Saturday sees the Trofeo Laigueglia race, now the season-opening race in Italy now the GP Etruschi has vanished. Only it’s not just the start of the Italian season but also the arrival of a new team from Africa MTN-Qhubeka. Each term has a story to tell behind the kit and branding but this one stands out.
Strictly-speaking the team is not new. What’s changed is that they’ve gone up a level from continental to pro continental in the UCI jargon. In practice this means becoming a full pro team with the imposition of minimum standards from wages to the biopassport and the widening of ambitions and invitations to some big races.
We’ve had Africans in pro cycling before. Abdel Kader Zaaf was French but from Algeria, it was a French colony when he rode the Tour. More recently the Barloworld team appeared and gave Kenyan-born Chris Froome his entry into pro cycling and thanks to Robbie Hunter’s win in 2007, the first African Tour de France stage winner. But Barloworld never played its South African identity to strongly, it was registered in Britain and run by Italians. By contrast MTN-Qhubeka is keen to point out its African background… it makes good business sense since MTN is Africa’s biggest mobile telecoms operator.
If being an African team isn’t novel enough, there’s more. As the video above shows the Qhubeka name is a charity dedicated to giving out bikes to children. Here the bike is more than just a bit of fun or exercise although some kids are riding races on them. It’s a means of travel that lets people ride to school and get access to healthcare or carry a load of up to 300kg to market. It’s similar to the Project Rwanda idea where the bike can make a real difference to rural communities and from the Rwandan team comes Adrien Nyonshuti, now with MTN-Qhubeka.
The video is from the 2011 Tour of Eritrea, at the opposite end of the continent from South Africa. Jump to 6m30s to watch the stage finish. Note the crowds and they way the pick up the winner and carry him through the air. The images impresses and you can see the benefits of sponsoring a cycling team there.
The road to reality
But the romance and optimism can only go so far. The label of being “The African Team” isn’t enough just as being French isn’t enough to get a ride in the Tour de France. They can’t be a novelty, curiosity or a theme, stories like this get can get cut short once the racing beings. Whether it’s on the slopes of a mountain or the streets of a city with the finish line looming the team has to figure in the races, to be seen on TV and win races. But there’s interest here too as the team has a mix of African riders and Euros. Amongst the Euros is Gerald Ciolek, the German rider who emerged alongside Mark Cavendish and André Greipel in 2007 as a sprinting talent but never kept up with the pair, what can he do? More interesting will be to see where the limits of the African riders like Songezo Jim who only learned to ride a bike aged 14 and six years later he’s racing as a pro.
The pro continental ranks include teams with regional and national identities and I’m excited to see what Colombia can do this year but that’s partly because of the 1980s and the reputations forged by the likes of Fabio Parra and Lucho Herrera. MTN-Qhubeka looks quite different, there’s not much of a precedent here so it’ll be interesting to follow their progress this year. Getting this far is already a good sign for African cycling and tomorrow’s a small but important day in this story.