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01 Jun, 2016

Hunting for GLORY!

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Last year Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka set our hearts alight as they become the first African team to compete in the Tour de France, as a wildcard entry, but while this was a massive highlight, their journey actually started long before that. Doug Ryder was there from the beginning and takes us through their fascinating journey. – BY ROXANNE MARTIN

The real journey began on the day that the team made the move from being a Continental team to a Pro Continental Team. This was the step to move the team forward, says Doug. “The goal was to provide the best infrastructure we could to give the riders the best opportunity to succeed.” But this was just the beginning… Next came the building of relationships with race organisers, because just being a pro team doesn’t guarantee invitations to races, and that was a daunting task at first. “The riders needed to step up to a race programme that spanned over 200 race-days a year, in weather conditions and on roads that were completely foreign, let alone living in a foreign country for seven months of the year,” says Doug.

Fortunately, having some international riders on the team helped bridge the gap, bringing much-needed experience and guiding hands into what was needed to race on the European circuit, and the team went from strength to strength. Then in 2015 the break they had been waiting for came when they were awarded a wildcard entry into the Tour. However, it also brought huge pressure to perform, because if the team did well, they would be guaranteed an invitation the following year, so this was their big chance to make it. “We wanted to do something significant and be visible in the racing, be part the significant breakaways and show that we deserved to be at this level of world cycling,” says Doug, adding that preparation was key.

 

Vive Le Tour!

The first day of the Tour opened up a whole new world for many on the team. “It was crazy, the riders had never had so much attention, and there were always so many people around. Normally we have very few people in front of our team bus, but now all of sudden there were so many,” recalls Doug. Fortunately, the young team enjoyed the experience of being part of one of the world’s biggest annual sporting events, taking in the moment with big smiles and big hopes for what they were about to start.

When asked about the competitiveness of the Tour and how the team was regarded, being a wildcard entry, Doug tells it like it is: “In the Tour you have the best 198 riders in the world all wanting to do something, so you might not be considered a serious threat as a wildcard team, but no team goes unnoticed.” Thus the team just focused on their plans, and what they wanted to achieve out of the Tour, and the key to their success was that every team member had bought into the plan and shared a united goal, making it easier to achieve.

 

The Big Day

Ironically, one of the biggest moments of last year’s Tour for the team came on Mandela Day, when Steve Cummings won Stage 14, and Doug says he still can’t really put into words what it meant for them, but can recall the finer details of the big day. “We had a meeting in the bus that morning and spoke about the significance of the day for South Africa, as well as Africa and the world. Nelson Mandela was an incredible person, and the team wore special helmets that said #MakeEveryDayAMandelaDay, and then Steve went out and won!”

It was a stage that they had gone over again and again, looking at every detail, and the plan was to be in the break, but the win was never certain, so when it happened the team celebrated as they had never before. The culmination of so many years of hard work to claim that victory meant everything to the team, as well as everyone watching them back home, and Doug says it was a tremendous achievement that meant so much to them. “It took us 10 years of planning, lobbying and negotiating just to get a team into world cycling at this level, and then to win that day, we cried. It was huge!”

What we as viewers see on the day is something which has been planned months in advance, and the strategy and work that goes into running a professional team is something many will never know about. As Doug explains, they analysed every single stage of the Tour in detail, looking at their team and which riders would suit each stage best. Therefore, each rider knows exactly where he needs to be on the start line of each day, and what the focus for that day is. “We did training camps to prepare for the critical stages that we felt would impact the outcome of the race, to get a feel for what was in store. With preparation like we did, you can make your own luck… and we were lucky,” says Doug.

 

Massive Undertaking

When looking at Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka as a whole, the operation is an incredible, well-oiled machine! There are around 70 people on the team, of which only 28 are riders. They have about 250 race-days in a year, which require 20 vehicles and 170 bicycles. The team races across the world, so during the Giro d’Italia they were preparing for the start of the Tour of California and the Tour of Norway, which would follow a week later, a crazy schedule that requires 600 flight bookings a year! Logistical management is key, says Doug. “On a Grand Tour with nine riders, you will have 17 to 20 support staff, so it is a continuous moving business. To get the right riders on the correct bikes to the right races that suit them, in the right vehicles, and in good health and the best condition possible, is not always an easy task!”

Doug is the Team Principal, meaning he is the go-to man for the big decisions, the problem-solver, the one everyone looks to when they need help. It’s a demanding job! “A day is never a normal day, nor a dull day. When the team is racing you can experience both huge elation and incredible sadness each day. Riders winning, riders crashing, to flight delays and many other things can go right or wrong, so you need a great team of people to solve problems and make plans when things don’t go according to plan.” And if that pressure wasn’t already enough, Doug is also the man that the sponsors look to, to make sure that they get their return on investment. “Activating successful campaigns with our partners is critical to our sustainability and increasing our fan base, so we can do more for the thing that drives us most, the Qhubeka charity, and moving the African continent forward.”

This year, the team has been invited back to the Tour and is no longer a wildcard, which takes off some of the pressure of last year, but they are still competing in the biggest road event of the year, so it’s no walk in the park. As Doug points out, there is always pressure to perform. “It is great to have an African team at this level in cycling, and being in the First Division or World Tour is what all riders aspire to be a part of, so that is a great feeling. Every day we race, our riders have a chance to do something significant, so knowing that we are in the Tour de France takes the pressure off performing each day to show you deserve the spot, but there is pressure to perform now that we are guaranteed a spot. Personally, for me it is a huge relief knowing we are in, as all sponsors want to have their brand in the Tour de France.”

 

Onwards and Upwards

Following the team’s success last year, Dimension Data joined as the main sponsor, making a huge commitment to African cycling, and Doug says this has enabled the team to reach the top level of world cycling. “Dimension Data has made it possible for us to move into the first division of cycling, realise an African dream for the sport on the continent, and to make a bigger impact that matters with the Qhubeka charity,” he explains. Also, he says the team is promoting African cyclists to bring more up the ranks to compete with the elites, which speaks volumes about their commitment to expanding cycling in Africa. “We support a development team that is now registered in the UCI Third Division, and the Continental Team consists of 10 African riders – six from South Africa, two from Rwanda and two from Eritrea. They are currently racing out of our training centre in Lucca, Italy. The support we provide to Qhubeka is also generating grassroots cycling at a younger age and getting more people exposed to the sport of cycling.”

Last year, the team helped their chosen charity, Qhubeka, put a phenomenal 5000 students on bicycles, and this year the team is doing it again! It means a lot to the team, as they are living examples that bicycles change lives, and it’s a project that they all support in everything that they do. “Qhubeka is a part of our DNA, because our success can change someone’s life and give them an opportunity to succeed in life. Providing transport to someone makes them independent and free, and creates an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Doug.

 

Chasing More Success

This year, the team has grabbed the spotlight in a big way while competing in all the major tours, often appearing in the headlines, which means that Dimension Data riders are often in the spotlight. However, Doug says this has not changed the identity of the team, now affected their desire to remain humble. “We are the same team with big ambitions and lofty goals, with a passion to make an impact that really matters through the power of the bicycle. Everything is possible if you believe in it and by getting people with the same beliefs to join you – even doing things that have not been done before.”

And of course, his answer to the question on everyone’s lips, what is the team’s plan for this year’s Tour de France, is just what every African cycling fan wants to hear: “To wear the Yellow Jersey!”