MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung is Africa’s first UCI Professional Continental cycling team. The team is based in South Africa and will be the first African cycling team to compete in the Tour de France in 2015. The team hopes to bring awareness to its #BicyclesChangeLives campaign, and reach its goal of putting 5,000 kids on bicycles through the Qhubeka charity. Qhubeka is a World Bicycle Relief Program in South Africa and is an Nguni word that means “to progress.” Ayiba spoke to the team via email about preparing to participate in one of the most important annual sport events, their non-profit work, and the professional cycling industry on the continent.
How do you feel about being the first African team to race in the Tour de France?
This is an amazing feeling and we are really looking forward to get to the start. Everyone in our African team is extremely proud that the Amuary Sport Organisation (ASO) invited us. This is a dream come true.
What significance does the tournament hold for you?
The Tour de France means a lot for us. It is the most important annual sports event in the world and to be able to take part, especially being the first African team that will take on the race, is absolutely amazing. We will be able to further spread the message of our #BicyclesChangeLives campaign, and hopefully reach our goal, which is to put 5,000 kids on bikes through the Qhubeka charity.
Additionally, it is also great for everyone in our team: riders, staff, and partners. We have been working so hard in the past to get there. Sometimes we thought “is this going to be possible,” but when we were getting beaten up in races, we worked harder and told our riders that this is a journey and one day the door will open when you realise that you have it all to be successful in the world tour. This year we have seen Youcef Reguigui win Tour de Langkawi, we have seen Louis Meintjes win his first European stage in Coppi e Bartali and the overall GC. These are major breakthroughs for African cycling and for the team. The door is now open, and being able to now also get an opportunity to ride the biggest race of them all, the Tour de France, is an incredible feeling. Standing on the start line in Utrecht will be the start of the next chapter of our journey.
How do you pick team members?
We have a lot of African talents in our team and in the past it has always been our goal to develop our talents. For that you also need experienced mentors. The Tour de France will be the next step, the next chapter of our journey, and our selection will be based on our ideals. We will have a very well chosen team at the start line in Utrecht.
What have been the challenges of cycling in Africa and also getting ready for the competition?
The competition in Africa is a different one than on other continents, especially Europe. That doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of talent and our riders have proven this in the past. A lot of them have upped their game and keep on impressing us. Our riders are able to compete with the best in the world, and to get them there has basically been one of the challenges.
Another challenge, for example, is the infrastructure of cycling in general in a lot of countries in Africa. But this is changing, the competition is getting more difficult and the support we get from our fans in Africa underlines this as well.
What have been the highlights?
We have had a lot of highlights in the past few years. Winning Milan-Sanremo with Gerald Ciolek as a wildcard team in 2013 has been one. Another highlight was the recent performance of Louis Meintjes at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where he finished 11th and was able to stay with the world’s best until the final. Racing our first Grand Tour with La Vuelta 2014 and finishing it with all nine riders, establishing ourselves as one of the twenty best teams in the world, winning the Tour de Langkawi with Youcef Reguigui—there’s a good amount of highlights, and being selected to ride the Tour de France this year is certainly another one on this list.
What is the training process like?
Our riders are trained according to their race program. We have two team coaches and an extremely well trained performance team who are preparing our riders for their highlights. This includes goal setting, performance analysis, training camps, etc. On some days our riders would go out and train together, on some they would rather train alone. To be able to properly prepare for their individual highlights, the race program is chosen in accordance. Furthermore, we are a team that also focused on marginal gains through specific training, such as reaction training through EyeGym, etc.
How did you come about the MTN and Samsung sponsorship? Has that changed anything for you or the team in any way?
The sponsorship of MTN and Samsung, along with the support of our other partners, has allowed us to get to the level we are at the moment. We are extremely proud and thankful to have them on board.
Would you say that cycling, especially at the professional level, is a big thing on the continent? If not, what do you think can be done to get people interested in it, especially at a young age?
Cycling is certainly growing on the continent but in terms of infrastructure there is still room for development. There’s a lot of talent in Africa and there are more and more people realizing that bicycles can change lives. They are helpful to commute, but also to race on. Racing is getting more and more popular in some areas, and our participation in the Tour de France will hopefully give cycling as a sport another push on the continent.
You are racing to mobilise change in Africa through Qhubeka. How do you envision doing this?
Through racing on the highest level of the sport we are able to spread our message, which is the #BicyclesChangeLives campaign. Moreover, we are the only team who carries the name of a charity in its team name. This is rare but underlines our ambition to mobilize change. With a growing awareness for the charity we can raise more funds for it and help to put more kids on bikes. This year we want to raise donations to be able to change the lives of 5,000 kids. Bicycles can help them to commute to school faster, to see doctors, etc. Thinking of that one realizes what an impact bicycles can have for the needy in Africa. They really can change their lives.
What elements or lessons from cycling can be applied to everyday life?
To race at the highest level of the sport one needs a lot of determination, trust, reliability, and teamwork. These values can also be applied to everyday life.