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MTN-Qhubeka inches closer to making grand tour debut

The second division African team is one of seven vying for four wildcard invitations to the Giro

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MILAN — MTN-Qhubeka’s chances of fielding Africa’s first professional team in a grand tour are improving. Next year, the team could start in one of the three major stage races: the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta a España, or even the Tour de France.

“We believe we have the depth to field a grand tour team next year,” general manager Douglas Ryder told VeloNews. “The riders are working towards that goal.”

In its first year in the pro ranks, the yellow and black team made its mark. At Milano-Sanremo, riding on a wildcard invitation from Giro d’Italia organizer RCS Sport, the team surprised everyone. After a snow delay and restart, MTN’s German star Gerald Ciolek muscled his way into the lead group over the Poggio and sprinted ahead of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) for the win.

Nearly three quarters of the riders on MTN are from Africa, and the squad had its growing pains while competing in Europe this season. Even so, it survived tests in the smaller European races run by the grand tour organizers, from Tirreno-Adriatico to the World Ports Classic and Paris-Tours.

It also survived cycling’s crisis and made some smart signings. The 2014 season sees two first and three second division teams disappear. Another second division team, Europcar, moves into the first division. The situation leaves MTN more space to maneuver and with better odds of being selected for a grand tour.

MTN strengthened its team as well. Ryder kept all 21 riders and added four new ones, German Linus Gerdemann, South African John-Lee Augustyn, and Eritreans Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaymanot.

“Even if the landscape didn’t change, meaning with the number of teams, that shouldn’t preclude the race organizers from inviting us,” added Ryder. “We have been successful and we are a unique team. There isn’t a team like ours in the world.”

Ryder explained that if MTN was selected to start in Belfast (for the Giro) or in Leeds (Tour) that there would be black Africans on the start line. Team Barloworld raced in grand tours before but, despite a South African backer, it had a British license and fielded mostly non-African riders.

“We strengthened the team with Daniel Teklehaymanot, who’s finished the Vuelta, John-Lee Augustyn, who rode three grand tours, and Linus Gerdemann. We are team that has not changed our focus, being an African team and wanting to take African cyclists to the highest level,” Ryder said.

When asked to quickly come up with a grand tour list of riders, he included Germans Gerdemann and Ciolek, Lithuanian Ignatas Konovalovas, Spaniard Sergio Pardilla, South Africans Augustyn, Louis Meintjes, Jay Thomson and Jaco Venter, Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti, and Eritrean Teklehaymanot.

“We’ve easily got 10 riders who can compete for a spot on a grand tour,” Ryder said. “And we’ll definitely have black African riders there, we’ll likely start with two at a minimum.”

The Giro organizer typically announces its four wildcard invitations over the winter. The Tour follows in the spring. Teams fighting for the first two grand tours include MTN, Androni Giocattoli, Colombia, NetApp-Endura, Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox, IAM Cycling, and Cofidis. MTN wants to ride in some of the lead-up events — like Tirreno-Adriatico, Critérium International, and the Critérium du Dauphiné — and hopes to be chosen for either the Giro or the Tour.