MTN-Qhubeka will become the first African team to race a grand tour on Saturday when it starts the Vuelta a España in Jerez De La Frontera, in the south of Spain. The South African team announced on Saturday that it will field six Africans in its nine-man team.
“It is fitting that Africa’s first ever team to race a Grand Tour starts the one Grand Tour that is closest to the African Continent,” general manager, Doug Ryder said. “I am really proud of this team and how the riders have stepped up in the last two years.”
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MTN will join IAM Cycling, Caja Rural and Cofidis – Swiss, Spanish and French teams – as the race’s four wildcards. The four will ride along cycling’s 18 first division, WorldTour teams.
Ryder had hoped for a Giro d’Italia earlier this year, but instead had to pin its hopes on the Vuelta a España. Receiving the invitation further pushes along the team that only just began to race seriously in Europe last year.
The South African brought the team from the third to second division for the 2013 season. With German Gerald Ciolek, MTN won Milano-San Remo and another 18 races in 2013.
For 2014, he signed in more African riders like Eritreans Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaymanot. Out of his 26 riders, 19 come from Africa – a good percentage that is reflected in MTN’s Vuelta team.
“A historical moment,” Ryder called his team’s start in the Vuelta earlier this year when he spoke with Cycling Weekly. “Daryl Impey and Chris Froome rocked the boat last year at the Tour de France, so it’s time for an African team. With the 40°C heat, it’s great these riders.”
Froome was born in Kenya and spent time in South Africa, where he still has a house, before taking out British citizenship. Before Sky, he raced with Barloworld. The second division team received sponsorship from South Africa but raced with a British license and fielded mostly non-African cyclists in the 2007 and 2008 Tour de France and 2008 and 2009 Giro d’Italia.
“This will bring some our young riders to the a higher level,” Ryder continued. “If Merhawi, 20 years old, was racing in Sky he’d be lost in the team and not likely to even have a chance for the Vuelta. Instead, he now has his opportunity.”
Kudus placed second in the Tour de Langkawi this February and fifth behind Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) in the Route du Sud stage race in June. Alongside him, will be South African Champion Louis Meintjes. The 22-year-old placed second last year in the Under 23 World Championship road race behind Matej Mohoric.
The Vuelta ends the grand tour season, but Ryder looks head with bright eyes to 2015 because the team is joining with Cervélo bikes and rumoured to be taking on riders like Theo Bos. They will help the team earn more invitations and the Africans to make further progress in cycling’s heartland of Europe.
The complete MTN-Qhubeka Vuelta team:
Gerald Ciolek (Ger)
Jacques Janse van Rensburg (RSA)
Merhawi Kudus (Eri)
Louis Meintjes (RSA)
Sergio Pardilla (Spa)
Kristian Sbaraglia (Ita)
Daniel Teklehaimanot (Eri)
Jay Thomson (RSA)
Jaco Venter (RSA)
Provisional list of starters for the 2014 Vuelta a Espana, August 23-September 14
Under-23 world championship silver medallist Louis Meintjes lines up for the Tour de Langkawi
African team MTN-Qhubeka came away with 15 wins in 2013, including Milan-San Remo. More success is planned for 2014