African cycling team to race in Tour de France
An African team will take part for the first time in the Tour de France when it starts in Utrecht next July, organisers announced on Wednesday.
The team will be the MTN-Qhubeka outfit from South Africa.
In all 22 teams, each with nine cyclists, will compete in the 102nd edition of one of the most gruelling events in world sport.
“Their participation in the Tour will help accelerate the progression of African cycling,” the Tour’s director Christian Prudhomme told AFP.
One of five wildcard teams chosen to race in this year’s event, MTN-Qhubeka already have experience of top level international cycling having competed in last year’s Vuelta a Espana.
They have several promising young African cyclists in their lineup and recently reinforced their ranks by signing up Norwegian sprinter Edvald Boasson Hagen, one of the top names in the successful Sky team.
Another sprinter in the ranks is the 2011 Milan-SanRemo winner Matt Goss of Australia while others to join the team are Dutchman Theo Bos and American Tyler Farrar.
But it is the home-grown African talent starting to emerge that is striking at Qhubeka, whose name means progress in Zulu.
Eritrean climber Natnael Berhane, who won the Tour of Turkey in 2013, has joined the group and will race alongside compatriot Daniel Teklehaimanot.
Another Eritrean, 20-year-old Merhawi Kudus, is considered a promising prospect, along with South Africa’s Louis Meintjes, 22.
“These young Eritrean riders are the grandchildren of Coppi and Bartali,” added Prudhomme, referring to legendary Italian pair Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, and to the more than 50 years of Italian occupation of the country that ended during World War II.
“The team has reinforced it’s youngsters with experienced riders to continue its progress.
“In recent years, people have said of Boasson Hagen that he would dominate world cycling. As for Bos, Farrar and Goss, they’re very good sprinters.
“MTN-Qhubeka have an excellent project to develop cycling all the way to the townships.”
Qhubeka’s rise has been meteoric since being created in 2007.
In 2013 they became the first professional African team when joining the second division of cycling and being included on the Continental Tour.
Back then manager Doug Ryder had stated their aim was to participate in the Tour.
Having an African team join the world’s most prestigious race is all part of a wider plan, according to Prudhomme.
“The opening up to the world (of the Tour) continues,” Prudhomme said, pointing out that one of the favourite’s for next year’s race will be Nairo Quintana of Colombia.
The South American country is well-known for producing talented climbers but until the 1980s they were virtually anonymous.
As well as being invited to the Tour, Qhubeka will take part in June’s Criterium du Dauphine, which alongside the Tour of Switzerland is one of the two main pre-Tour warm-up events.