For the past eight years, Bernard Hinault has acted as ambassador for the Tropicale Amissa Bongo event in Gabon and admits that over that period he has witnessed a rapid rise in the level of competition at what is Africa's biggest stage race. In the wake of a second victory in a row by an African rider, with Tunisia's Rafaa Chtioui succeeding Eritrea's Natnael Berhane, Hinault believes African riders are getting ever closer to capturing the biggest titles on the calendar, including the Tour de France.
In an interview with Ouest France conducted during the 10th edition of the race, which concluded at the weekend, Hinault suggests that the day when an African or a Chinese rider wins the Tour is not too far away. "They're athletes, they're there to win! Why should it only be white riders who win?" he says.
"These guys have perhaps got something else on their side, and that's their hunger to succeed! They really want to get out of the difficulties they find themselves in, just as we did 60 or 70 years ago. If you become a high-level athlete, that gives you the chance to better yourself, to make a better life for yourself."
Although disappointed that MTN-Qhubeka, Africa's leading pro team, were absent from the Gabon race, Hinault insists the level of competition was still extremely high.
"They are closing the gap and some of them are already at the same level as European riders," says Hinault. "That was already evident last year with the victory of Natnael Berhane, who was then riding with Europcar. I'll say again, this continent has riders of real talent, and they've now got the equipment they need, that's no longer a problem. What they need now are good coaches and federations that truly want to support them."
Hinault points to MTN-Qhubeka's selection for the Tour de France as the most obvious evidence of the progress African cycling has made. "It's a South African team, but within its ranks there are Eritreans and Rwandans, riders who first emerged here at the Tropicale. They are real climbers and we will be able to see their talent this summer at the Tour. I think it says everything that this team reminds me a bit of the Colombian climbers who came to the Grande Boucle in the 1980s," says the legendary French rider.