24 Aug, 2015

What a Tour de Team!

Louis Meintjes finds another group of South African supporters at the Tour de France. Photograph by Gruber Images.
The Tour de France is one of the world’s most watched sporting events, both on the side of the road and on television. Photograph by Gruber Images.
Steve Cummings put in a good performance during the individual time trial, and came in 10th position. Photograph by Gruber Images.
The Tour as it traversed the Dutch coastline. Photograph by Gruber Images.
Lotto Soudal’s sprinter Andre Greipel (in red kit) got the better of most other sprinters and picked up four stage wins. That wasn’t enough to get the big German the green jersey. Photograph by Gruber Images.
With some of the nastiest climbs known to the cycling world, the Tour de France is one of the toughest cycling races of all. Photograph by Gruber Images.
The cobblestone sections are regarded as some of the toughest in the Tour. Here MTN Qhubeka p/b Samsung riders Tyler Farrar and Serge Pauwels battle through the field. Photograph by Gruber Images.

With praise, congratulatory messages and huge publicity given to MTN Qhubeka p/b Samsung, you could be forgiven for thinking that one of the riders from “Africa’s team” actually won the yellow jersey at cycling’s biggest event. But let us look at the Tour de France itself and what impact “our team” has made.

Team Sky’s Chris Froome won the yellow jersey at the 2015 le Tour de France. And, one would think, many would have predicted that.

In spite of the fact that there were quite a few very good riders who could possibly have taken that away from the African-born, South African-schooled 2013 and now 2015 winner. Riders like BMC Racing Team’s Tejay van Garderen, who unfortunately had to abandon the Tour, Movistar’s “double chance” leader pair of Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, last year’s champion Astana Pro Team’s Vincenzo Nibali and Tinkoff – Saxo’s Alberto Contador (himself a previous winner of le Tour) could have easily taken top honours if … and only if … Chris wasn’t able to ride the sort of tour we know he can ride.

And did some even predict that Tinkoff – Saxo “rockstar” rider Peter Sagan would win the green jersey, with the interesting addendum that he didn’t actually win a stage? With Lotto Soudal’s in-form sprinter Andre Greipel, who actually won a few stages, Team Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, Etixx – Quick Step’s Mark Cavendish (who also won a stage) and Giant – Alpecin’s John Degenkolb all pretty much in the running for this honour, this probably wasn’t really a safe bet but there you have it.

The best young rider (white jersey) was to all intents and purposes pretty much a foregone conclusion with the young Columbian Nairo the first guess from just about anyone who follows world road cycling. Unless, of course, the 59 kilogram hill climbing specialist developed some sort of aversion to French food.

But who would have guessed that a small budget African team registered in South Africa would have come close to toppling the richest, “big-name” teams in the Team Competition. “Our” MTN Qhubeka p/b Samsung performed very well indeed in this category and actually won this category on four stages (seven, 15, 16 and 17) and got up to second place on the general classification of this category during the race. Although they slipped down to fifth behind Movistar, Team Sky, Tinkoff – Saxo and Astana Pro Team at the end of le Tour, they still beat the likes of AG2R La Mondiale, BMC Racing Team, Cannondale-Garmin, Lotto Soudal, FDJ and Etixx – Quick Step.

The team competition is determined by adding the times of the three best riders of each team and teams whittled down to fewer than three riders (which can happen) are removed totally from this classification.

As a country, South Africa had mixed fortunes at this year’s tour. Although we had a record number of citizens taking part in the tour (four cyclists, one team sport director and one mechanic) and one “adopted” citizen in the form of Chris Froome (who went to school and still owns a house in Johannesburg and has married a South African), two of our riders had to withdraw from the Tour.

First to go was Orica-GreenEDGE’s star lead-out man and previous yellow jersey wearer Daryl Impey, who was involved in a massive crash on stage three. He could not continue the race because of a fractured collar bone. Daryl was the first of three riders from this Australian-based team to withdraw from the Tour.

Then tragedy for MTN Qhubeka p/b Samsung’s star climber Louis Meintjes as he withdrew from the race just before stage 18. The 23-year-old contracted gastroenteritis on the morning of stage 17 but, in an amazing display of courage in the face of adversity, he was able to battle his way through this 161 kilometre stage from Dinge-les-Bains to Pra-Loup. In spite of the fact that there were five difficult climbs, the 2014 South African national champion was able to cross the line with three minutes to spare before the cut off time.

Tour de France cut off times are based on a rather complicated calculation which uses a “sliding scale” percentage depending on the average speed of the race winner added to the time that the winner of that stage crosses the line. The percentage depends on the degree of difficulty of a stage and is at the discretion of the race organisers. So, as a simple example to illustrate, if the stage is a relatively flat and the winner finishes in two hours at an average speed of 33 kilometres per hour, they will add 10% to the two hour winning time and the cut off would be 2:12:00.

Up until then, Louis had experienced a very promising le Tour debut, with a fifth place finish on stage 12 in spite of the fact that he experienced a crash. Reinhardt Janse van Rensburg was the other South African who got a top 10 position when he sprinted to eighth on stage seven.

But it was MTN Qhubeka p/b Samsung’s riders from other nations that got tongues talking.

Steve Cummings, a British rider and former track and time trial star, added a rare jewel to his already amazing performance during the tour where he outsprinted two Frenchmen and won stage 14, which has become known as the Mandela Day Stage. This victory can be added to Stevo’s impressive performance on stage one where he was 10th fastest in the individual time trial.

Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first African rider to wear the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey after the sixth stage. Daniel, who is now a national hero in Eritrea, kept the polka dot jersey on stages seven and eight. Because stage nine was a team time trial without any King of the Mountains points on offer and with a rest day following that, Daniel kept his polka dot jersey until he lost it to Chris Froome on stage 10. To round out what can only be described as a fantastic performance, Daniel rode to a seventh place on stage 16.

With his fourth place on stage 11, ninth on stage 17, sixth on stage 18 and a number of other excellent top performances, Serge Pauwels was MTN Qhubeka p/b Samsung’s highest placed rider on the general classification at the end of le Tour. The Belguim-based rider secured 13th place on the yellow jersey ranking and was 10th on the final polka dot jersey rankings.

The team’s Norwegian sprinter Edvald Boasson Hagen took the following top 10 positions: fifth on stage four, fifth on stage five, seventh on stage six, fifth on stage 15 and fourth on stage 21 (the final day). This is an incredible performance in anyone’s books. Tyler Farrar, the team’s 31-year-old sprinter from the United States managed a seventh place on stage seven.

But road cycling and stage racing in particular is a team sport, and all nine of MTN Qhubeka p/b Samsung’s riders contributed to the overall performance of the team. Not only did team mates help put the likes of Edvald, Serge, Daniel and Louis into a position that they could go on to excel in stages, but they acted as “domestiques” (riders who are tasked to bring water to other riders), lead out men (riders tasked to lead out sprinters during sprint sections or at the end of the race) and the riders who pace riders up hills and over long stretches of road.

So, for all intents and purposes, MTN Qhubeka p/b Samsung is living up to the dream of its team principal Douglas Ryder, whose simple aim is to get an African to the top step of a World Tour Race.

“The theory is that Africa currently has the world’s best endurance runners so why can’t we have the world’s best cyclists?” he asked during an interview with Modern Cyclist in July 2015 (printed in September 2014 Modern Cyclist). It seems as if this vision is well on its way to becoming reality.

Even Chris Froome has predicted this. And most predicted he’d win the 2015 Tour de France too, and that happened.

According to Dimension Data, the following titbits from the 3 360 kilometre long 2015 le Tour de France:

  • Highest recorded sprint speed was 78.48 kilometres per hour (John Degenkolb, Giant Alpecin, stage five);
  • Average recorded speed across the entire 21 days of racing was 38.34 kilometres per hour;
  • The highest average speed on a stage was recorded on stage one (55.45 kilometres per hour);
  • The lowest average speed on a stage was recorded on stage 19 (28.94 kilometres per hour);
  • Riders covered 59 556 metres of climbing over the 58 categorised climbs. This is more than six Mount Everests;
  • Together, the riders burned an estimated 23 940 000 k/cals, which translates to 85 807 hamburgers.
Raymond Travers

Raymond Travers

Modern Cyclist Editor |