WHAT do you get when you combine a Scotsman with an African cycling team? An invitation to the Tour de France, it seems. History will be made in Utrecht on Saturday. It will be the first time a truly African professional team will start the world’s biggest bike race. And on a more minor note, it will be the first time a team with a Scot at the helm has been anywhere near the Tour de France.
Brian Smith, who raced as a professional in the 1990s, and whose career included British titles and a one-year stint with a young Lance Armstrong at the Motorola team, has become something of a recruiter par excellence. But this time last year came the Paisley man’s biggest challenge yet. He was asked by Douglas Ryder, principal at MTN-Qhubeka, Africa’s leading team, to sign the kind of riders that would gain the squad a place at the Tour.
Smith delivered some stars with points to prove: the Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen joined from Team Sky; Australia’s Matt Goss arrived, so did America’s Tyler Farrar and Britain’s Steve Cummings. The wild card Tour invitation followed in the spring.
It was necessary to add the Europeans but they are not what give this team its raison d’etre. As Smith says: “It wasn’t about getting results; it was about getting in the Tour. We couldn’t take developing riders, we had to get World Tour riders to show [Tour organisers] ASO that we were serious. It’s the names that sell the team.” But Ryder is determined that the team remains at least 50 per cent African, thus, five of the nine riders selected for the Tour are Africans.
Africa might appear to be the lost continent as far as cycling is concerned, with only Chris Froome – raised in Kenya, but now racing for Britain – making a major impact, winning the Tour in 2013 and starting this year as one of the favourites. In fact, the sport has a following and a vibrant scene in Rwanda (subject of an excellent book, Land of Second Chances, by Tim Lewis), Algeria and South Africa, but the country with the strongest, most distinct cycling culture comes as a surprise: the tiny, troubled east African nation of Eritrea.
“Anyone who has visited the country can tell you that cycling is its unofficial fifth state-sanctioned religion,” read a recent article about Eritrea in The Economist. The sport was introduced by the country’s former colonial rulers, Italy. The article continued: “You cannot walk in Asmara, the capital, without hitting a peloton — be it a cyclist from one of the country’s professional teams or youngsters riding in hand-me-down Lycra on rusting commuter bikes.”
There are two Eritreans in the MTN-Qhubeka team for the Tour: Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot, the latter fresh from his success at the Tour warm-up race, the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he won the King of the Mountains title. Smith says that Teklehaimanot’s aim at the Tour will be to try to win a stage. That will also be the goal of their most promising rider, the young South African climbing specialist Louis Meintjes. “A stage win is the main aim,” says Smith. “The other goal is to finish all nine riders.”
They are taking small steps towards bigger goals. One relates to the second name on the team jersey (MTN is the continent’s biggest telecommunications company), Qhubeka, a charity with the motto, “Mobilising people with bicycles”. They do this by giving bikes to people in Africa in exchange for work and good deeds in their communities. Since 2005 they have mobilised 54,000 Africans by giving them bikes.
The other aim of the team is to provide young Africans with a pathway into professional cycling. Which means cycling in Europe, the sport’s heartland. It is a mystery why so few have made it, particularly when you consider the endurance pedigree of countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, whose runners dominate. But that wasn’t always the case, Douglas Ryder points out. “Endurance running has been transformed in the last 30 years, since Kip Keino won his Olympic gold in 1968,” says the team principal, pictured below.
“Now there isn’t a white runner in the first ten,” he continues. “I’m not saying cycling is going to get there because we’ve found with our African riders that they absolutely have the engine, the heart and lungs, but what they lack, and what you can’t learn outside Europe, are bike skills and handling.
“Riding with 200 other riders on three-metre-wide roads, where every 20km there’s another town and twists and turns and road furniture… in Africa you go in one direction and there’s no kink in the road for 50km. It’s very difficult to simulate the conditions of European racing, and that’s one thing that’s holding our boys back.”
The team has a European base in the Tuscan town of Lucca, a home from home that is intended to accelerate the necessary learning and skills-acquisition. There are other unusual challenges, such as the time and expense of acquiring visas. But Ryder is confident that MTN-Qhubeka will get there with an African rider. The most likely might be Meintjes, the outstanding 23-year-old South African.
But who might be the cycling equivalent of Kip Keino – will we see a black African rider beating the Europeans at their own game? Ryder thinks so. “Merhawi Kudus is the kind of rider who comes around every ten years,” he says. At 21, Kudus will probably be the youngest rider at the Tour. “That guy is off-the-charts determined. He finished the coldest Milan-San Remo in years. He rode the Tour of Spain, crashed so many times in the first four days, but got up and carried on. We told him, ‘Merhawi, you can pull out at any time’, but he just wanted to finish. When he broke his collarbone at the Tour of Turkey [last year] he came straight back and did the Route du Sud, won by Nicolas Roche with Alejandro Valverde second and Michael Rogers third. He was fifth. He’s an incredible talent.”
But riders such as Kudus are raw. This, too, is where the new European team-mates can help. “The professional peloton is intimidating, it’s scary, especially for an African rider,” says Ryder. “The African guys tend to be shy and reserved; they’re not comfortable fighting for position, using their elbows.”
Smith, who combines his job with the team with race commentary for British Eurosport, will be “taking the helm” at the Tour, driving in the number one team car and calling the shots. Previously, he built the Cervelo team, a dominant force when they launched in 2009. MTN-Qhubeka is a bit different. It will take patience. Expectations are adjusted accordingly, but there are small victories that are not necessarily measured in race wins.
“They are strong riders,” says Smith. “They just have to learn. But Mark Cavendish came up to me at the Tour of Turkey and said, ‘Your guys rode well on the front’. It’s nice to see that noted. If you give them a purpose, you give them motivation, and then you start to see their ability. All that’s holding them back is not believing in themselves enough. My job is to shove them forwards.”