The cut-throat world of professional cycling has produced its fair share of villains and is still saddled with cynicism but even its harshest critics may struggle to sneer when Doug Ryder says "Bicycles Change Lives".
By
Reuters

7 Apr 2015 - 5:20 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:35 PM

That is the catchphrase of Qhubeka, a project close to the heart of 42-year-old Ryder, which has handed out 50,000 bikes in rural South Africa and Rwanda as a reward for community work such as growing trees or academic achievement.

The organisation is also the partner and inspiration behind the MTN-Qhubeka professional team that, in July, will become the first African-based outfit ever to start the Tour de France.

"It's a door opening that will never close," team principal Ryder, who has been involved since 2003, told Reuters.

He was speaking a day after admitting how he was left "hardly able to breathe" when news emerged that MTN-Qhubeka had been granted a wildcard to compete in cycling's blue riband event.

Of the 20-odd pro riders on the books of Africa's largest cycling team, about half of them are Africans, and for a few, the Qhubeka (the Xhosa word meaning move forward) slogan is apt.

Take Adrien Niyonshuti, who survived the Rwandan genocide that killed his brothers by hiding between two mattresses for five days, and went on to carry his country's flag at the London 2012 Olympics where he competed in mountain biking.

Another, Songezo Jim, was orphaned as a young boy and only learned to ride a bike aged 14 after watching in awe as the Cape Argus race sped past his aunt's home in a Cape Town township.

In 2013 he became the first black South African to ride on the UCI WorldTour, taking part in the Milan-San Remo classic.

Then there is Daniel Teklehaimanot, who in 2012 became Eritrea's first Olympian in a sport other than athletics.

All three will be vying for a Tour de France spot and Ryder says they are pioneers for a sprawling continent that has blessed the world with runners and footballers but few cyclists.

"Our theory behind the team is that Africa has developed the best endurance runners so why not cyclists?" South African Ryder, who competed at the Atlanta Olympics, told Reuters.

"Look at what African runners did 40 years, how the likes of Kip Keino revolutionised endurance running forever.

"I wouldn't be surprised in the next three years that a black African rider will be on the podium in a Grand Tour.

"I honestly believe that."

The team's sports director Jens Zemke said an invite to the Tour de France is a major step forward for African cyclists and a perfect showcase for the work of Qhubeka which receives 10 percent of all prize money earned by the team.

"Cycling I think is 75 percent about the Tour de France in terms of exposure so this brings us to a whole new level, " he said. "It's a very historical moment for the continent."

MTN-Qhubeka, resplendent in an eye-catching black and white kit similar to the Juventus football team, will not just be making up the numbers though when the Tour rolls off in Utrecht.

This is no two-wheeled version of Cool Runnings - a film inspired by the plucky but hapless Jamaican bobsleigh team.

Ryder, while passionate about Qhubeka, describing the bikes they provide as "hand-ups" not hand-outs", has built a team to compete at the top.

Financial backing from South African telecommunications giant MTN and now Samsung means Ryder can pay attractive salaries, provide state-of-the-art equipment and hire the physios and technicians who make cycle teams tick.

Austrian rider Gerald Ciolek won Milan-San Remo in 2013 and since then the likes of experienced American sprinter Tyler Farrar and Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen have joined. MTN-Qhubeka are sending a message.

"We have clear goals and we will decide whether we go for a jersey or a stage win. There are many options and the team is strong enough to compete with the best," Zemke said.

The Tour de France team will have no 'quota' of African riders and will be picked on merit.

"The good young European riders can help mentor and fast track the Africans to success," Ryder said.

"With Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tyler Farrar and Theo Bos we know that our finger is on the pulse."

For Songezo Jim, the prospect of riding in the Tour de France is a dream come true - a long way from his first "terrible" experience of racing.

"My first race in Cape Town I had no idea what I was doing," he said. "I was lapped by the peloton three times and the guy in the break lapped me four times. But it motivated me.

"I will work hard to make the team."

Whatever the Tour has in store for MTN-Qhubeka, Ryder says victory has already been achieved.

"If we can never win the Tour, that's fine. We are exposing the potential of what Africans can achieve.

"In fact, the passion and the commitment is far more and far bigger than any European rider we've seen. These riders come from so little that they value everything that they get."

SBS will broadcast every stage of the Tour de France live.