Tirreno and San Remo open WorldTour door for MTN-Qhubeka

African squad headed for the WorldTour, but did not pursue a grand tour, choosing instead to build realistically to impact African cycling

MILAN (VN) — Africa’s MTN-Qhubeka received invitations to its first WorldTour races Tuesday when Italy’s RCS Sport welcomed the team to Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, opening the door for it to show its potential on the sport’s biggest stage.

VeloNews spoke with team principal Douglas Ryder today as the continent’s first professional team prepared to embark on Europe and a whole new set of races.

“When we rock up with our infrastructure, which is going to be very decent, yellow and bright, people are going to be like, ‘Holy cow! What’s just happened? The African sun has dawned on Europe, on the old-school sport,’” said Ryder. “I’m quite excited.”

Ryder is enjoying the warm weather in South Africa, but will soon be traveling between his home and the team’s base in Lucca, Italy. European team manager Brent Copeland is preparing the team’s cars and buses for their journey.

The young and relatively inexperienced African team features a handful of Europeans. Spain’s Sergio Pardilla, who joined from Movistar, leads the stage-race group and Germany’s Gerald Ciolek, formerly with Omega Pharma-Quick Step, captains the classics group.

Ciolek and his group will meet in Lucca this month and prepare for their season. It kicks off with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad one-day semi-classic in Belgium on February 23. After the spring opener, they will stay in the country for about six weeks before returning to Italy.

He would have smiled two days ago when he heard that RCS Sport had invited the team to Tirreno, an important stage race in mid-March that many of the classics riders use to prepare for April’s big races. Tirreno also marks the team’s WorldTour debut, where it will race alongside Garmin-Sharp, Sky and the other first division teams.

Ryder said it was just what the team wanted.

“Absolutely. Last year, we met with RCS Sport and ASO to present our team and the whole project of Qhubeka, bikes for kids, and the African team,” he said. “They were excited about the project and the team. We have something to work with riders like Ciolek and the others, and we want to target those races to show the world the potential of the riders from the African continent.”

Ciolek is one of six non-Africans in the 21-man team, with nine from South Africa and another six from Africa’s other countries. Ryder explained that the classics team would not consist only of seasoned European pros, but have a sprinkling of black Africa. Fans of the new team can expect to see Eritrean Frekalsi Debesay, Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti and Algerian Youcef Reguigui clicking in their cleats in northern Europe.

“It’s up to the guys once we get to the races to trust the DSs and the Euro guys on the team, that’s why they are on the team,” said Ryder. “It’s exciting, but I guess when we are at the WorldTour races, when the rubber’s on the tar, then we’ll see.”

MTN’s stage race group meets in Gabon on Monday. They will race at the tours of Langkawi and Taiwan before heading to Europe in March. Later in the year, some of the team will feature in the Presidential Tour of Turkey and Tour of Britain.

RCS Sport overlooked the first-year Pro Continental team for the Giro d’Italia, but that was planned, as the team pulled out its application early on. It told RCS Sport and Tour de France organizer ASO that it wanted to wait a year before taking a shot at a grand tour.

“They were excited about that, they said, ‘that’s great, you’re not in it for marketing,’” Ryder said. “We said, ‘This is not about sponsor return, this is about impacting African cycling.'”

That impact starts now.