When Team Dimension Data sets off for the 72nd edition of the Vuelta a Espana, they’ll be riding for more than just a few prizes on the final Grand Tour of the season.
Since they first announced their global arrival at the 2015 Tour de France – then as MTN-Qhubeka – “Africa’s team” as they have become affectionately known, have managed to cultivate an incredibly special culture in a sport associated with egos and prima donnas.
Much of the credit for that culture should go to Douglas Ryder. As noted on these pages back in 2015, when Ryder founded the team in 2007 – African-owned, African-sponsored, African-managed – he was smart enough to do away with politics, despite politics being so deeply entrenched in the continent.
“Eritreans riding alongside Ethiopians; Hutus riding alongside Tutsis; white South Africans riding alongside black South Africans. While you and I may term this ‘reconciliation porn’, Ryder was happy to build a pedal-powered scale model of Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance,” read the 2015 article.
Since then, Ryder’s team has gone through a few changes. Riders have come and gone, sponsors have changed, but one thing that has remained consistent is that the team rides for something more than themselves.
Yes, even the gonzo-swagger of Mark Cavendish has been drawn into the team’s “greater purpose”. Even after being elbowed out of this year’s Tour de France, Cavendish was regularly showing some love to the #BicyclesChangeLives tag on Twitter.
Of course some of that might arrive in the form of Whatsapp reminder, but anyone who has been around the team knows that those involved in this team – from the riders to the support staff – all buy into the idea of the impact cycling can have on young people.
That idea comes from the charity – Qhubeka, a long-standing partner of the squad. And, as with all great things, it was something that grew somewhat organically, Tsatsi Phaweni, Qhubeka Executive Director told the Daily Maverick.
The premise behind Qhubeka is simple: provide bikes to communities in rural areas to allow them to travel faster and save time. Access to resources and access to opportunities follow naturally, but it is especially beneficial for school children, who often have to walk many kilometres to get to class. A bike cuts travel time down significantly.
But there is a caveat. Those who receive bikes have to do something for someone in the community in return. School children have to sign a contract agreeing to get to school on time and try to improve their grades since having a bike allows more time for homework and playing.
But beyond that Phaweni also hopes that with the exposure the team has received, it will stir a passion for the sport that might not have been there previously.
“I think the exposure the team has gotten has helped people understand that a bicycle can be more than just a mode of transport and that there is a career in cycling,” she explains.
The biggest flux of exposure undoubtedly came on Mandela Day in 2015 when the team won a stage on its first ever Tour de France – it was a memorable moment for everyone involved.
“We follow the team everywhere, wherever they are riding. That stage win was a big highlight. When we won that stage, it was the most beautiful thing. It showed us what we can achieve. It was mind blowing,” Phaweni recalls.
But, as with most things, some might argue that Africa’s team isn’t always that representative of, well, Africans. At least not at grand tour level. Is that a concern for a charity that works with African – and especially black African communities? Phaweni says not.
“The team is doing work to develop black riders. At the moment you might not be seeing black cyclists in the team doing the tours, but I want to believe that work is being done to change that and we are building to having black riders on the team,” she says.
Will a Qhubeka-donated bike one day help unearth a black superstar? It might.
“We aren’t involved in looking for black cyclists, we just focus on how bicycles can change lives, but we hope that it increases the interest in cycling and (we) go hunt for talent,” Phaweni says.
But there is also one elephant in the room. As a sport, cycling doesn’t exactly have a reputation of being squeaky clean. The team Qhubeka rides for has never been implicated in any controversy and Phaweni says while they certainly aren’t ignorant of the sport’s culture, they aren’t overly concerned about it.
“We’re not oblivious to the issues surrounding cycling as a sport. We’re very grateful that Doug and the team has always upheld a very strict code of conduct. We’re relying on our partners to continue that work. We have a great trust in this team and they are clear what they are riding for. Are we overly concerned about it? Not really,” Phaweni adds.
It might all sound a bit like a far-fetched Utopian dream, especially in this day and age where all that seems to make it into the headlines is negativity. Yet, since the partnership began, it seems nothing but good has come from it.
This year, the aim is to raise 20,000 bikes and while the team are the chiefs in helping drum up support for this cause, Phaweni is at pains to stress that corporate donors and ordinary folk go a long way to helping them achieve their goals.
So, when you settle down to watch the 2017 Vuelta a España and Serge Pauwels and team power away – remember, they’re not just doing it for the lactic acid or a stage win. DM
Photo: US cyclist Benjamin King (R), of Dimension Data team; Spaniard Marcos Jurado, of Burgos BH team; Dutch Etienne Van Empel (2-L), of Roompot team; and French Antoine Duchesne (L), of Direct Energie team, compete during the fouth stage of Vuelta a Burgos cycling race over 147 km between Bodegas Nadal and Clunia, Burgos, northern Spain, 04 August 2017. EPA/Santi Otero
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