VALENCE, France (VN) — On the airport runway above Mende on Saturday, the place to be was the MTN-Qhubeka bus. One team manager and sports director after another arrived to congratulate MTN for its win in the 14th stage of the Tour de France — the first by a professional African team.
MTN’s British rider Steve Cummings, who raced for teams Sky and BMC, took the victory. The team, and it seemed the entire Tour caravan, celebrated. Only the French, who saw their cyclists Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) lose in the last moment on the landing strip, may have been upset.
The South African team comes across as different and fresh in a sport steeped in tradition. When it entered the top ranks in 2013, it did so with South Africans, Eritreans, a Rwandan and an Algerian in its ranks. Two years later, when it received one of the Tour’s five wildcard invitations, it promised to bring its Africans alongside experienced professionals like Cummings, American Tyler Farrar, and Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Its nine-man team celebrated Eritrean Daniel Teklehaymanot in the polka-dot jersey — the first African to wear it — and South African Louis Meintjes’ fifth-place ride to Plateau de Beille. Cummings’ win, coming two weeks in, and on Nelson Mandela Day, seemed to feel right.
“It’s the feel-good factor; it’s the Africans,” team manager Brian Smith told VeloNews.
“I’m not going to say it’s the Jamaican bobsled team, but it’s a feel-good factor, for sure.”
General manager Douglas Ryder took the South African team from the Continental to the Pro Continental level in 2013. He raced his squad, with a mix of Europeans and Africans, around Europe. German Gerald Ciolek took MTN’s first big victory in the Italian monument, Milano-Sanremo.
In the background, Ryder began asking for places in the grand tours. The Giro d’Italia refused, but the Vuelta a España agreed in 2014. That participation and some strategic non-African signings paved the way for a place in the 2015 Tour.
In January, organizer ASO invited MTN along with German team Bora-Argon 18 and French teams Cofidis, Europcar, and Bretagne-Séché Environnement. The first part of Ryder’s dream had come true.
Then the team came to the Tour with a plan — win a stage and hold a leader’s jersey — and accomplished both goals.
“We had six guys with top-10 places, we had Teklehaymanot in the polka-dot, and now Cummings’ stage win,” said Smith.
The stage win put MTN-Qhubeka at the top.
MTN is a South African multinational telecommunications company. Qhubeka does not give money, but supports poor Africans. The non-profit group provides bicycles in exchange for deeds such as growing 200 trees to 30 centimeters or collecting 4,500 plastic bottles. The team welcomed the charity with open arms, and put its name on its jersey as a donation.
Numbers are unknown, but Qhubeka will certainly have an increased awareness thanks to the Tour de France and Cummings’ win in Mende.
“Qhubeka separates us a bit,” Cummings told VeloNews. “We are always trying to raise awareness for Qhubeka.
“Also, the way we race, going for stages and not the overall classification. People warm to that.
“It’s great for cycling in general to get an African team. There’s a lot of talent in Africa who don’t get a chance. This team helps bring in that talent, and hopefully we’ll see more chances for those riders.”
Smith and the team point to the 23-year-old Meintjes and Eritrean Merhawi Kudus as its rising stars. Behind them, there are many more working at the UCI Cycling Center in South Africa and waiting for a chance.
The hugs in Mende were for the team, but embraced all of African cycling at the same time. With one in the bank, MTN-Qhubeka could feel freer and take a second one easier. With the same stroke, it justified its wildcard place and helped paved the way for an invitation to the 2016 Tour.