UTRECHT, Netherlands (VN) — It’s rare that there is more celebration at the start of the Tour de France than at the end, but that was the case around the MTN-Qhubeka bus on Saturday.
With Daniel Teklehaimanot as the first rider down the start ramp at the 2015 Tour, a new chapter was being written in cycling history. Teklehaimanot and Eritrean compatriot Merhawi Kudus became the first black Africans to race the Tour, as part of the first African-registered team ever to start the Tour.
There was a sense of history-in-the-making, and it wasn’t lost on team staffers and riders.
“This is huge for African cycling. This is the first black African to race the Tour. The amount of euphoria in Africa is just massive,” MTN-Qhubeka general manager Brian Smith told VeloNews. “It was a privilege to become the first African team to get the invitation.”
MTN-Qhubeka came into the 2015 season with the singular goal of earning a bid to race the Tour. After starting the Vuelta a España last year, it reached the milestone as the first African-registered team to compete in a grand tour.
For 2015, the team knew it needed to round out its roster to legitimately make the claim to have Tour-level quality, and it signed such riders as Edvald Boasson Hagen, Steve Cummings, Tyler Farrar, and Serge Pauwels, all four who were racing Saturday in Utrecht.
But the core of the team remains African, and management was insistent that African riders remained at the center of the team heading into Utrecht. Five Africans are part of the nine-man Tour squad, with two from Eritrea and three from South Africa.
“After Daniel won the climber’s jersey at the Critérium du Dauphiné, we sent him back for the national championships, and he was mobbed at home,” Smith said. “People are aware, and they’ve seen the progression. We hope to inspire more Africans to race. The African continent have to be proud and get behind this team, because in the future, I believe African riders can not only compete for stages, but to win the yellow jersey as well.”
The untapped potential of African cycling is seen as the sport’s final frontier. The hold of the Tour has spread to the Americas, Australia, and across every corner of Europe and even into Asia. The rise of Chris Froome, who was born in Kenya and raised in South Africa yet holds a British passport, has helped spur interest in the African continent.
Many are working across the continent to put athletes on bikes, to teach the required skillset to compete at a high level, and provide the training and materials to give them opportunities. Investments by the UCI, as well as ex-pro Jock Boyer, who works closely with athletes in Rwanda, are helping push talent into the peloton.
Those dreams are very much the here and now for MTN-Qhubeka. History aside, the teams is coming into this Tour to race and to animate the action. Smith admits it’s not here to fight for the yellow jersey, but they have a plan to try to reach their stated goal of winning a stage.
“We’ve set ourselves a goal of a stage win, and to wear a leader’s jersey at some point,” Smith explained. “What we’re going to do is to try to win 21 stages. And if you try to win 21 stages, the percentages of winning one is far greater. We’re going to have a plan every day. We are going to be an opportunist team.”
With Boasson Hagen and Farrar, they have riders who can try to win the classics-style finales. Louis Mentjies and Teklehaimanot will have shots in the mountains. The remainder of the team will have their chances in breakaways.
“We don’t have a GC contender. We don’t have a pure sprinter, so we’re going to look for our chances elsewhere,” Smith said. “We are going to attack every day. Our plan is to try to win 21 stages. There will be different riders every day, trying their luck. We know we cannot compete against the likes of Contador, Nibali, or Cavendish in the sprints, but we’re going to try to force the moves and the counter-attacks.
“We have a strategy, with certain riders, for certain stages,” Smith said. “No one can win 21 stages, but if we win we will be happy.”
So would an entire continent.
Brian Smith on MTN-Qhubeka’s five African riders at the Tour de France:
Merhawi Kudus, 21 (Eritrea): He’s our youngest rider, and among the youngest in the Tour. He’s here to gain experience, and to try to get into some breakaways. He’s a huge talent, with a big future.
Louis Meintjes, 23 (South Africa): “He’s already shown what he’s capable of. If he doesn’t come away with a stage win here, I would be disappointed. This is his second grand tour, and in his first [2014 Vuelta a España], he was fifth on a stage. We saw him climbing strong in the Dauphiné.”
Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, 26 (South Africa): He’s always there, always consistent. He’s got a big motor, and we want to see him get into breakaways, to attack.”
Jacques Janse van Rensburg, 26 (South Africa): “He has a lot of responsibilities, and he’s one of our workhorses. These guys are not afraid of getting into the breakaways. This team is not frightened of anyone, and like we saw last year at the Vuelta, Jacques will be riding into the breakaways.”
Daniel Teklehaimanot, 26 (Eritrea): “We’ve always known he’s good, and so did Orica, but now people are starting to believe, too, after the Dauphiné. There will be a lot of opportunities for Daniel in this Tour. The ideal would be a stage win, but if there’s an opportunity, we’ll chase the climber’s jersey as well.”