South African cycling seems to be in limbo after Nolan Hoffman's positive doping test for EPO followed Barloworld's withdrawal from the sport's team sponsors list, but the country's number one cyclist is back in the ProTour ranks. Robert Hunter has moved to the Garmin-Transitions team with the aim of becoming a stage winner in Grand Tours again after two difficult seasons with Barloworld.
"It's great to be back in a big team," said Hunter, who spent three years with Pro Continental outfit Barloworld after the Phonak folded. In 2006, Hunter was a dedicated domestique for Floyd Landis, who tested positive after winning the Tour de France.
"I've enjoyed my time with Barloworld, but our start was never secured in all the races we wanted to take part in, and it made our life as bike riders difficult," the 32-year-old from Johannesburg said.
"I should have joined Garmin two years ago when I was first offered a position," he lamented. "I didn't take the opportunity because of what was promised to me. As a South African, I thought I had to be with Barloworld. We were told the team was getting bigger and better, but it only got smaller and smaller after the successful Tour de France we had in 2007."
Hunter himself won a 2007 Tour stage in Montpellier, as did in Briançon Juan Mauricio Soler, who secured the polka dot jersey. The 2008 Tour was a totally different story, though, with Barloworld drawing the most attention for Moises Dueñas' positive doping test.
"It was a big investment for this South African company to sponsor a cycling team, but the return for them would have been much bigger, had they invested a little bit more after our successful first Tour de France," Hunter said. "At the end, it's a big waste and a missed opportunity for South African cycling. Most of the South African cyclists hired by Barloworld also haven't taken this opportunity to become true professional bike racers."
While English-speaking teams are flourishing worldwide - see examples such as RadioShack, Sky, HTC-Columbia, Garmin-Transitions, BMC, Cervélo and Saxo Bank - South African teams have taken a step backward. Yet, Hunter sees a great future for himself. The Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France are on his agenda this year. He'll be part of the train leading Tyler Farrar for bunch sprint stage wins.
"The team also respects me for what I've done in the past, and there will be more than enough opportunities for trying to win sprints myself as well," said Hunter, who is expected to play an important role at the Santos Tour Down Under. "I probably had my best winter training ever," he said. "I didn't come here to drink beers. I'll play as hard as possible."
His "winter training" took place in sunny South Africa. In the Garmin-Transitions line up for the South Australian event, Canadian Christian Meier is the only rider who hasn't spent the past two months training in the Southern Hemisphere, so Hunter is expecting efficient back-up from Australians Matt Wilson, Cameron Meyer, Jack Bobridge and Trent Lowe as well as New Zealander Julian Dean, who is now famous for being one of the best lead-out men in the pro peloton.
Hunter's younger compatriots, Daryl Impey and John-Lee Augustyn, also former Barloworld team members, have secured a start with newly born teams RadioShack and Sky respectively.
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