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MILAN (VN) — MTN-Qhubeka is moving towards becoming the first African team to race in a grand tour. If all goes well, the South African team will debut in a three-week race in 2014 — and perhaps sooner, as the Vuelta a España is showing interest for next season.
“Our team is unique in that it is the first-ever registered African UCI Pro Continental Team,” team principal Doug Ryder told VeloNews. “Event organizers have not seen a team like ours before in world cycling and we showed this year that our team can be competitive at the highest levels of the sport.”
Ryder has been running teams in South Africa since 1997. His MTN-Qhubeka squad has raced in the third division since 2007 and is well positioned to become a second-division Professional Continental team next year.
He added more European flavor to the mixture this year, bringing in Gerald Ciolek (from Omega Pharma-Quick Step); Ignatas Konovalovas and Sergio Pardilla (Movistar); Andreas Stauff (Eddy Merckx); Martin Reimer (Germany); and Kristian Sbaragli (Italy). However, he still has a healthy 15-to-6 mix of Africans, including rising Rwandan star Adrien Niyonshuti.
Fans will remember Barloworld with South Africans Robbie Hunter and John-Lee Augustyn and then-Kenyan Chris Froome. In 2007 Hunter became the first African to win a stage of the Tour de France. However, the team registered itself in Great Britain and was half European and half white South African.
“Our Euro riders have bought into the team and its mission to develop African cycling so they are there to mentor and assist fast-tracking the riders to success,” said Ryder. “We would like to ride a grand tour like the Vuelta a España in 2013 and then the Giro d’Italia in 2014.”
The European team manager will be South African Brent Copeland, who returned to cycling after helping MotoGP star Ben Spies. For years he worked for Lampre, first directing in 1999, then returned full time in 2009.
“This project was something I’ve always dreamt of, working with African cyclists in Europe and giving them the opportunity I never was given,” Copeland told VeloNews. “I had to learn from scratch when I came over on my own. I can show them a lot and teach them a lot. It’s a great challenge.”
Copeland will move from Como to Lucca to set up base for all 21 riders.
“It’s going to be a challenge next year,” he said. “Some of the African riders don’t speak English. It will be our team language. We are giving everyone a maximum of four months to learn it. It will be the main language at the dinner table, at the meetings and everywhere else. We’ll help wherever possible, whether it’s taking them to school or finding a teacher.”
The team doesn’t expect big things right out of the gate, he added.
“We don’t expect huge results — we just want to get organized, fall into a routine, make them understand the European mentality and the European way of racing, the culture and everything else,” he said. “Once that starts to set in, then we can start to put pressure on them for results.”
Copeland calls Niyonshuti MTN’s star. He survived the Rwandan genocide, which saw his siblings killed, by hiding in a bed mattress. He has a strong mentality that saw him rise through the mountain biking ranks and quickly improve in road cycling. Just over a week ago, he won the national championships.
“I think it’s just the case of riding in the big group of 200 riders for these African riders,” Copeland said. “Once they get used to that, I think the real potential will come out of them.”
MTN has the right connections to make it happen. Several of its African riders attended the UCI’s World Cycling Center in Switzerland and the management has met with grand-tour organizers ASO and RCS Sport.
ASO has already invited MTN to its February races, the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman. The team hopes that it has its chances in the other smaller races the organizers run to learn and improve for its grand-tour debut.
Team MTN-Qhubeka 2013 roster
Gerald Ciolek (GER)
Ignatus Konovalovas (LTU)
Sergio Pardilla (SPA)
Jay Thomson (RSA)
Louis Meintjes (RSA)
Johann van Zyl (RSA)
Andreas Stauff (GER)
Martin Reimer (GER)
Youcef Reguigui (ALG)
Kristian Sbaragli (ITA)
Frekalsi Debesay (ERI)
Tsgabu Grmay (ETH)
Adrien Niyonshuti (RWA)
Meron Russom (ERI)
Jani Tewelde (ERI)
Songezo Jim (RSA)
Bradley Potgieter (RSA)
Dennis van Niekerk (RSA)
Jacques Janse van Rensburg (RSA)
Jaco Venter (RSA)
Martin Wesemann (RSA)