Rollercoaster week for MTN-Qhubeka at Tour de Langkawi

All’s well that ends well for South African team

On the face of it, the Tour de Langkawi has been a pretty happy affair for MTN-Qhubeka – they couldn’t have asked for much more from the race than winning the queen stage and the general classification.

Yet those late successes put a gloss on what has otherwise a stressful and frustrating week for the South African team. As the team’s directeur sportif, Michel Cornelisse, noted: "It was a week with ups and downs but in the end it’s up."

The troubles started on the eve of the race when the marquee summit finish at Genting Highlands on the penultimate day was scrapped and replaced by the shorter and much gentler Fraser’s Hill. The team had come to the race just for that one day – the only true mountain and GC stage in an otherwise sprint-oriented week – after Merhawi Kudus was second on it last year, going on to take second on GC. It’s fair to say the decision did not go down too well.

"For us it’s a serious problem," Cornelisse told Cyclingnews at the time. "Four climbers came especially for that stage. If we knew this one week earlier we would have changed the team completely. It’s a big disappointment when you come here – travelling across the world – and the race is almost flat and the mountain stage is out. We are here now so must make the best of it but we are not really happy with it."

They got on with the job and without knowing too much about Fraser’s, hoped it would be hard enough for Merhawi Kudus or Daniel Teklehaimanot to make significant inroads in the general classification. Then came the second setback; the night before that penultimate stage, three of their riders fell ill. Daniel Teklehaimanot had a fever and didn’t turn up at the start-line while Kudus and Natnael Berhane had succumbed to the bout of food poisoning that had spread at the teams’ hotel.

"I said to the guys again, 'we are here now we make new plan'," said Cornelisse. In the end, they went through numerous plans. Kudus was plan A on that mountain stage but he was so ill he had to pull out part-way through. Teklehaimanot, plan B, was back in the hotel and plan C was to go for the win with Berhane, also a strong climber, but he gave the message with two kilometres to go that he didn’t have the legs. Next in line was Jacques Janse van Rensburg but when he turned round in the last 2km and saw Reguigui there and looking strong, he handed the baton over for plan E to come across the line for victory that was surprising and cathartic in equal measure.

The victory is a welcome boost as the team sets its sights on its big goal in July, when it will become the first African team to take part in the Tour de France. The Vuelta a España last year was a seminal moment for the team – their first Grand Tour – and the Tour wildcard has been followed by invites to other big races like Paris-Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. This win in Langkawi only adds to the growing sense of momentum that is surrounding the team.

"Everybody is proud of this victory," said Cornelisse. "I have been in contact with the other sport directors in Italy [where MTN have a team for Tirreno-Adriatico] and they were all crazy when they heard we were winning here. It’s really a team effort and everybody is so motivated and so happy for each other – that’s really important."

Things are going so well, even, that Cornelisse admits he and his fellow directors will have a few selection headaches ahead of the Tour.

"It’s very hard for us to make a good selection of nine riders because we can choose 15 or 16 good ones. We’re going to have a hard time choosing our team, but that means we have a very good team."

When asked if 2015 was to be a big year for MTN, Cornelisse gave a wry smile and said: "I certainly hope so."

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