Friday, October 19, 2012

From Africa to the Tour de France

Team MTN-Qhubeka - ©

One of the most interesting projects on the cycling scene right now is the African Team MTN-Qhubeka. After a strong season lead by super talent Reinardt Janse van Rensburg (14 wins this year), Team MTN-Qhubeka topped the UCI Africa Tour ranking while Janse van Rensburg ended 9th on the Europe Tour ranking.

The African team have big plans for the coming years and now it’s the time to take the next step. If everything goes according to the plan the team will be racing a dual program next year. One team in Europe as a Pro-Continental team and another one in the races on other continents as an African feeder team with the intention of raising the awareness of cycling on the African continent.

Sponsor upgrade
Earlier this year MTN (a South Africa-based telecommunication company) announced that they would increase their investment in the cycling team in order to lead the first African team all the way to the Tour de France. A goal the team aim to reach by 2015. “Our vision is to see an African rider wearing the yellow jersey”, Chief Marketing Officer at MTN SA, Serame Taukobong tells.

In order for this to happen the team need to gear up on many levels. First of all becoming a Pro Continental team - the first African one ever seen - and to help its case Team MTN-Qhubeka have already signed strong riders like time trial specialist Ignatas Konovalovas (stage winner in the Giro d’italia), sprinter Gerald Ciolek (former U23 World Champion and stage winner in the Vuelta España) and climber Sergio Pardilla (former runner up in Tour of Austria, Volta a Portugal and Tour de l'Ain and Top20 in the Giro d’Italia) for the upcoming season.

Team MTN-Qhubeka
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What’s important to notice here is that this isn’t just another “big company" sponsored cycling team as we know them. Qhubeka (meaning ‘to progress‘ and ‘to move forward’) is a charity giving bicycles to children in rural areas across Africa and the whole idea behind the project is to raise awareness of cycling and inspire young people to start cycling.

Some of the riders on the team turning professional now grew up without electricity and running water and that it’s possible to get where they are now is the story the team want to tell. A positive story the cycling world really needs these days.

That’s also why it’s so important to keep Qhubeka in the team name despite the lack of financial aids. To make sure that Qhubeka will stay, the team is right now negotiating with a big multinational company. So far this new moneysponsor remains unknown but looking at the latest donation from Qhubeka (see picture above) it seems like it’s the South Korean electronics giant Samsung who will help the team become Pro Continental next year.

Saying goodbye to the star
Unfortunately season star rider Reinardt Janse van Rensburg won’t be a part of the team next year. Being the fourth most winning rider of all this season, only surpassed by Andre Greipel (19 wins), Peter Sagan (16) and Mark Cavendish (15), Janse van Rensburg was naturally a high priority for many big team teams wanting to boost their points and keep their status. Team MTN-Qhubeka encouraged Reinardt Janse van Rensburg to wait before signing with another team, but never seeing a project like this in African ever before, Janse van Rensburg couldn’t take the chance of waiting and decided to go elsewhere.

Losing him is a huge loss to the team. It’s very sad to see a rider leaving after 3 years of development, especially since our teams focus is the development of African cycling”,  Team Principal of Team MTN-Qhubeka, Doug Ryder  tells C-Cycling and adds “we are hoping that Reinardt will integrate into the team again in the coming years”.

Reinardt Janse van Rensburg hasn’t officially announced his team for next year, but Argos-Shimano seems to be his pick.

Future in Europe
Next year Team MTN-Qhubeka will be based in Lucca, Italy and for many of the team’s African riders it will be their first time living in Europe. Therefore the team is right now in process of establishing a service course and a team house in order to make the riders’ transition to Europe as smooth and easy as possible. 

Brent Copeland & Doug Ryder
Picture from Twitter
The riders need to live in the environment and conditions of Europe and get used to the European races for the team to achieve its objectives of developing world class African riders. It is important for our team and riders to be close to each other for training and support and close to the service course where all the team race decisions will be made. Most of the riders have not been away from home for that amount of time so they will support each other when times are tough”, Doug Ryder explains.

To help out with the language and to make sure they integrate well in Europe the riders will be able to count on the support of former Lampre DS Brent Copeland who will act as European Manager for the team. South African Copeland has lived 10 years in Italy and according to Doug Ryder; “The riders are looking forward to this new adventure and the lifestyle in Tuscany”.

Success criteria
As a new team on the Pro-Continental scene you can’t really expect Team MTN-Qhubeka to achieve great results right away. This year the African team had 24 victories (being the 9th most winning team in 2012) and knowing Pro-Continental is a big step forward, Team Principal Doug Ryder points out that less than half of the wins in 2012 will make for a successful season next year. 

The team’s success criteria for 2013 are:

- Making Top20 on the UCI Europe Tour ranking
- Making Top15 in the World Champions Team Time Trial
- 10 UCI race wins

Team roster
Despite losing Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, Team MTN-Qhubeka are still able to show a strong line up on their team roster. Right now the team are still negotiating with riders for the coming season but as of today the roster looks like this:

Gerald Ciolek (GER)
Ignatus Konovalovas (LTU)
Sergio Pardilla (SPA)
Jay Thomson (RSA)
Louis Meintjes (RSA)
Johann van Zyl (RSA)
Andreas Stauff (GER)
Youcef Reguigui (ALG)
Kristian Sbaragli (ITA)
Frekalsi Debesay (ERI)
Tsgabu Grmay (ETH)
Adrien Niyonshuti (RWA)
Meron Russom (ERI)
Jani Tewelde (ERI)
Songezo Jim (RSA)
Bradl ey Potgieter (RSA)
Dennis van Niekerk (RSA)
Jacques Janse van Rensburg (RSA)
Jaco Venter (RSA)
Martin Wesemann (RSA)
In a time where cycling seems to be bleeding more than ever Team MTN-Qhubeka sure is one bright story that deserves to be told.

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