The importance of Qhubeka Assos for African cycling

Andrew Greaves
·9-min read
 Merhawi Kudus, Daniel Teklehaimanot MTN-Qhubeka during stage two of the 2015 Tour de France, a 166km stage between Utrecht and Zelande, on July 5, 2015 in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Merhawi Kudus, Daniel Teklehaimanot MTN-Qhubeka during stage two of the 2015 Tour de France, a 166km stage between Utrecht and Zelande, on July 5, 2015 in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Douglas Ryder's now-successful search for a sponsor for his WorldTour team was about much more than saving a cycling team, it was about saving a project he’d poured his heart and soul into for more than a decade.

A former professional, albeit with a modest palmarès, Ryder has seen his team grow from a regional side to a top-level force in the last decade and a half, although it's fair to say results have become harder to come by in recent years.

But, given their goal of helping provide a pathway for Africa riders into the World Tour and their collaboration with the Qhubeka charity which distributes bicycles in South Africa, maybe the results are secondary to the legacy they are creating.

British former rider Steve Cummings joined the then-MTN Qhubeka in 2015 fresh from stints at Team Sky and BMC, says the work the team did with Qhubeka had a big impact on his outlook on life.

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Cummings, who retired at the end of 2019, said: "Just going [to Africa] made it all real and it felt like we were doing a lot of good. We were a small part of such a powerful organisation. That was such a good feeling.

"In terms of the sporting side, it took away a little bit of the pressure because there were other goals rather than just sporting performance goals. Raising awareness allowed us to race with freedom.

"In terms of cycling teams, some teams have an impact, and some teams leave a legacy. It's hard to monitor legacy because you need time but ultimately what Qhubeka has done and what the team has done for Qhubeka, that potentially can leave a legacy that is pretty powerful."

Cummings cemented himself forever in the history of the story of 'Africa's team' when he claimed its first Grand Tour victory on stage 14 of the 2015 Tour de France on the most apt of occasions – Mandela Day.

But even though he says his favourite year as a pro was 2015, he still feels that results – even a Tour stage win – don't tell the full story.

"In terms of cycling teams, some teams have an impact, and some teams leave a legacy," he said.

"It's hard to monitor legacy because you need time but ultimately what Qhubeka has done and what the team has done for Qhubeka, that potentially can leave a legacy that is pretty powerful.

ALTODEMONCALVILLO SPAIN  OCTOBER 28 Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg of South Africa and NTT Pro Cycling Team  Stefan De Bod of South Africa and NTT Pro Cycling Team  Nicholas Dlamini of South Africa and NTT Pro Cycling Team  during the 75th Tour of Spain 2020 Stage 8 a 164km stage from Logroo to Alto de Moncalvillo 1490m  lavuelta  LaVuelta20  on October 28 2020 in Alto de Moncalvillo Spain Photo by David RamosGetty Images
ALTODEMONCALVILLO SPAIN OCTOBER 28 Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg of South Africa and NTT Pro Cycling Team Stefan De Bod of South Africa and NTT Pro Cycling Team Nicholas Dlamini of South Africa and NTT Pro Cycling Team during the 75th Tour of Spain 2020 Stage 8 a 164km stage from Logroo to Alto de Moncalvillo 1490m lavuelta LaVuelta20 on October 28 2020 in Alto de Moncalvillo Spain Photo by David RamosGetty Images

Cummings' team manager for that Tour, which also saw Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot become the first black African to wear the polka dot jersey, was former British national road race champion Brian Smith.

Smith was brought in by Ryder to take the team to the next level, to attract bigger-name riders.

He did just that, adding the likes of Cummings, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Tyler Farrar to the ranks. But he says despite the arrival of those riders, the philosophy of the team remained the same – to develop African cycling.

"When I negotiated with each rider, I made sure they understood the ethos of the team and how important I was in the development of African cycling," he said.

"They all bought into it and were excited. My philosophy was that if I could show the African riders that some current stars of the cycling peloton were just like them then they would gain in confidence.

"When you mix with some of the best when eating, socialising, training and racing then you start to realise, if they can do it so can I. This seemed to work, and the team came together well and everyone felt an equal."

Cummings remembers a presentation Ryder game to his riders on the eve of the 2015 Tour which charted the journey that the team, and Ryder himself, had been on.

"It was just a few riders, a few bikes. The next year they had a little car and a couple more riders and it just went on like that for a number of years.

"It grew and grew and grew. Perhaps that was always unsustainable. It almost grew too fast."

After a solid start in the Continental ranks in the early 2010s – where success was largely found on the road in national championships – the team moved up to Pro-Continental level for the 2013 and found almost-instant success at a memorable Milan-San Remo that year.

It's fair to say the snow, rain and sub-zero temperatures were about as far from the warm climes of southern Africa as you could get. But MTN announced themselves on the big stage with the German sprinter Gerald Ciolek edging out Peter Sagan for the win.

Songezo Jim, who would become the first black South African to ride the Vuelta a España and the Giro d'Italia, was part of Ciolek's support team that day.

Orphaned at 13, Jim only started riding a bike a year later. By the age of 21 he was rubbing shoulders at the top table of world cycling. For many, he is the epitome of why the team exists.

Speaking from his home in Cape Town where he now runs a cycling academy, Jim says hopes the team's African spirit continues in 2021 under its latest guise, Qhubeka Assos.

"The project was really, really close to my heart and it still is now even though I'm not involved in the team anymore," he said.

"What it does is just incredible, but they must keep the African goal. I think that's faded away a little – less African riders and less in the management staff. I know it's not easy. It's a team I have a lot of respect for.

"I'm so grateful for the opportunities the team gave me because no-one else would have given me the chance to race Grand Tours, to race in Europe for so many years."

EJEADELOSCABALLEROS SPAIN  OCTOBER 23 Merhawi Kudus Ghebremedhin of Eritrea and Astana Pro Team  Tsgabu Gebremaryam Grmay of Ethiopia and Team Mitchelton  Scott  during the 75th Tour of Spain 2020 Stage 4 a 1917km stage from Garray  Numancia to Ejea de los Caballeros  lavuelta  LaVuelta20  La Vuelta  on October 23 2020 in Ejea de los Caballeros Spain Photo by David RamosGetty Images
EJEADELOSCABALLEROS SPAIN OCTOBER 23 Merhawi Kudus Ghebremedhin of Eritrea and Astana Pro Team Tsgabu Gebremaryam Grmay of Ethiopia and Team Mitchelton Scott during the 75th Tour of Spain 2020 Stage 4 a 1917km stage from Garray Numancia to Ejea de los Caballeros lavuelta LaVuelta20 La Vuelta on October 23 2020 in Ejea de los Caballeros Spain Photo by David RamosGetty Images

One rider still hoping to be part of the Qhubeka story is fellow South African Reinardt Janse van Rensburg.

The 31-year-old is yet to sign a new contract but having spent all but two years of his professional career with the team in its various guises, Van Rensburg is keen to continue.

"NTT is the African team and as an African rider that is so important and gives me some extra motivation. It's not just about my results but also what the team can achieve.

"It's been a beacon for African riders to aim for and has been a way into the World Tour for a lot of African riders that wouldn't have otherwise got that opportunity.

"It would be devastating for cycling in the continent when the team doesn't exist anymore. It's not easy to come from an African background and just make it into Europe.

"Along the way you need someone to guide you and nurture you and with both the team and the Continental team it's been a good opportunity for rider from wherever in Africa to come into Europe."

Kenya-born Chris Froome might be the nearest the continent has come to claiming a Grand Tour GC victory of its own but Jim believes the talent is there – it just needs a chance to develop.

"There's definitely a potential, there just needs to be more investment in the project, really focus on the African riders.

"You've got guys like Tsgabu Grmay that are doing incredible things, Merhawi Kudus doing well and you've got Natnael Berhane who's also doing great.

"There's a lot of riders and they could be there. But it's not easy."

Cummings isn't sure any of the current crop will make the leap but he's certain Ryder will be the man to find Africa's first, true, Grand Tour champion.

"I still think Africa is really untapped and people are unaware of how many challenges they have just to get on the start line. In terms of getting them on the podium I would have to say at the moment it's unlikely.

"That doesn't mean to say there isn't someone in the pipeline. Generally, those riders are born - Chris Froome is from Africa so arguably they already have a winner.

"For sure, there's another Froome in Africa somewhere and if anyone is going to find him then Doug is going to find him. You can't just close down development in Africa because there's talent there. It takes time."

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