SA cycling's costly battle plan to qualify for Tour de France
Getting into the Tour de France effectively cost MTN-Qhubeka more than R100-million over the past seven years.
What started out as a strictly South African outfit in 2007 has won a wild card invitation to the world’s most famous cycling race.
Team principal Douglas Ryder said the team - the first African-registered one to get into the Tour - had spent “well more than R100-million” in the past seven years.
Just the bikes - between them the 23 riders have 180, valued at R150,000 each - cost nearly R30-million.
“About 65% of a cycling team’s budget goes into salaries - that’s the product we’re selling.”
The team has a total staff contingent of 65, which is tiny compared to top units like Sky, with more than 100 people on its books.
Ryder concedes that he doesn’t expect any of his riders to compete for the overall prize in the Tour.
But he’s setting other targets, like a stage win, strong challenges in some of the classifications and finishing ahead of the four other wild card entries.
He pointed out that his team had some firepower, like new signing Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway, who had won four Tour stages, and in five years of racing with Sky had notched up more stage victories than anybody else.
“I don’t want us to be a one-hit wonder,” said Ryder, adding that he would love to raise even more funding from SA corporates to buy promotion into the premier World Tour.
“The top teams like Sky spend more than E20-million (euro) a year.
“For us to get a licence to race on the World Tour we would need a minimum of E8-million”.
The team first graduated from SA to Africa before heading into Europe, where they are now based for more than half the year; and its full name has grown to MTN-Qhubeka powered by Samsung.
Ryder says the European riders in Qhubeka offer crucial experience for the African talent.
Apart from the SA riders like Jacques Janse van Rensburg, Louis Meintjies, Songezo Jim and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, there are three Eritreans, Natnael Berhane, Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot, Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti and Algerian Youcef Reguigui.
“I’m looking at having at least one, probably two, black African riders in the Tour de France.”
Ryder said a decision on the final team would be made probably only after the Criterium du Dauphine in June.
There are likely to be a record number of South Africans in the Tour de France this year - the previous best was two, with Robbie Hunter and John-Lee Augustyn, who represented Barloworld, an SA-sponsored, British registered team.
Daryl Impey, the first South African to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey two years ago, is likely to compete this year, and with the likes of Meintjies and the two Van Rensburgs in the Qhubeka mix, there are sure to be more.
“It’s more stressful now,” said Jacques Janse van Rensburg, who headed to a training camp in Majorca, Spain, at the weekend.
“There are 23 of us and nine spots."
He said the team had punched above its weight at the 2014 Tour of Spain, where he finished 20th in one of the stages.
“In the next few years the African riders are coming.”
Van Rensburg, a climber, is not related to the other Van Rensburg, a sprinter.
“It’s funny though. Reinardt was born in Virginia and grew up in Pretoria, and I was born in Springs and grew up in Virginia. A lot of people think we’re brothers.”
As a climber, Van Rensburg laughs off hills like Chapman’s Peak, one of the supposed three big climbs of the Argus Cycle Tour - he races up there at between 35 and 40 kmph.
“In Europe the climbs are five times longer and three times steeper than that. There’s a race in Italy where 80% of riders have to get off their bikes and walk.
“Luckily I haven’t had to walk my bike in a race, but I have in training,” he admitted.
The Tour de France starts in Ultrecht, the Netherlands, on July 4 and will finish in Paris on July 26.