GENT, Belgium (VN) — The tension is rising in MTN-Qhubeka’s classics team. The squad, based in South Africa, will debut in Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Sunday — a first for a professional team from the African continent.
“I get goose bumps when I think about it,” sport director Jens Zemke told VeloNews. “We reconned the circuit already and we saw that the tension is there. In every village on the route, they are building up the tents for the party. For our team, from Africa, it’s an honor to be on the start line.”
The team’s bright yellow and black bus will pull into Bruges Sunday morning for the start. Its riders, from last year’s Milano-Sanremo winner Gerald Ciolek to lesser known Africans, will ride through the lines of fans, sign in on the podium in the main square, and start an historic ride in Belgium.
The ride began last year when manager Doug Ryder took the team from the third to the second division — the professional ranks — and brought aboard a handful of experienced riders like Ciolek.
Ciolek gave the team more than it imagined when he sprinted to win Milano-Sanremo early last March. His win likely motivated the other riders, as the team racked up another 12 wins — along with six national titles and a silver medal in the under-23 road race at the world championships (Louis Meintjes). MTN did not receive invites to Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, but it kept pedaling forward.
Ryder hired four new riders — one German and three Africans — for 2014 and kept asking for places in the top races. After what it saw last year, the Flanders organizer agreed and gave the team a spot in this year’s field.
“They were smiling last year when I asked in the winter time if we could race Flanders,” Zemke explained. “When we won Milano-Sanremo, that changed a bit. It was a shame that we were not already there last year.”
Over the last week, MTN proved it can mix it up with the first division teams. Ciolek sprinted to ninth in Milano-Sanremo a week ago, and then took 17th in Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem after narrowly avoiding a crash with Andre Greipel with eight kilometers left. Further, South Africans Jay Thomson and Jaco Venter spent time in the escape group at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, respectively.
“Ciolek will lead our Flanders team,” Zemke said, “but we are going to bring Africans as we always do.”
Zemke tipped Algerian Youcef Reguigui as Africa’s biggest potential classics star. However, Reguigui may not make it to the Flemish fields in time due to visa problems.
“That’s why he could not come [to Gent-Wevelgem],” Zemke said. “Visas create a big challenge for a team with African riders. Normally they can race for three months here and then they have to go out for three months. It’s very complicated, this process.”
Zemke spoke of the 24-year old Reguigui but also mentioned the recent performances of Venter and Thomson. The South Africans could likely make the day’s escape in Ronde and be first up the famous Paterberg and Koppenberg climbs.
“For them, it’s incredible. We have some riders who have yet to win a race and they are standing on the start line in Gent-Wevelgem and maybe in Flanders,” Zemke said. “It’s a fast-track team. On our team, you can quickly make it from being a small rider to competing against world-class riders like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara.”
With a Vuelta a España invitation possible on Wednesday, it could be a big week for African cycling and its MTN team.