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South African Team MTN-Qhubeka is expecting an ambitious move in the coming month. The plan is clear: they will apply as a Pro Continental team for 2013 and hope to race the Tour de France 2015.
"In the next three to five years, we want to take an African team to the Tour de France with black African riders," Doug Ryder, the team principal told Cyclingnews. This ultimate goal has been his dream for the last fifteen years.
In order to build a strong roster, Ryder appointed all the best talents of Sub-Saharan Africa. Notably, 20-year-old Ethiopian talent Tsgabu Grmay, who finished fifth in the Italian Under-23 Nations Cup last season, joined the team as well as two Eritrean riders, Meron Russom, who was second in the 2010 Continental African Championships, and Jani Tewelde.
Only their countryman Natnael Berhane, a stage winner in the Tropicale Amissa Bongo ahead of Quick Step's Jérôme Pineau, is missing from this African dream team. The roster officially includes 13 road riders, plus Rwandan star Adrien Nyonshuti, who is registered as a mountain biker, given his qualification for the mountain bike event in London Olympics.
MTN-Qhubeka secured its roster by signing an agreement with the UCI World Cycling Center. The "cycling academy" allows their riders to race part of the year with the South African team while MTN-Qhubeka pays for their scholarships in Europe.
In accordance with UCI rules, the team is mainly composed of South African riders. Ryder has, however, a more demanding internal policy: "between 50 and 60% of the athletes must be black African riders." For this reason, he is investing money in the development of some of the raw talents from Sub-Saharan countries.
"A Sub-Saharan African rider will always feel at home with us," the team manager said. "In Europe or America, he always would be a foreigner in a foreign team and he would never get the opportunity to race the big races".
Ryder continued: "We also understand them both in terms of physical make-up and background. Just to teach them how to communicate by email, to upload data... It costs them a lot of money and time to get from a maturity point of view and a global living in Europe point of view to come to where they come from."
The 50% black African roster meant some of riders had to leave the team last year, like Dilan Girdlestone and James Tennent, respectively third overall and stage winner in the Tour of Rwanda, a very mountainous 2.2 race.
In middle-term, to ensure results and drive the African talents, MTN-Qhubeka might sign "five to six international riders," Ryder said. "They will give us UCI points, credibility and knowledge."
However, MTN wants to keep its "true" African soul. Ryder recalls the example of team Barloworld, which was the first South African squad to compete in the Tour de France, in 2008. "It was South African sponsored, British registered and Italian team, so it was not a South African team," he says. "We want an African team, not just South African".
This ethic is based on the South African State global policy and philosophy and on the main team sponsor’s interests, as the telecommunication company is based in over twenty African countries.
To make his project sustainable, MTN-Qhubeka's boss knows he needs more than sponsorship, money and the current or coming African young talents: he needs to spread a true cycling culture through the continent.
He explains: "We have to create a Magic Johnson of cycling, or Michael Jordan, who did amazing things for basketball: everyone in Africa was wearing baggy shorts and big shoes. If you have got an icon like that, it can change cycling on the continent for ever."
Beyond sport, though, Ryder knows his project can affect some people's destiny and social status. His road rider and mountain biker Niyonshuti is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and a kid who comes from a poor family. "MTN-Qhubeka is not about making a return on investment or marketing," the manager said. "It's about changing people's lives."