MTN-Qhubeka will become the first African team to obtain Pro Continental status in 2013 and the ambitious squad has designs on participating in the Tour de France within two years.
At a presentation on the eve of the world championships in Valkenburg on Saturday, UCI head of sport Philippe Chevallier confirmed that MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung will be granted a Pro Continental licence for next season, and he lauded the development as proof of cycling’s global progress since the establishment of the continental circuits in 2005.
“In 2005, we only had two events on the African calendar, but it has developed over the past seven years,” Chevalier said. “To have a good African team like this will be great for African cycling and perhaps will inspire other teams.”
The South African-registered MTN-Qhubeka squad was founded in 2007 and has competed at Continental level in recent years, as well as funding women’s and mountain bike outfits. Team principal Douglas Ryder is determined that his squad – 70% of which will be composed of African riders – will progress to WorldTour level in due course.
“We’re registering as Africa’s first Pro Continental team and ultimately we want to produce an African world champion,” Ryder said. “Look at athletics – African distance runners are the best in the world, so why not cyclists?”
Confirmation of MTN-Qhubeka’s elevation to Pro Continental level follows Friday’s announcement that Gerard Ciolek will join the squad from Omega Pharma-QuickStep for 2013. The team, which has a budget of €3.5 million, will also include Ignatas Konovalovas (Movistar), Andreas Stauff (Eddy Merckx-Indeland), Italian neo-pro Kristian Sbaragli and two additional European signings, yet to be announced.
The team’s primary sporting aim is the promotion of African talent, however, and the majority of the squad will hail from the continent. Riders on the roster include Adrien Niyonshuti of Rwanda, who competed in the mountain bike event at the London 2012 Olympics, and South Africans Jay Thomson and Louis Meintjes, currently at Lotto Belisol.
Departing the team will be Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg, however, with the South African – winner of two stages at the Tour of Portugal last month – headed for Argos-Shimano.
In 2013, MTN-Qhubeka’s African riders will be based in Lucca, Italy, with Ryder explaining that living and training in a collective environment will help to facilitate their transition to life in Europe. “It’s difficult for riders to go from living in a third world country to living in a first world country.”
Aiming for the Tour
MTN-Qhubeka’s calendar for 2013 has yet to be established, but Ryder is set to have talks with both ASO and RCS in the coming weeks as he unveils his project to the world. “The dream is to take the first black African riders to the Tour in the modern history of the race,” he said.
While riding the Giro or the Tour in the team’s first season at Pro Continental level will prove difficult, the stated objective is to reach La Grande Boucle by 2015. In the meantime, MTN-Qhubeka will look to ensure that the team’s riders and the message they embody will make an impact in the international peloton.
While primary sponsor MTN is Africa’s largest telecommunications company, the second name on the team’s jersey is not a commercial entity but rather a volunteer organisation with cycling at its heart. Qhubeka, an Nguni word meaning “to progress,” is a non-profit organisation which provides bicycles to children in Africa in return for community and environmental work.
“Out of 16 million school going children in South Africa, 12 million walk to school, often on journeys of over two hours each way,” Ryder said. “Providing bikes is a way of addressing the issue, but Qhubeka provides a hand up rather than a hand-out.”
As well as providing African cyclists with a platform to perform on the world stage, therefore, the team will also raise awareness of the Qhubeka programme and its mission in Europe and beyond.
The squad’s management staff will feature a distinct influence from the former Cervélo TestTeam, with Jens Zemke as head sport director and Thomas Campana as manager. Brent Copeland also joins as a sport director, while Jean-Pierre Van Zyl will oversee the MTN-Qhubeka feeder team, which will be run in partnership with the UCI World Cycling Centre, and will race on the African calendar with African riders.
“It’s difficult to put together a team like this from South Africa, so we’re fortunate to have people that the European peloton trust and that has helped us to put the team together,” Ryder said. “But this is Africa’s Pro Continental team – it’s not about selling a product.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.