Team MTN Qhubeka comes to the professional peloton with a vastly different background from the other teams. Fifteen of the 21 riders are African, and the team wants to deliver the first African World Champion. The team got its European season off to a successful start with Gerald Ciolek's fifth place finish last weekend at the Trofeo Laigueglia, and now looks to do well Saturday in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
And if the team does well there, it dreams of a wildcard invitation to the Tour of Flanders. “If we get on the podium Saturday, that is a very real chance,” sport director Jens Zemke told Het Nieuwsblad.
The South African-based team moved up to the Professional Continental ranks this year. “We have an average budget, but our mission attracts large companies: Trek, Samsung, Skoda, Vermarc and MTN, the largest telephone company in Africa.”
The team's mission statement requires that at least two-thirds of the riders be African, and so the team features nine South Africans, three Eritreans, an Ethiopian, an Algerian and a Rwandan. Ciolek will lead the team again on Saturday, but five of the eight riders are African.
One of them is Ferakalsi Debesay, of Eritrea, where, he says, everyone rides a bike. “For fun, for transportation but also in competition.” The racing culture is deeply ingrained in the land, he said, as it “came along with the colonizer, Italy. Cycling is the number one sport in Eritrea.”
He laughingly calls his homeland “the Belgium of Africa. Only, we have no cobblestones. And it's warmer. "
Debesay is a natural climber, as he says his landsmen are “destined for endurance sports. They are frailly built and they all live at altitude.” His goal? “A winning ride in the Tour de France. When? "About two years."
Algerian Youcef Reguigui doesn't look to the Tour but to the one-day Classics, wanting “a great team and a great race win. Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo, I don't know.” Saturday will not be his introduction to cobblestones, as he already rode the U23 Tour of Flanders. “But in the pros, it's still something else.”
Reguigui, 23, must also balance his personal beliefs with his career. As a practising Muslim, "I must pray five times a day, but you can slide those hours. And I follow Ramadan. Not from July 9, as is prescribed this year, but in December. After the cycling season. "