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MTN hoping for historic Vuelta selection

The African team is one of several in the hunt for four spots in this year's final grand tour

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MILAN (VN) — MTN-Qhubeka hopes to become Africa’s first professional team to ride in a grand tour. The South African squad wants to be awarded one of the four Vuelta a España wildcard invitations on April 2, when the race organizer announces the 22-team field.

“We are confident,” team manager Doug Ryder told VeloNews. “With the amount of public sentiment around us not getting into the Giro d’Italia, it opened the eyes to other event organizers.”

Ryder told VeloNews that Vuelta organizer Unipublic should announce the teams April 2. As a UCI WorldTour race, the 18 first division ProTeams will automatically receive invitations. It reserves four other spots for second division UCI Pro Continental teams like MTN.

The South African outfit is competing against Caja Rural, Cofidis, NetApp-Endura, IAM Cycling, UnitedHealthcare, and the other second division teams that applied to race.

“Spots will likely go to Caja Rural and Cofidis,” Ryder said. “Caja Rural sponsors the race and is a Spanish team. Cofidis also sponsors the race. Our rivals are IAM Cycling and NetApp. IAM is in every grand tour and might as well be a WorldTour team. NetApp races the Tour. Does it have enough depth to ride two grand tours?”

MTN became Africa’s first second division team when it began racing last year. Barloworld kicked off Chris Froome’s career but despite a South African sponsor, it raced with a British license.

Last year, German Gerald Ciolek helped MTN’s debut by winning Milano-Sanremo. This year, Ryder beefed up his team with four new signings: one German and three Africans. Africans now make up 52 percent of the roster.

After winning Sanremo and racing Tirreno-Adriatico last year — both RCS Sport races — Ryder hoped that MTN would race the Giro d’Italia this season. Instead, RCS Sport opted for home teams. Its selection included controversial team YellowFluo, which had two riders test positive in anti-doping controls related to last year’s Giro.

“Daryl Impey and Chris Froome really rocked the boat last year at the Tour de France,” Ryder said. “Why not give an opportunity to our team?

“We’d go with 50 percent African team. The Vuelta stages aren’t super long, 13 hilly or mountain stages. There’s 40-degree Celsius heat, so it’s great for the African riders.”

Ryder named Louis Meintjes, Daniel Teklehaymanot, Sergio Pardilla, Linus Gerdemann, Merhawi Kudus, and Ciolek as possible starters. Kudus, a 20-year-old from Eritrea, placed second in the Tour de Langkawi earlier this month and raced in Milano-Sanremo Sunday.

“It’s a fast track to success when you race your first grand tour,” Ryder said. “Other young guys are on big teams and don’t get a chance to ride a grand tour, so it’s an opportunity to get that chance to expose their bodies to grand tour racing.

“It’d be great for the Vuelta. Imagine, 20 years after the Rwandan genocide, and 20 years of South African democracy. It’s a big year for Africa. This year it’d be great to take that next step.”