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Out of Africa: MTN-Qhubeka’s model may change pro cycling

MTN-Qhubeka slowly climbs the ranks, and it races with a mission to inspire and empower Africans by supporting the Qhubeka charity

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of an article from TheOuterLine.com. In it, Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris examine the unique approach that MTN-Qhubeka takes to organizing and operating a pro cycling team.

The South Africa-based MTN-Qhubeka team has received a good deal of attention this year, with its off-season signings of Tyler Farrar, Edvald Boassen Hagen, and Matt Goss among others. Its invitation to participate in this year’s Tour de France was also particularly ground-breaking. But apart from being the first African-registered team to earn a spot for the Tour’s starting line, and its notable racing successes over the last few years, the team is also driven by a different and unique philosophy — one which may eventually impact pro cycling at the highest level, and help to evolve the sport toward a more sustainable model.

Team founder and owner Douglas Ryder sees his squad as pioneering the future of African cycling in a way that will lead to more UCI events on the continent, and eventually, more African riders having the opportunity to race on top global teams. “If our success and visibility can help expose the incredible talent and people from this continent, we will help to drive interest and investment in Africa on a broader scale,” says Ryder. By focusing his team on developing and showcasing African talent, Ryder sees no reason why every WorldTour and Pro Continental team shouldn’t include African riders in the not-too-distant future.

In time, Ryder believes that this nascent program has the power to transform cycling, just like African athletes transformed endurance road running in the 1960s and 1970s.

The foundation for this team’s success was laid down in the early 2000s. Ryder began to identify athletes, secure financial and sponsorship partners, and set up relationships with the key people necessary for building a future bridge to the European and WorldTour levels of racing. It started as a Continental Team in 2007 with MTN and Microsoft as the key sponsors. MTN is a major South African telecommunications company, which provides telephone and wireless services to over 200 million people in Africa and the Middle East, and has been the team’s key financial partner for the past eight years. Team management forged a very close relationship with the company. “I see them almost weekly,” says Ryder. MTN has supported cycling at many different levels in South Africa, from the pro team down to local cycling clubs and events. As its riders performed better, and as the team became ready to take on the international world of cycling, they were able to attract a broader array of potential sponsors.

When Samsung signed on as a co-sponsor three years ago, additional funds from this global electronics and manufacturing giant enabled the team to make the jump to the Pro Continental ranking. Plus, MTN and Samsung already work very closely in South Africa, helping leverage their team sponsorship.

“Perhaps because we have come from a different or ‘foreign’ place, relative to the historical origins of most other cycling teams,” says Ryder, “we have been able to approach our sponsors in a different way than many teams — to treat them more as a true partner. In turn, they feel more a part of the team; they are included in many team decisions and are not held at an arm’s length, as is the case in many more traditional teams.”

In 2011, the team created a new relationship with the Qhubeka bicycle charity. Qhubeka is a Zulu word that means “to move forward,” and the organization aims to help rural communities progress by donating bicycles to children in return for work done to improve their environment and their community. Perhaps unique among pro cycling teams, Qhubeka is a named partner but does not provide any funding to the team. Instead, the team provides a platform for Qhubeka’s rural initiatives by donating the space and providing the exposure that would usually be occupied by a team sponsor.

“By displaying the Qhubeka logo on our jerseys and carrying the charity’s mission in our hearts,” says Ryder, “we hope, in some small way, to be able promote greater visibility and awareness of the potential of the African continent.”

This shift in the sponsorship model is different from any other in professional cycling. Rather than relying on publicity and viewership to inspire its target market, the team seeks to empower a new generation of riders by providing the very thing that drives participation in the sport: bicycles. What’s more, the gift of mobility — particularly to kids in rural and under-served areas of Africa — helps to improve education, economic, and healthcare opportunities by reducing the travel barriers between people.

“And as more African kids get more bikes,” adds Ryder, “we will be able to develop more African talent at the top professional level.

“Our team will provide the heroes and the icons to look up to — and Qhubeka will provide the bicycles — so that aspiring youngsters across Africa will have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps. The Tour de France will give us the biggest opportunity yet to tell our story to millions of people, people who can make a real difference to the future of Africa.”

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