Comment: Africa’s Team gives Britain’s Steve Cummings back his wings – to devastating effect
Merseysider reignites his career after being afforded free role
British riders are continuing to rule the Tour de France, with Africa’s Team, Dimension Data, the beneficiaries so far with four wins in the first seven stages.
Mark Cavendish has been in resurgent form at this year’s Tour – at his sprinting best in claiming three stage wins and a day in the yellow jersey.
But his resurgence is nothing compared to that of fellow Brit Steve Cummings, whose career has received a new lease of life since he dropped down from WorldTour level to join the team then known as MTN-Qhubeka last season.
Veteran Merseysider Cummings, 35, had, up until the end of the 2014 season, had a solid if unspectacular professional career – runner-up at the 2008 Tour of Britain with Barloworld and in 2011 with Team Sky; a Vuelta a Espana stage winner with BMC Racing in 2012 and later Tour Mediterraneen champion too.
An Olympic silver medallist in the team pursuit in 2004, Cummings had also started seven Grand Tours in all prior to joining MTN-Qhubeka, including defying illness as a domestique to third-placed Cadel Evans at the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
Moving to the African team, which at the time meant a step down from WorldTour level, has revitalised Cummings’ career, however, giving him back his wings – to devastating effect.
He fired a warning shot in his very first race in 2015 when he won the Trofeo Andratx-Mirador d’Es Colomer in Mallorca, beating Alejandro Valverde in a two-up sprint.
With MTN-Qhubeka awarded a wildcard, a solid effort on the Terminillo, complemented by two top-ten finishes in the time trials book-ending Tirreno-Adriatico, then earned him a sixth-place finish in that race, to prove he was far more than just a decent workhorse.
His victory at last year’s Tour de France, on Mandela Day, was worth the team’s outlay alone – and Cummings has not stopped attacking in races since.
Solo victory on stage four of this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico showed his adaptability, attacking when it became apparent the break would succeed and Dimension Data’s sprinter, Edvald Boasson Hagen, would not have a shot at the stage win.
He was even humble enough to admit the stage was supposed to be one for the Norwegian – another former Team Sky rider to have been revitalised by his move to the African team.
His victory at the Tour of the Basque Country, on stage three, was a superb showcase of opportunism meanwhile – spotting an opportunity when the breakaway was caught just outside the final kilometre, Cummings put the power down and foiled the sprinters.
And to prove how good his legs were, Cummings was at it again at the Criterium du Dauphine – this time courtesy of a 50km solo break on the mountainous final stage which brought his third WorldTour victory of the season.
So when he was in the break again on stage seven of this year’s Tour de France, having coasted around at the back of the peloton and slipped well down the general classification in the preceding week, it was clear he had something special planned again.
Everybody watching knew he would try something too, and yet when he went nobody could follow – timing his final attack perfectly, just as two groups of riders from the original breakaway were about to come back together.
Given his time trialling ability, Cummings’ efforts to stretch out a lead to 30 seconds by the time the climbing started on the Col d’Aspin were nothing more than would be expected.
And yet once the climbing started, and with Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali injecting pace into the counter-attack just behind, Cummings’ gap actually went up.
It was more than a minute by the time he crested the climb – by which point Nibali had popped – but he left nothing to chance on the descent either with a masterful solo ride down the mountain and onto the finish.
Cummings has been a perfect fit for the African team – giving the Qhubeka charity, which supplies bikes to African children, the exposure success in the world’s biggest bike races brings.
But more importantly for Cummings, the team has been a perfect fit for him – freeing him from the responsibilities of having to work for the GC leaders at Team Sky and BMC Racing to devastating effect.
That Great Britain have not selected him for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games only serves to highlight how his undoubted talent has not been universally recognised – the team may be built for Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, but Cummings, you would think, would have represented the perfect foil.
After all, with just five riders in the team, the Brits learned the hard way at the London 2012 Olympic road race about how difficult it is to try and control the race.
But the British team’s loss is undoubtedly the gain of “Africa’s Team” – and with plenty of time left in this Tour de France, do not rule out Cummings producing more fireworks by the time the race reaches Paris.
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