Emotional MTN-Qhubeka general manager Brian Smith hopes the team’s Tour de France wildcard will prove a stepping stone for both the squad and African cycling.
MTN-Qhubeka will become the first African-registered team ever to take on the Tour after organisers ASO handed wildcard entries to them and four other UCI Pro Continental teams for this year’s race: Bora-Argon 18, Bretagne-Seche Environnement, Europcar and Cofidis.
And two-time British national champion Smith, formerly in charge at Endura Racing, admitted he has been overwhelmed with emotion after learning of his team’s invitation to cycling’s greatest race.
Smith told RCUK: “It is an emotional day. I’ve probably shed a few tears.
“You work, you stand up in front of the whole team and the partners and you say you will deliver this and you have to stay positive but when it becomes a reality…
“I think what makes me more emotional is that I’ve stood in one of those townships [in Africa] and I’ve seen what it means to Qhubeka [World’s Bicycle Relief’s programme in South Africa].
It is an emotional day. I’ve probably shed a few tears. I’ve stood in one of those townships and I’ve seen what it means to Qhubeka
“That’s the bigger picture, and also what it means to African cycling. This is as big to them as [Kenyan-born] Chris Froome winning the Tour de France.”
Smith is adamant his team will not just be going to the Tour to make up numbers either, having signed the likes of Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tyler Farrar, Matt Goss and Brit Stephen Cummings in the winter.
Coupled with a strong contingent of African riders, Smith wants the team to target stage wins and even a jersey.
“While I could say the pressure is off, the pressure is really on now,” he admitted. “We want to deliver on our goals – that’s not just to go to the Tour de France to make up the numbers but to win stages and target a competition jersey. It’s all going in the right direction.
“I’ve already said it’s part of our team goal, not just to win a stage at the Tour but also the Vuelta too as we’re looking at doing the double.
“I’ve also told the team I want a competition jersey in one of these races, be that King of the Mountains, points or young rider – that’s what we’ll be going for.
“I think a lot of people may under-estimate the African riders but they have ridden their first Grand Tour [at the 2014 Vuelta] and will be strongly this year.
“This news is big for them, and they will go up to the next level – and obviously the riders I’ve signed will help these riders to make it to the next level as well.”
I’ve told the team I want a competition jersey in one of these races, be that King of the Mountains, points or young rider – that’s what we’ll be going for. I think a lot of people may under-estimate the African riders
For the team’s African riders it is another huge boost to the sport on their continent, following Froome’s success in 2013 – which was as celebrated in Africa as it was in Britain – and South African Daryl Impey pulling on the maillot jaune in the same race.
It will also be a significant cause for celebration this year with celebrations planned to mark Mandela Day on Saturday July 18 – a day on which ASO could grant the team permission to swap their black and white striped jerseys for a special commemorative kit.
And Smith believes MTN-Qhubeka’s presence at the Tour will encourage other squads to set up on the continent, with large numbers of the team’s supporters expected in Utrecht for the Grand Depart and through France.
“You have to know the riders and you have to be there, but every African rider will now be jumping up and down and celebrating,” he said. “This is the first African-based team in the biggest sporting event in the world and this is a game changer.
“I’m hoping to see other Continental and maybe Pro Continental teams springing up in Africa now.
“They [can] believe an African team can ride the Tour de France now, and there’s no reason another could not do so in the next ten years.
“This means so much to the whole continent. I know from every African and South African who has been messaging me that this team will get support at the Tour de France and it will be huge.
“There are Irish supporters throughout the world, you get the Americans and I think you will see so many African flags too. Going off the back of Chris Froome and Daryl Impey, it will just be a huge year.
This means so much to the whole continent. I know this team will get support at the Tour de France and it will be huge
“Especially having Mandela Day on July 18 – if the ASO allow us to wear a special jersey then that will be special and another great day for everyone associated with us.”
And Smith admitted the Tour is just one part of the team’s grander ambitions, with another shot at the Vuelta and a potential place on the WorldTour in 2016 also among the goals.
With only 17 teams (rather than the usual 18) registered at WorldTour level this year, MTN-Qhubeka are among the second tier teams likely to play a big role in the season and Smith believes cycling could follow athletics in capturing the African public’s imagination.
“It’s a build-up,” he said on the Tour. “[We raced] one Grand Tour last year, two this year with stronger riders and maybe the WorldTour in 2016.
“We want to be guaranteed. We want backers to back this team and, more importantly, to back the project. We want to keep this going for the foreseeable future. This is a stepping stone.
“If we do go WorldTour next year then we do need a couple of Continental teams, if not a Pro Continental team in Africa. We can’t do it alone.
“Millions of people live in Africa and if you look at the running revolution in Africa, if we can get people on bikes then who knows what the cycling revolution can be.”
Looking ahead, Smith says the ultimate goal is to get the squad’s African riders playing a big part in both this season and the team’s long-term ambitions.
Millions of people live in Africa. If we can get people on bikes then who knows what the cycling revolution can be
“Ideally, the way forward is to help promote the African riders but when you go to the Tour de France and when you look to go WorldTour then you have a limited pool of riders to choose from,” he said.
“I’m still looking at [signing] an African rider to help bolster the team and now we have the Tour de France and hopefully the Vuelta, we want to go to 24 riders at least in the next month. That will give us more strength in depth.
“But the reason for the team getting there is to hopefully build up a bigger pool of riders to choose from. And if we do, why can we not have more African riders on the team?
“It really depends on the UCI as well, but ideally [in the future] we’d have a development team i one in Africa, a Continental team in Europe and then our WorldTour team. something similar to Katusha with RusVelo.
“We want to broaden the net and how do you broaden the net? We need more teams in Africa. British Cycling now has five or six UCI Continental teams and that is what African cycling needs.”
Smith’s British Cycling comparison holds merit, with his former Endura Racing team – now Team Bora-Argon after a merger with Team NetApp and a subsequent change of sponsors – also among the wildcard picks.
Smith admitted he was pleased to see his former riders, including Yorkshireman Scott Thwaites, in with a chance of selection for the Tour.
And alongside Thwaites and MTN-Qhubeka’s own Cummings, another Brit, Tour de l’Avenir stage winner Dan McLay, stands a chance of starting as part of the Bretagne-Seche Environnement team.
We want to broaden the net and how do you broaden the net? We need more teams in Africa
Other riders familiar to fans of British domestic racing, and who could make the Tour start line, include McLay’s team-mate, Mathieu Boulo (formerly of Team Raleigh), and ex-Rapha Condor man Dan Craven (Europcar), should they be picked for their respective Pro Continental teams.
But it is MTN-Qhubeka’s wildcard selection which could have the widest reaching consequences, not just for individual riders but for the African continent.
And having achieved the team’s first long-term ambition, there is likely to be plenty more on the horizon for African cycling’s trail-blazers.
“I’m really, really happy,” Smith concluded – and it’s not hard to see why.