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27 Aug, 2014

Racing for others

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Riders from MTN Qhubeka powered by Samsung have made history by being part of the first South African registered pro continental team to race at a grand tour, the 2014 la Vuelta a España. But what makes this unique team different from the rest? Modern Cyclist chatted to team principal Doug Ryder and found out.

While reading this, you are probably following the progress of Louis Meintjies, Gerald Ciolek and other riders from MTN Qhubeka who are in a pitched battle against the likes of Sky’s Chris Froome and Cannondale’s Peter Sagan in the Vuelta a España. Riders like Chris will probably be eager to make up for disappointing Tour de France performances and that alone would make many other riders a bit uncomfortable.

But what might make others uncomfortable will probably motivate MTN Qhubeka riders even more because they are racing for a higher goal. A cause intertwined into the DNA of this history-making pro cycling team which, when they lined up at the start of the Vuelta a España on 23 August, became the first South African owned and registered cycling team to take part in one of cycling’s five grand tours.

“At the end of the day, we are racing to put more kids on bicycles. The more successful the team is, the more money we can raise for Qhubeka,” says Doug Ryder, himself a former professional cyclist.

This ethos comes from a dream that Doug had in 1997.

“The theory is that Africa currently has the world’s best endurance runners so why can’t we have the world’s best cyclists?”
At that time, Doug was still riding professionally and had captained the South African cycling team at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996.

That dream grew, and in 2008 Doug started talking to Qhubeka. In 2010, Doug’s team MTN Energade parted ways with the energy drink manufacturer and the opportunity was created for something really unique in world cycling, a professional team giving naming rights to a charity organization. And thus MTN Qhubeka started competing on the South African racing circuit.

Race victories in both the Pick ‘n Pay Cape Argus Cycle Challenge and the Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge were curtain raisers for the team’s agreed three year term as a pro continental team, which started in 2013.

“But I’ve always believed in developing South African talent,” explained Doug, “so we created the MTN Qhubeka Feeder Team and the World Cycling Centre Team, which not only carries our brand in South Africa, but is also a platform from which we can develop new African talent.”

The 2014 winner of the Boland Bank Tour, Nic Dougall reached the MTN Qhubeka pro continental team after performing well in the MTN Qhubeka feeder teams.
“This shows that young riders can get into our pro continental team if they perform at a high level,” he continued.

It then takes a while for a rider, who is used to South African conditions, to get ready to tackle European races.

“We use technology like power meters. We know what level the pro continental teams are at and we develop our riders to reach similar levels using that technology,” he said.

Others are amazed that MTN Qhubeka seemingly went from nothing to the second most successful pro continental team in terms of race wins in 2013, and that with a 70% African flavour.

“It took us five years of hard work to bridge the gap between us and the continental teams and now we are the favourites. Teams race against us!” he exclaimed.

Speaking about rider recruitment, the MTN Qhubeka pro continental team has an interesting approach to attracting some of the best riders in the world to its ranks.

“I recently interviewed a rider who wanted to come to our team. He is an international rider who has won a stage in the Tour de France before. When I told him that MTN Qhubeka team members have to commit their time and effort to Qhubeka and that he’d need to attend Qhubeka bike handovers and other similar events, he said he wasn’t into doing that and that he only wanted to race. He didn’t get a contract!” Doug explained.

In fact, MTN Qhubeka riders have to give a percentage of their prize money towards buying bikes for Qhubeka’s bikes for kids program. They also donate their race memorabilia, race jerseys and even team bicycles which are auctioned off and the proceeds donated to the program.

“With that, we hope to raise R500 000 which will all go to Qhubeka,” he smiled.

Team members also help to raise awareness.

“We’ve got this thing called ‘five minutes a day’ where our riders and support people have to create exposure for Qhubeka by spending five minutes per day talking about our goal. This could be talking to a friend, a complete stranger in a coffee shop or even on their particular social media platform. They have to tell people about what they are racing for,” he said.

The team doesn’t stop there, as riders are actually measured on that effort and the impact it makes.

“They are 100% ambassadors for Qhubeka, which is why Gerald Ciolek came to South Africa last year to be involved with a bike handover,” he explained.

The team’s other sponsors all have to give something to the cause. Italian-based clothing sponsor Castelli, for example, donates 12% of the sale price of branded clothing to Qhubeka.

And the impact of this on the ground is incredible.

“You get to bike handover ceremonies in the rural areas and the kid’s eyes light up. By giving him a bicycle, you’ve actually given them independence because they now have access to so many things. Qhubeka is a hand up program, not a hand out program, so the kids have to work before they get the bike by planting trees, improving their school attendance and picking up litter, and then they appreciate the bike’s value more,” he explained.

So with a bike, a child can attend school more and open up his or her universe. And it is this impetus that Qhubeka merged with World Bicycle Relief, which is linked with World Vision, one of the largest Christian-based charity organisations in the world. This alliance has meant that 500 bicycles per month can be given to kids who attend the schools where World Vision operates.

And to spur the children on, Doug wants to see a future cycling world champion who hails from Africa.

“If this does get off the ground, I believe we can have a black African world champion who can become an icon who can, in turn, encourage people to get on their bikes,” he said.

From MTN Qhubeka’s point of view, the next goal is to get into the 2015 Tour de France, and to do that, Doug will have to make a few changes to the team.

“We’ve realised that 70% African component to our team is perhaps a bit ambitious so we’ve decided to drop that by 10%. So we really need the depth that one or two real star riders will give us. And with a number of sponsors pulling out from other teams, I believe there will be riders available at the end of 2014,” he explained.

International riders like Gerald Ciolek play an important role in the MTN Qhubeka set up, not only with their ability to perform well in races but to act as mentors for the younger, African riders.

“So we need everyone’s support, not just for the races we know we will compete in, but also the races we want to compete in, like the Giro de Italia and the Tour de France,” concludes Doug.

Since the beginning of 2013 until June 2014, MTN has won 29 races, or stages of races, with Gerald Ciolek (German) taking six, Louis Meintjes (South African) taking five and Tsgabu Grmay (Ethiopian) taking five.

The effect of your support
Doug says that when the riders see, hear
and feel the support of the fans, it can make a huge impact on their performance.

“When we raced in Switzerland, Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot got into a break away. A group of Eritreans, who had no interest in cycling and didn’t know of the existence of an African pro cycling team, saw this break away on TV, drove 200 kilometres to where we were and waited for him at the team bus, all of them waving their Eritrean flags. When Daniel finished the race he was overwhelmed by this small but enthusiastic group of fans. They were all over him, taking photographs, it was unbelievable. He felt like a rock star!”

And if you do go to Europe, and you do find yourself in a country where the MTN Qhubeka team is racing at that time, Doug has promised an amazing offer for Modern Cyclist readers.
“We are so passionate about Africa and South Africa that if our supporters get hold of us via Facebook, we’ll give them memorable moments. We’ll invite them to tour the team bus. That is an opportunity to see the ‘formula one pit lane’ of the cycling world and you’d literally be able to touch the rock stars of cycling. I would love to do that!” he smiles.
Social media is also powerful and you can show your support for Team MTN Qhubeka by sending messages on Twitter or Facebook.
“We will be able to track where the fans are so we’ll know where our fans are, so South Africa, please get Tweeting!” he concluded.


 

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