Team Dimension Data – the squad which set out to have an African rider win the Tour de France by 2020 – will feature fewer riders from the continent in 2019 in a bid to maintain their WorldTour status.
A potential reduction in WorldTour teams from the current 18 to 15 looks set to see three teams lose the chance to compete at the highest level by 2020, and manager Doug Ryder doesn’t want to be the weakest link when it happens.
Currently, the South African outfit – which supports Qhubeka in donating bikes to people from impoverished backgrounds – is ranked last for 2018, behind Katusha-Alpecin.
“The investments we’re making now are about being sustainable. Ultimately we want to mobilise the African continent, with the success of this team. We want to create an African hero. We can’t do that if we don’t exist,” says manager Doug Ryder.
“There will be some hectic decisions we need to make. One of those is reducing our African footprint – so we’ve got more depth and quality.
“Then we can open it up again [in later years] and bring riders from the African continent back in. Hopefully the next row of riders – that were inspired and motivated by this team that’s opened the door for Africa – are better than potentially some of the ones that started that journey with us.”
“We will take some pain at the end of this year, when come the end of September, some people don’t get contracts. Currently 13 of 27 riders come from the African continent – and we will reduce that by a couple.
“Our sustainability is the most important thing. The riders we’re bringing into the team now are all around that. And our WorldTour ranking.”
“Has our focus changed? No. Do we care about Africa and mobilising the continent on bicycles? Critically. Do we go backwards to go forwards? Sadly, today we do.” he adds.
“Dimension Data has been an amazing partner, they back us backed us 100 per cent and love everything around this team… but cycling is a big sport.”
The team has signed some notable Classics riders for the coming year – including Michael Valgren who won the 2018 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Amstel Gold Race.
“We want to respect the Classics, they have so much rich history. And we need to focus on the big ticket races. You score so many WorldTour points at the Classics, it’s bang for buck,” says Ryder.
“It’s been our worst year ever. We just had so many accidents and incidents that happened that we just never built momentum.
“When your leaders, and the senior riders in the team are not firing, it starts to expose the depth and quality that we have,” Ryder says.
“The whole Classics programme, we had the wrong riders in the wrong races,” says Ryder. “The sport’s become too hard now and you can’t fake it. You can’t go with a good team and expect to do great things.
“We had an amazing Giro… Louis Meintjes [GC leader] didn’t fire, but Ben O’Connor in his first Grand Tour, at 22, rocked it… until he broke his collarbone on stage 19, lying in the top-10 overall.”
“I was like: ‘are you kidding me?’ It’s like someone built a voodoo doll with Dimension Data on it and poked it, and whacked it on the table. It was just never ending.”
The logistics of having African riders on the team don’t help, either.
“It costs us three times as much to have an African rider on the team. I’ve talked to the IOC [International Olympic Committee] about an athlete passport, so our riders could travel the world more easily,” he says.
The UCI’s decision to cut Grand Tour teams from nine to eight – something intended to decease the chance of formulaic racing influenced by the best – has been a negative influence on the overall goal, too.
This year at the Tour, Team Dimension Data had only two African riders on its roster: Reinardt Janse van Rensburg and Jay Robert Thomson, both from South Africa.
“For us, as an emerging team from a continent that needs opportunity, that throwaway spot is the African rider’s spot, for a rider who you want to bring on and give hope,” says Ryder.
“And it means you can’t go with a dual plan.”
President of the UCI David Lappartient has floated the idea of further reducing Grand Tour squad sizes to just six riders. Needles to say, Ryder is against this idea.
“The UCI don’t really know… that’s the disconnect, there needs to be a closer conversation between teams like ours, the UCI and organisers. I wouldn’t reduce it any more. I would shorten the stages and make it really exciting.”
The team’s renewed focus on chasing top results at the WorldTour, Ryder says, is not its end goal – more an intermediate step. Albeit in the wrong direction.
So far, 800,000 bikes have gone to charity, “when we win races, and when donations increase, the two charts mirror each other,” says Ryder – and continuing that work remains a huge part of the vision.
“What is the next part of the dream? I suppose it’s a child that starts on a Quebeka bike, that ends up at the Tour de France. That’s the cradle to the Holy Grail story.”
“[To get there] we have to focus. Our budget is limited. We cant be everything to everybody, or we will be nothing to nobody.”