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Vuelta a Espana

MTN-Qhubeka earns 2014 Vuelta bid, a first for an African team

IAM Cycling, Caja Rural, and Cofidis also earn wildcard invites for the race through Spain

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — The Vuelta a España named its four wildcard teams Wednesday, a list that includes Africa’s first professional team MTN-Qhubeka. The squad will make Africa’s debut in a grand tour in August and September, along with Swiss team IAM Cycling, Spain’s Caja Rural, and France’s Cofidis.

“It means a lot for our guys,” MTN team manager Doug Ryder told VeloNews. “Along with Gerald Ciolek and Linus Gerdemann, guys like Merhawi Kudus and Louis Meintjes will want to race. In years to come, when you Google Africa’s first grand tour, their names will come up. They will be cast in stone in cycling and be in cycling’s history books.”

MTN, IAM, Caja Rural, and Cofidis will race with cycling’s 18 first division teams, which received automatic invitations because the Vuelta rates as a UCI WorldTour event.

Barloworld received sponsorship from South Africa but raced with a British license and international riders at the Tour de France (2007, 2008) and Giro d’Italia (2008, 2009). However, never has a professional team registered in Africa — and in MTN’s case with more than half its riders from the continent — raced in a grand tour.

Ryder helped the team go from the third to second division for the 2013 season. With its European star, German Gerald Ciolek, it won Milano-Sanremo in its first try. However, 19 wins in 2013, according to Pro Cycling Stats, were not sufficient for an invitation to this year’s Giro d’Italia or Tour de France.

The Giro selected Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela, Bardiani CSF-Inox, Colombia, and Yellow Fluo, and the Tour went with Cofidis, IAM, Bretagne-Séché Environnement, and NetApp-Endura.

Two weeks ago, Ryder traveled to Madrid to meet with organizer Unipublic and promote the team.

“It’s going to help our younger riders get to a higher level,” he explained. “If you think about it, if Merhawi Kudus [20, from Eritrea] was racing in a big team like Sky, then he would not get into the bigger races, but in our team, if you have that talent, you get fast-tracked to success because you get opportunities earlier and younger than others.”

Kudus turned professional with the team this year and placed second overall at the Tour de Langkawi in February. Ryder also said that he would like to include Eritrean Daniel Teklehaymanot, who raced the Vuelta in 2012 with Orica-GreenEdge, and South African Louis Meintjes in the Vuelta selection.

They could race alongside German Linus Gerdemann, Spaniard Sergio Pardilla, and Ciolek.

“Ciolek is such a good climber, he can go for the points jersey and stage wins,” Ryder said. “Louis and Merhawi could try for the young riders jersey, try for stages, and ride up in the GC.”

Chris Froome was born in Kenya and grew up in South Africa, but won the Tour de France in 2013 racing as a Brit. Also last year, South African Daryl Impey became the first African to wear the Tour de France’s yellow jersey.

Putting aside when Africans raced as part of the French colonial empire, Teklehaymanot became black Africa’s first grand tour rider in 2012 at the Vuelta. Now, MTN will have its chance to ride into the history books of the grand tours.

The three-week race through Spain starts August 23 in Jerez de la Frontera.