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Dropped call — Team Qhubeka’s great Tour de France,...

Business Maverick

South Africa, Sport, Business Maverick

Dropped call — Team Qhubeka’s great Tour de France, next moves, and search for new sponsors

MTN on Wednesday dumped their Tour de France conquering team. It doesn’t matter. When you’ve battled the hardest mountains in the Alps—blah blah blah, etc etc. But seriously, what’s next for this team? How will they cope? Can they keep making Africans across the continent happy? Or will a certain cell phone company ruin the show? We spoke to Team [Insert Sponsor]-Qhubeka's Number One, Douglas Ryder. By RICHARD POPLAK.

So you’re a widely loathed globo-megacorp and despite this fact, you’ve just experienced one of the largest PR slam-dunks in South African multinational history, a genuine feelgood story that Disney will—I guarantee you—soon be adapting for the screen, likely with Kevin Costner in a starring role.

What’s your next move?

You screw the feelgood story right where it hurts, of course.

“I mean, fuu-ck,” says Douglas Ryder, rolling his eyes. I’m sitting with the TeamMTN-Qhubeka, sorry!—Team [Insert Sponsor]-Qhubeka’s directeur de sportif at a big faux country table at a restaurant in a Sandton strip mall. I’ve just asked him about the manner in which MTN divested itself of the best Pan-African initiative since Kwame Nkrumah was a thing.

“We grew together,” Ryder tells me, shaking his head. “It was a real, eight-year partnership, and they actually saw the massive returns that the last eight years led up to. Of course we were hoping for them to continue in some way, and we were expecting those discussions to take place after the Tour de France. You know, this team has united a continent. The victory was just getting into the Tour. And my goodness, did we kick ass.”

Ass was indeed kicked, but that didn’t mean much when came time for new CEO Mteto Nyati and his beancounters to start axing initiatives from the overburdened spreadsheet. The 7 million or so euro apparently spent this year, not all of which came from MTN, is bupkes for an outfit that was the darling one of the largest events on the global sporting calendar. (It’s roughly the budget for Lionel Messi’s left femur.) But it’s a whole bunch of money when your product is tanking across the continent, and your shareholders are demanding dividends instead of polka-dot jerseys. And so, the Dear John letter was penned while Doug Ryder was on a plane thinking that his likeness was to replace that of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. #NotSoFast: the most celebrated directeur sportif at the 2015 Tour de France found out when he landed that his team was without a logo, and that his free cell phone service had been cut. (I’m kidding about the last part. I think.)

Yup, MTN can’t win for losing.

Ryder, meanwhile, is confident that the team will find another major sponsor, but he ideally wants it to be from Africa, and he’s bummed that his racers and his staff are forced to swing from Holy Shit The Tour! to uncertainty during this suddenly nasty interregnum.

“We’ve got a lots of interest,” he insists. “The security of the team and its sustainability is absolutely there.” Ryder was hoping to step up to paying for a World Tour license next year, which would mean guaranteed Grand Tour entries rather than relying on wild cards. But that will have to wait for 2017. “Why would we want to get there?” asks Ryder, rhetorically. “It means more Africans can ride Grand Tours without the pressure of a wild card invite. And we can expand and grow to become one of the best teams in the world.”

But that’s cycling, baby.

doyg ryder

Photo: Douglas Ryder, Qhubeka Team Principal (Gruber images)

Speaking of cycling, Ryder is keen to talk more about the actual cycling part of cycling than he is about the business end. He tells me that according to greybeards who have raced the TdF for a decade or more, this was the hardest outing they could remember. Eighteen categorized climbs in the last week, and still the MTN lead-out train, comprised of Reinardt Janse van Rensburg and Tylar Farrar, were able to deliver sprinter Edvald Boasson Hagen a fifth-place finish on the final Champs-Élysées stage. They won the “Mandela Day Stage” with Steve Cummings. Daniel Teklehaimanot wore the best climber’s jersey for five days. It was a remarkable testament to the durability of a team that lost only one rider over the course of the Tour—General Classification hopeful Louis Meintjes, who was felled by gastroenteritis just as the race entered the Alps.

“We weren’t there for a haircut,” Ryder tells me. “We were there to compete.”

And so the running joke of African dysfunction has been dispelled by a team that is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s perhaps the most perfect evocation of the Star Trek Federation that I’ve ever encountered—a polyglot, ragtag bunch of adventurers from all over the universe gathered together to kick ass. If it turns out that they’re all jacked on some unnamable blood boosting substance—well, I’m a grownup, and I’ll deal with it when the time comes. But for the meantime, this is Gene Rodenberry’s vision iterated by the best cross-cultural globalisation can offer, and it’s beautiful to behold.

“Africa should be in the World Tour, and Africans should be on the podium,” says Ryder by way confirming my hug-a-Borg outlook. “We’re integral to cycling’s success and its future.”

Which is why it’s a bit of a bummer that that the guys with the checkbook caved so easily. Still, Ryder is in building mode, even if he doesn’t know precisely whose cash he’s spending. There’s the Tour of Utah, the Tour of Denmark, and the Vuelta a España coming up. He’s hoping that the Eritrean Natnael Berhane steps up and grabs his moment, much the same way his compatriot Daniel Teklehaimanot did in the Tour. Should Berhane do so, this would confirm the validity of the [Insert Sponsor]-Qhubeka modus operendi—don’t demand results from your riders, but expect them to be aggressive. As Ryder notes, you can have the best story in sports,”But unless you’re winning, no one gives a damn.”

Berhane will need to impress.

Going forward, the next step is to set up an African feeder team, a UCI division 3 or a continental team that would be able to race in Europe for three to five months a year, much the same way MTN-Qhubeka did in 2013. He also wants to staff up the team’s Italian lair in Lucca with African masseuses and managers. The learning curve, he knows, is steep—the food, the culture, the sheer brutality of what it takes to be a professional cyclist at the highest level has to be experienced to be believed. Bringing in staff would, in theory, fuel the development of future African directeurs sportif, which would likely mean more teams popping up on the continent.

Then there are the tantalizing big names: Darryl Impey, and—who knows?—Chris Froome? But big names carry big baggage. The former dodged a drug charge at the 2014 South African Nationals in a manner that seemed more corrupt than the alleged doping itself. And the latter has yet to find it in himself to stop pretending to be British and to acknowledge his African racing roots. With Welshman Geraint Thomas likely to prove himself a GC contender in the next year of so, TeamSky will find itself overburdened with two Personalities, much as they did when Froome came of age and Sir Bradley Wiggins had yet to be knighted. That did not work out so well. Ryder’s squad is not yet a TeamSky, but even without another acquisition, and with Louis Meintjes not expectorating his guts out, the team once named for a cellphone company could do a reasonable job of supporting a Froome-like player for a pedal at the yellow jersey.

But never mind the big signings—as ever, the real joy is in unearthing new talent. In this, Ryder has just signed to the feeder team the winner of this year’s South African junior nationals, a young fellow named Jayde Julius. Man, this lad can ride. And if the government wakes up to the power of this sport, they may too have a Good Story to Tell.

“We haven’t had personal contact with [Sport and Recreation Minister] Fikile Mbalula, and it would have been nice to have seen him in Paris, but he probably would have taken flack for that. He’s said some nice words of private-public partnership in cycling”—TeamSky is premised on such a model, and it clearly works—“it’s discussion that should happen with them, and I really look forward to it. Have they spoken to us? No. Is it on the cards? No. But based on the Tour de France success, it really should. There’s an Olympic games coming next year, no? How do we build to that?”

How indeed? A sponsor would help. It’s unlikely to be too much of a problem, and some globo-megacorp will come right with an EFT in the near future. The story is Too Good to ignore. A yellow jersey is never cheap. But boy, would it look pretty framed on a boardroom while the sun sets over an African city. DM

Photo: MTN Qhubeka team rider Stephen Cummings of Britain celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the 14th stage of the 102nd edition of the Tour de France 2015 cycling race over 178.5km between Rodez and Mende, France, 18 July 2015. EPA/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

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