6 March 2015

THE WHEELS OF CHANGE: RISING OUT OF AFRICA

Daniel Gallan

MTN-Qhubeka are set to become the first African team to race in the Tour de France. Their journey has been one of upliftment and dedication. This is no mere sporting success story; what is happening with this team transcends the standard checks and balances of professional sport. CONQA Sport sat down with Douglas Ryder, owner and manager of the team, to discuss his MTN-Qhubeka's journey and how through a unique ethos and philosophy, he is set to make history.

 Team MTN-Qhubeka in action.  Image supplied by MTN-Qhubeka

Team MTN-Qhubeka in action. Image supplied by MTN-Qhubeka

In 1992, Songezo Jim became an orphan at the age of 14 when his father had tragically died only two years after the passing of his mother. Living in the rural Eastern Cape just outside of Mtata, Jim had no choice but to travel close to 1 000km to go live with his aunt. He now calls Lucca, Tuscany in Italy his home and on July 4th this year he will potentially line up in front of the world’s media and 3.5 billion people watching on TVs across the globe as one of the very first black Africans to race in the Tour de France. Not bad for someone who only learned how to ride a bike as a teenager.

“These are the kinds of success stories we want to create. These are the heroes that young people can look up to and aspire to emulate,” says Douglas Ryder, the aptly named owner and manager of MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung, the high performance cycling team that will become the first from Africa to compete in world cycling’s showpiece.

Ryder, captain of the South African national cycling team between 1993 and 2002, and 2001 Cape Argus Cycle Tour winner, got an idea in his head during his cycling days that just never went away. Endurance cycling requires stamina, focus, hard work and the will to drag your body over the line when every muscle is screaming at you to stop. The same rules apply to long distance endurance running, a sport dominated by Africans, especially those near the Horn of Africa.

“Africans are at the very top of the world when it comes to endurance running,” Ryder points out. “The theory is that the athletic ability for long distance endurance sports is there. We asked the question, “If the best runners are from Africa, why can’t we create the best cyclists?” My dream is to have African riders on every elite team in world cycling and to have an African stand at the top of the podium as World Champion.”

An interesting theory, but the logistics involved are not as simple as with road running where a pair of shoes and a stretch of tarmac is all that is required. The bikes used at this year’s Tour de France cost somewhere in the region of R117 500 ($10 000). An entry level bike costs at least a few hundred Rand; a vast sum of money for children living in conditions similar to those that  Jim grew up in, many of whom have never been on a bike before. Ryder identified this problem early and joined up with Qhubeka.

Named after the Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa) word that means “to carry on” or “to move forward”, the organisation aims to help rural communities progress by giving people bicycles to encourage mobility and therefore independence. Bikes are not handed out for nothing and have to be earned by doing work that helps improve the recipient’s environment and community. Qhubeka does not provide funding to the cycling team; rather the team provides a platform for Qhubeka by donating space and exposure that would usually be occupied by a corporate team sponsor.

“We realised that if we wanted to take riders from Africa and make them the best in the world, it would be very difficult if they didn’t have bikes,” Ryder explains. Since 2004, more than 50 000 bikes have been distributed to children who have now been exposed to a sport they otherwise would not have. In addition to the athletic benefits, they now have the freedom of mobility which allows them better access to schools and integration with people from different villages and towns. This mobility has encouraged entrepreneurship and the exchange of ideas that walking 

Handing out bicycles does not automatically guarantee a place on the elite stage of cycling. It has been a long and arduous journey for Ryder and his team, one filled with naysayers and pessimists at every stretch along the way.

 A young child is given the opportunity to make something of himself as well as gain access to a sport he would never have encountered.  Image supplied by MTN-Qhubeka.

A young child is given the opportunity to make something of himself as well as gain access to a sport he would never have encountered. Image supplied by MTN-Qhubeka.

The challenges that Ryder faced and continues to face are not shared by European team owners. The costs involved are incomparable as the South African Rand at the time of writing comes in at 11.83 to the US Dollar, 13.1 to 1 to the Euro, and 18 to 1 to the British Pound. This means that costs are through the roof for equipment storage, training facilities, flights, accommodation, food and salaries. As Ryder stresses, his team must match the standards set by elite European teams in terms of facilities and resources provided to his athletes. Not only is the team an African one but so is the telecommunications company MTN that sponsors them.

Cultural challenges have also arisen. “Africans generally don’t travel well,” Ryder says, his experiences showing that this is applicable for riders across countries and socio-economic standings. He explains that his riders initially got home sick and found the language and food changes difficult. When they first started racing in Europe, Ryder explains that seasoned professionals eyed the Africans with scepticism at best, and at worst with disdain, with the general perception that this was not a sport for Africans. His riders even reported pelotons as physically confrontational with a little more than the standard jostling for position doled out to his men.

Ryder knew that before he could take his team to Europe he first had to establish dominance in his own country and continent. MTN-Qhubeka won their first UCI Africa Tour in 2012 and have since gone on to win it three times in a row. This continental success allowed Ryder to turn his attention to Europe. It started small; a 3 month tour to Europe in 2011 was the first time many of his riders had left the continent. In 2012 this increased to 5 months and brought 14 race wins against some of the best teams in the world. The wheels started turning faster and in September 2012, Ryder presented his team to Christian Prudhomme and Yann Le Moënner, the general director and CEO respectively of Amaury Sport Orginisation, the company responsible for the Tour de France.

“We told them that we were going to register a Professional Continental team and that we were coming to take on the best in the world as an African team,” says Ryder. “When we showed them the demographics of our team, that we were 60-70% African, they were less than optimistic of our chances. When I told them that we had a 3 year plan to get to the Tour, Prudhomme said we wouldn’t be there in 10 years! The message was that they loved our ambition but didn’t give us a chance of achieving our goal.”

Ryder left that meeting more determined than ever. He says he felt like a “bull with a red flag in front of my face”. He tirelessly approached sponsors and riders, selling not only the feel good factor of their ties with Qhubeka, but also of the promise to make history as the first African team to mix it with the big boys in a sport long regarded as elitist and exclusive. Understandably, this was quite a dream to pitch and by his own admission, he considered abandoning his lofty ambitions. It was thanks to the small successes that kept the fire burning.

In 2012, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg put the team on the map when they were still travelling in a 25 year old, second hand truck bought from T-Mobile and staying in backpackers as opposed to luxurious hotels. His stage wins and impressive breakaways against elite riders showed that MTN-Qhubeka’s riders were not touring Europe for the sights. Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti became the first black African to finish in the top ten of the ABSA Cape Epic (the most prestigious mountain bike race in the world) and was then encouraged to make the step up to endurance road racing. Eritrean rider Merhawi Kudus picked himself up from a terrible fall in the first week of the Tour of Spain to finish the race (the team were not only the first African team to compete, but finished 12th out of 22 teams and were one of five teams to finish with all their riders). More and more African riders were showing promise as well as desire and the makings of an elite team started to form.

International riders have also bought in to the success story of the team with American Tyler Farrar, Australian Matthew Goss, and most notably Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen now riding under MTN-Qhubeka colours. Riders of such a high pedigree would not be throwing away their careers and reputations for a team that was merely a charity organisation pretending to be a cycling team. It speaks volumes of the ability and ambition of the team when a rider of Boasson’s calibre takes a pay cut and chooses them over Team Sky, his former employers.

 Qhubeka organisers races for young children to compete and showcase their talent. Ryder is convinced that an Africa will go on to become world champion. It is through these races that future stars will be born.  Image supplied by MTN-Qhubeka

Qhubeka organisers races for young children to compete and showcase their talent. Ryder is convinced that an Africa will go on to become world champion. It is through these races that future stars will be born. Image supplied by MTN-Qhubeka

But the vision and ethos cannot be ignored when evaluating the team. Ryder stresses that winning is not the end goal for his riders. He explains to them that what they are racing for means more than stage victories and coloured jerseys. 50% of the rider’s obligations are off the road with social media work, community appearances and raising awareness for Qhubeka a top priority for the team. Ryder explains that by putting less emphasis on winning it benefits his team during races. Firstly, when the last 20km is approaching and his riders’ bodies are close to breaking point, knowing that this race means more than a trophy drives his athletes to greater heights. The emotions of helping those less fortunate have proved to be a greater motivator than the promise of glory. Secondly, with no pressure to win at all costs, MTN-Qhubeka’s riders are not tempted to dope, something that not many teams can say of their riders. “We have a zero tolerance with regards to doping,” says Ryder. “We won’t employ anyone with a doping history. We explain that as ambassadors for Qhubeka, if they dope, our riders are literally taking food out the mouths of children.”

MTN-Qhubeka’s riders are set to make history. There has never been a black African rider in the Tour de France. Ryder says there may be two this year. Of the nine riders that will start the race, five will be African. Ryder is adamant that we are at a turning point in the history of professional cycling. 2015 will forever be remembered as the year that African cycling was invited to sit at the main table, not just as novel guests, but as equals based on merit. MTN-Qhubeka is taking this year very seriously and Ryder promises something special on Nelson Mandela’s birthday (18 July) at the Tour.

Ryder knows that a once off year is not enough, he wants to create a legacy and launch pad for African cyclists. As he rightly points out, no European scout has ever considered thinking outside of the box and taking a gamble on an African rider, to be fair, that didn’t look like changing without Ryder’s vision.

“We want to bring the whole continent forward,” beams Ryder. “We want to build a brand that is taken seriously as a cycling team, but also one that improves the lives of people living on this continent. We’re doing things our way and that is vital to us.”

Ryder believes that in 3-5 years there will be an African rider on the podium of a Grand Tour and his next step is to compete regularly on the World Tour as an African team. This year’s Tour de France is merely the next step towards his vision. It is a massive stage to showcase the talents of Africa and the vision that was born on this continent.   On the 4th of July, when those nine riders stand in front of all those millions watching all over the world, they won’t merely be another nine cyclists striving for success; they will be representing an entire continent that will no longer be seen as inferior. This is a watershed moment for the sport. The wheels of change are in motion and cycling will never be the same again.

MTN-Qhubeka are changing the way cycling is perceived not only on the continent, but globally as well. Visit their website and get involved through their Twitter page

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