By Gregor Brown
The 2015 Tour de France wildcard announcement nearly made MTN-Qhubeka's Doug Ryder pass out while at his computer in South Africa this morning.
The team's invitation, one of only five given to Pro Continental teams, marks a first for MTN and a first for an African team in the world's biggest bike race.
His telephone buzzed with calls and messages continuously during the interview with Cycling Weekly. One message he kept from earlier in the day was from Tour boss, Christian Prudhomme.
"Hi, this is Christian Prudhomme," it read. "Welcome to the Tour de France. Please give me a call."
Ryder, MTN-Qhubeka's team principal told CW: "I nearly passed out. A friend called me just after the Tour organiser started to put the teams on Twitter.
"I saw the first Tweets go up with the first division teams, then, the last one with the wildcards teams took about five to six minutes.
"I honestly had chest pains and wasn't breathing. I called my wife and I said, 'What's happening?' Ten years of work came down to me sitting on Twitter and clicking refresh over and over. When we saw MTN's name there, I had to read it five or six times. I didn't really believe it."
Ryder could hardly believe the Twitter announcement and SMS from Prudhomme. He had worked hard to get to this point, yet his team, only two years in the second division, remains relatively young.
"We've been so ambitions with our African quota in the team. Some people said that we were on a five- to ten-year plan, so to do it in three years with our team that is so new and inexperienced from a Euro racing and youth perspective, that's incredible," Ryder continued.
"It's also incredible that new riders we have signed [from WorldTour teams] sought us out and wanted to be a part of it. In the last two years, 2013 and 2014, it's amazing to see that we created a brand and a team that the whole world wanted to see succeed and that top riders wanted to be a part of."
South African Daryl Impey became the first African in the race leader's yellow jersey in 2013. Brit Chris Froome, who was born in Kenya, won the 2013 Tour title. Barloworld raced with South African backing, but carried a British licence when it raced the Tour for the first time in 2007. The team’s sole African at that Tour, South African Robert Hunter, became the continent’s first licensed cycist to win a stage.
MTN became Africa's first professional team when it joined the second division in 2013. Ryder's roster included an African majority and a few Europeans like German Gerald Ciolek, who won the Milan-San Remo for the team that year.
For 2015, the 22-man roster includes 13 Africans and new cyclists Ryder signed from first division teams this winter, like Brit Steve Cummings (from BMC Racing), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp).
"We've got a long list of riders for the Tour already," Ryder said.
"We've been thinking about it. All things being well, fit and healthy...We had a six to three ratio of Africans in the Vuelta. The Tour team could be 5 to 4 depending on how the guys are going."
MTN wants to win a stage and compete for the mountains, points or young rider classification. Already, six months before the race starts in Utrecht, Ryder explained that he feels a sense of accomplishment.
"The possibility of raising money for the Qhubeka charity, which putting African kids on bikes...How big can it be? Time will tell," he added.
"MTN [South Africa's multinational telecommunications company] has believed in this dream for seven years, it is its eighth year as a sponsor. They walked the long hard yards with us, believed in it and made it possible. For them to see all their investments come through, that's great. I'm happy because I wanted to give them that opportunity in the Tour."
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