grand tour. Ciolek, who raced with Quick-Step and Columbia beforehand, gave him a gem: a win in the snow-ravaged 2013 Milano-Sanremo. In 2014, it became Africa’s first professional team to ride in a grand tour at the Vuelta a España.

In 2015, Ryder focused on the Tour. Organiser ASO responded with a “Oui,” letting the team make history. Not only did it start, but Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first African in the polka dot jersey and Brit Steve Cummings won a stage, and did so on Nelson Mandela Day.

After the Tour ended in Paris, Ryder met with Cavendish in a restaurant to talk about 2016. Cavendish told Ryder how he loved the opportunist style of the team. Soon, they reached a three-year agreement with an influx of money coming from professional services provider Deloitte. With Cavendish, Ryder’s once-small team joined the WorldTour with rights to race in all the big races including the Tour de France.

“When I presented the team in Holland at the 2012 Valkenburg Worlds, people looked at us like we were crazy,” Ryder said at the time.

“Now, one of the biggest brands is with our team and one of the biggest names wants to ride for our team, that’s pretty cool. It shows how far we’ve come in a short space of time. No one thought it was possible.”

“I’m proud to be a part of this team,” said Cavendish on Monday. “It’s given me a new lease on life in my career.”

Information technology company Dimension Data provided the big money and Deloitte added in to make the Cavendish deal happen, but Qhubeka pulls the team together. It used to be the second part of the team’s name until this season. 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.

It’s current project aims at putting 5000 more Africans on two wheels. It gives Cavendish an extra push after he spent years riding for mobile telephone giant HTC, media group Sky, and pharmaceutical company Omega Pharma/Etixx.

“I’m very fortunate in my career to ride in the biggest teams in cycling, they were successful years,” Cavendish added. “But obviously with the biggest teams and biggest funds, comes great pressure. I was always thankful to have a good team to deliver, but from the moment I stated winning, I had the pressure to win. Now it’s something more than winning, more than a moving billboard, we ride for Africa and Qhubeka.”