MTN-Qhubeka: Building for a future

MTN-Qhubeka has been making headlines recently with a raft of new signings for the 2015 season. Since bringing on Brian Smith as the interim manager at the beginning of August, the team have announced no less than five WorldTour riders for next year’s roster, including Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tyler Farrar and Matt Goss.

The raft of big-name signings are designed to fit into the team’s main goal: Getting Africa on Bikes.

The Qhubeka charity has been giving bikes to the townships of Africa since 2005, handing out their 50,000th bike a week ago. The word Qhubeka is a Zulu word meaning to “move forward.” With that in mind, the team brought on Smith, who was given the job of securing eight (potentially nine, should sponsor negotiations work out) WorldTour riders and accelerating the development of the team and charity as a whole.

“The biggest thing is the Qhubeka charity, it’s all about the charity,” Smith told Cyclingnews. “We want to get Africans on bikes and make sure that they get a chance to race in Europe and potentially ride the Tour de France.”

Despite countries such as Eritrea where cycling is the national sport, the continent of Africa is woefully underrepresented in the upper echelons of the sport. Since 2007, the team has been developing African talent. They made the move to Professional Continental last season, before finally making their Grand Tour debut at this year’s Vuelta a España.

Making the Tour de France

The Vuelta a España was good for the team, with all nine riders – including six Grand Tour debutants – finishing. However the team makes no bones about their big goal: getting into the Tour de France. It provides a platform, far more than any other race, to spread their message.

“I think we can move quicker and get the charity brand out there quicker if we get to the Tour de France,” Smith explains. “It’s the biggest race in the world and it gets 10 times more publicity than other bike race. With the Qhubeka charity and the brand awareness then hopefully there will be more money put into the charity pot.”

Moving up to Professional Continental status, opened up a new world for MTN-Qhubeka, but it is a difficult one to compete in. With so many teams fighting for the few wild card spots in the Grand Tours, the South African outfit has to try and stand out from the crowd. To do that, they need victories. That is where the new signings come into the picture. Smith says that cost meant that top GC contenders and pure sprinters were out of the question, while youth development is restricted to the African riders.

In addition to Goss, Farrar and Boasson Hagen, the team has also taken on Theo Bos and former Qhubeka rider Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, with an announcement regarding Stephen Cummings expected soon. Between them, the six riders have won 11 stages over all of three Grand Tours. And while Bos has struggled to transfer his talents to the road, he has five world titles on the track. Smith hopes that they can find that form in the early part of the 2015 season, a crucial time for any wildcard hopefuls.

Returning to former glories

Thus far, MTN-Qhubeka has been a team with two goals in life: improving the lives of everyday Africans by giving out bicycles and nurturing the first African-registered Tour de France champion. However, to bring the success that they need they must jump-start the stagnating careers of their new signings, something Smith believes the team can do.

“We’ve got guys that can win and guys that have delivered. A leopard doesn’t change its spots and I believe they can do it again. The teams that they are with, I don’t think have helped to motivate these riders. They’re in a position that they’re unhappy with,” said Smith.

By giving them a little more freedom and rethinking where their goals lie, Smith thinks he can return the riders to their former glories.

“We want to race the way these guys want to race instead of a controlled fashion. I think that’s essential, because riders want to race how they want to race and if you restrict that then that’s what de-motivates them,” he explained.

“I believe that Bos has the power for something like Paris-Roubaix. Boasson Hagen, is he Flanders and Roubaix or is he more a Liège-Bastogne-Liège guy? I think he is more (suited to) Liège-Bastogne-Liège. If they help each other then I believe they can win some very big races.”

Out of Africa

The big names riders have been brought in to move things along at a quicker pace but in the collection of riders that they already have, MTN-Qhubeka believes it has some of the most promising talent in the peloton.

Two names that crop up again and again are Merhawi Kudus and Louis Meintjes. Both completed the Vuelta a España earlier this month and, at 20 and 22 respectively, that is no mean feat.

Reigning South African champion, Meintjes even infiltrated the break on stage 14. He was dropped towards the end, but still forged on to finish fifth. Kudus comes from the cycling-mad country of Eritrea and, along with compatriot Natnael Berhane, is seen as a true contender for the Tour de France title in the future.

It is in these riders and their African teammates where the future of this team lies, but the new signings will be there to give them a helping hand.

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Born in Ireland to a cycling family and later moved to the Isle of Man, so there was no surprise when I got into the sport. Studied sports journalism at university before going on to do a Masters in sports broadcast. After university I spent three months interning at Eurosport, where I covered the Tour de France. In 2012 I started at Procycling Magazine, before becoming the deputy editor of Procycling Week. I then joined Cyclingnews, in December 2013.