A Team With a Difference

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.

23 thoughts on “A Team With a Difference”

  1. One thing I really like about your blog is your ability to do a”And now for something completely different” rabbit out of the hat-manouver when most others are barking up the same (other) tree. Very refreshing.

    • Agreed. There are a lot of blogs out there on cycling and many good ones to boot. The depth and breadth of your research, topic selection, diversity, objectivity, and subjective opinion when necessary makes it equal to none. Journalistic excellence at its finest.

  2. Always wondered why there weren’t more African riders in the pro peleton given their natural ability at endurance events. I guess understandably the biggest reasons are economic and cultural, but strange they haven’t been tapped up more in the past.

    • Seems the journo’s are too lazy to notice as well.

      I mean, if you’re not on Team Sky, or a juiced up Kazakstani, most of the English cycling journo’s won’t bother doing a story on them.

  3. Nice post, thanks! I’m getting excited about the start of the season here in Italia…still pondering whether to go up and see a bit of Strade Bianche followed by Giro di Lazio the following day. As for charities to benefit Africans, check out WorldBicycleRelief, a charity we at CycleItalia support wholeheartedly.

  4. Larry mentions ” World Bike Relief , a charity that ” Fatcyclist.com ” raises a lot of money . At the end of December i wrote WBR asking them to arrange one of their Bikes in Pink , so as to take it to the Giro d’Italia to create publicity , then a Yellow model for the TDF :

    So far after repeated emails , i have had thanks , but no thanks , saying there are none in Europe ! IF i was to ride one during the days i ride with Francesco Moser , Gianni Motta & Maurizio Fondriest , does anyone imagine that there would not be a photo Op , let alone that they would get on it for a short distance ? In the past i have had Eddy Merckx on my bike , so i feel sure , they need a wake up call ?

    Link for more : http://www.tourdafrance.blogspot.com would be interested in others joining me in Napoli .

    In looking around the various Pro World Teams , i think that only Orica has an obviously African , in their team . Perhaps MTN-Qhubeka will do so well that members of the 2013 Team will be riding for other World Tour Teams in 2014 . Enjoyed this post and will be watching this Team’s progress in the future .

    • Skippy – a shame they didn’t like your idea enough to participate though since they’re involved heavily with SRAM (not my favorite stuff but can’t argue with charity) I’m sure they could have sent some bigshot from there to promote things if they thought it a good idea. Have fun in Napoli – we won’t be seeing Il Giro until the Vicenza stage…http://www.cycleitalia.com/la-corsa-rosa-tour.htm
      we have a couple of spaces still available if anyone wants to join us to see Nibali vs Wiggins and maybe Contador?

  5. ‘Ring – As usual, great work on the blog. In the midst of much negativity in the sport, MTN-Qhubeka is a nice change. If folks want to hear more from Doug, check out @TourChats ‘ recent episode featuring Doug. @neilroad and @dwuori had a great interview with him. To my mind, the more press for a team like this, the better. Link here: bit.ly/156jDJ9

  6. Thank you INRNG for telling the story of our team. We understand the challenges oh so well and have been building to this Pro Continental step for 5 year’s. We look forward to the support from the world of cycling as we race to mobilise change in Africa, one bicycle at a time.

    Doug Ryder

  7. Thank you INRNG for the fascinating story. This is definitely something fresh for pro-cycling.

    There had been other efforts to bring out African cyclists before.


    For example, a pair of Singaporean film makers helped a pair of Kenyans to get into cycling and made a documentary of it. One of the Kenyans, Zakayo Nderi, tried Alpe d’Huez in 2008 and did it in 42 min 10 sec.

    The result of that particular venture is an all African team called the Kenyan Riders. Whilst they are not pro-continential yet, but they probably do have potentials.


  8. Coming from S.A., although now living in Belgium for 11 yrs, I am excited to see a African/South African team getting an opportunity to show what they can achieve competing against the worlds top teams! It all starts with opportunity and making the most of it! Now, through MTN Qhubeka, there are African athletes who have gained an opportunity to show what they can do. I don’t expect them to be jumping on podiums straight away, but am going to be following them closely…and do hope they are able to ride out the glitz and glamour without getting carried away by it all! I’m sure the team management will ensure they don’t just develop on the road but also on a more personal growth level, not to succumb to the pressure and end up like Frank VDB et al!

  9. I agree this post is a welcome relief from the sea of controversy surrounding our beloved sport. Thanks for sharing this, we definitely need something inspiring to root for these days. I’ll be paying attention to these guys this season and hopefully many more to come!

  10. Following the transfers this winter, the team looked a bit like a refugee camp for German cyclist. Checking on their UCI profile, there are only three, but two who have once won the German championship. Well, I am really thrilled to see how they fare and how the African rides do.

  11. I hope the team will do good. I d like to see more african rider on the WT.
    Natnael Berhane of Europcar is a rider I will be following closely, if he does well it should push teams to consider hiring them more often.
    Allez Nate! Allez les verts!

  12. I am surprised that you haven’t even noticed that Orica GreenEdge has had a young African Daniel Teklehaimanot on their roster for the past two seasons?

    Daniel is the first black African to race in the World Tour ranks, he raced La Vuelta last year and finished second in the KOM at the Tour of Poland as well.

    Daniel won a stage of Tour l’Avenir I believe, and was being considered by Garmin when Green Edge signed him (he was racing U/23’s with Cervelo).

    The fact that Daniel was a scholarship holder at the UCI’s academy in Switzerland and Green Edge got their Licence shortly after, I wondered at the time (was signing him a ‘requirement’ of Pat McQuaid’s, so that they would get their licence…?). Incidentally the UCI’s academy of pet projects is worthy of a story in itself…

    Daniel doesn’t speak much English at all, which has hindered his progress unfortunately. He’s a reasonable climber, and a good kid by all accounts, but without being able to converse well with team mates, take instructions from the DS, do any Anglo media interviews, etc. things are always going to be tough. They’re even tougher when the fans and media don’t even know about you.

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