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Africa’s MTN-Qhubeka makes history at Tirreno-Adriatico

PORTO SANT’ELPIDIO, Italy (VN) — Africa worked its way into UCI WorldTour racing in Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico. With race helicopters buzzing above and Tour de France winners riding around, MTN-Qhubeka manager Doug Ryder looked at home this morning.

Leaning against one of the South African team’s cars, Ryder saw off Jay Thomson and others for the sixth leg of the prestigious Italian stage race in central Italy. The event, a WorldTour race in cycling’s top series, also marks a first: never before has an African team raced at this level.

“I’m sure that we can compete with the best,” Ryder told VeloNews. “Race organizers like our unique story with Qhubeka and like to have Africa’s first team. We showed this race that we can do it.”

As of Monday morning, the team’s Spaniard, Sergio Pardilla, sat 20th overall. His strong ride adds to the third and fourth place German sprinter, Gerald Ciolek achieved in the opening days.

Ryder had every reason to be smiling. MTN’s debut in Tirreno-Adriatico is a success.

“We were hoping to have a top ten [placing in a stage] and a rider in the top 30 [overall],” he continued. “For us to achieve what we have, it’s been hugely successful.”

MTN what?

Ryder started managing cycling teams in South Africa in 1997. His MTN-Qhubeka team raced in the third division since 2007, but over the winter received a license for the second division — the pro ranks.

It came about thanks to dedicated sponsors.

If you visit Africa, it is hard not to notice MTN. Its bright yellow advertising covers stores along many of Africa’s red dirt roads. With Tigo and others, it one of the continent’s big mobile telecommunications companies.

Qhubeka was founded by Anthony Fitzhenry with the help of Trek. The organization provides free bikes for Africans in return for helping the environment: growing 100 trees or collecting 1,000 kilograms of waste.

With their help and the UCI’s Cycling Center in Africa, Ryder assembled the 21-man team. With seven black Africans, the team has more than just Europeans racing under an African license.

“Our nutritional and performance testing, just the science behind the riders has really worked. It shows that you can have a team from another continent come here and compete,” Ryder said. “[The biological passport and cleaner cycling] has allowed us to compete. I’m so happy I didn’t do this six or seven years ago.”

Black Africans

Ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico, MTN-Qhubeka sent out a press release that celebrated Africa’s debut in the WorldTour. However, many wondered, just where are the black Africans?

Because many of them were part of the third division last year, they failed to build up six months of testing in the UCI’s biological passport. In the coming races MTN will have more color.

“In Milano-San Remo we’ll have Songezo Jim, a black South African. He’ll be the first black South African ever to ride in a WorldTour race,” Ryder said. “It’ll be fantastic for Jim to start, fantastic for South African cycling and for the profile of black riders in a WorldTour race.”

One of MTN’s team cars blew its horn. The stage was starting. Ryder jumped in the car with enthusiasm for the team’s future.