For MTN-Qhubeka, just making the start line of the Tour de France was a dream come true. They had no plans on just making up the numbers but few, even themselves, could have imagined what they would do in their debut Tour.
“If you’d told me that before I would have said you were smoking something,” team principal Doug Ryder told Cyclingnews. “It’s only the second Grand Tour that we’ve ever done.” MTN-Qhubeka made their Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España last season.
It might only be their second Grand Tour but with a stage win, a stint in the mountains jersey, 13th in the overall classification with Serge Pauwels and fifth in the team classification they outclassed many of their WorldTour rivals. The one disappointment of their Tour was the abandon of Louis Meintjes due to gastroenteritis. The team had hoped that they may be able to add a second stage win to their impressive haul with the young South African. Despite this, the team was riding high when they spoke to Cyclingnews two days before Paris.
“It shows that anything is possible and that we can compete at this level and do amazing things,” Ryder said. “After the performances of this Tour the pressure is on for the team but our riders take it in their stride. We haven’t seen the top of what our riders can do and we look forward to growing as this team grows. We look forward to doing better and potentially targeting a podium at the Tour de France in the future.”
Daniel Teklehaimanot gave the team their first success with four days in the polka-dot jersey, eventually relinquishing it on the first day in the Pyrenees to La Pierre-Saint-Martin. “I am still happy. I think for me to stand on that podium was even more than a win in the general because it was my first jersey. The only thing that I wanted in the Tour was to wear that jersey,” Teklehaimanot told Cyclingnews after finishing his final mountain stage on the Alpe d’Huez.”
There has been plenty of hype surrounding the MTN-Qhubeka team since they were awarded their wildcard earlier this season. The South African-based outfit would become the first African-registered trade team to ride the Tour. A North African team in the 1950s was the only other appearance made by a team from the continent. The team brought with it five riders from the continent, including two Eritreans – Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus – a nation never represented in the race. Their participation in the race has been well received in Africa, with support from various heads of state.
“We got a message from the president Jacob Zuma saying congratulations on winning the stage and representing the country so well,” Ryder said. “You can’t get anything higher than that and it was amazing to be recognised for what we do by the president of South Africa. There are not that many sports teams that get the opportunity to get recognised by the president, so it was quite an honour.”
Buoyed by their success, there are big plans in the pipeline team and they have already begun talks with sprinter Mark Cavendish’s agent, with the Manxman out of contract at the end of the season. They have also announced that they are looking into stepping up to the WorldTour as soon as 2016.
“If we’re a WorldTour team we can give more riders an opportunity. I think that’s the goal, to give more of them an opportunity to race grand tours and the biggest races in the world. These guys want to race against the best in the world, they don’t want to ride in the second division in terms of lower quality races they want to push themselves.”