A Tour de France invite was always on the cards for MTN- Qhubeka given the team’s strengthening in the transfer market, and their improved status amongst the Pro Continental division but when the news came it still left Brian Smith almost lost for words with emotion.
The Scot moved to the team as interim manager last year and has played in instrumental role in a recruitment drive that has seen Edvald Boassan Hagen, Matt Goss and Tyler Farrar head a raft of new signings, and with ASO confirming the team’s status as a wildcard for the Tour in July, Smith stressed the positive impact the news would have on the team’s Qhubeka Foundation.
“It’s been the goal for us to have an African team at the Tour de France with African riders, and black African riders at the race. It’s going to be huge. When you think positively about something and then you get the official confirmation… I thought I was over all this emotion but obviously not,” Smith told Cyclingnews minutes after finding out the news.
“It’s been a lot of hard work but I’ve only found out via Twitter just now. There’s still a lot of hard work to be done but I’m a little bit emotional and teary-eyed right now. The last six months have been a lot of hard work and we’ve reached our number one goal of racing the Tour de France. It means so much to everyone involved including the sponsors and the partners. On a purely personal level this ranks up there with wining the British road race for the first time when I was a rider. It’s that important and that emotional for me.”
Bora-Argon 18, another team Smith has close ties with, Cofidis, Europcar and Bretagne - Séché Environnement are the beneficiaries of ASO’s other wildcards but the South African team stand out.
Bora’s place represents a new-found love for cycling in the German market, and the French contingent were never in doubt of their seats at ASO’s top table. MTN and their head Douglas Ryder, and Smith, have also gained places in ASO’s Critérium du Dauphiné in June, an event that will surely help the team narrow down the selection to nine riders. Even if the team don’t come away with their target of a stage win in the race, Smith is adamant that today’s announcement will be a footprint in the history of African cycling.
“I hoped, I willed and we worked hard but until I saw the news in black and white, I didn’t take anything for granted. Now I just have these strong emotions having been to the townships, having seeing the riders be there, and my thoughts now are to remind the riders not to give up when they’re racing and to fight right to the line because this news is so important for the Qhubeka Foundation. This means so much for South African cycling. They’ll be so over the moon, just to be part of it and I know I’ve only been on the team for half a year but everyone will be so happy on the team.”
The team’s hunt for stage wins at the Tour should see them race aggressively and in Farrar, and Boasson Hagen they have former stage winners. Smith believes that the Norwegian and Goss could factor into the race for the green jersey, while a tilt at the mountains jersey is also being discussed within the team.
“The aim is still to focus on stage wins, although I’d like to think that we’d have a chance of seeing one of the Africa riders step up into the top twenty or thirty and we will try for a competition jersey,” he told Cyclingnews, “but it’s about getting the breaks, looking for exposure and winning stages.”