Monumental Challenges for MTN-Qhubek
It’s been a big few days for Team MTN-Qhubeka presented by Samsung. On Sunday, the South African-based team takes part in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, one of cycling’s most iconic races. The team also received word it has been invited to compete in the late summer Vuelta a España, which will be the team’s first Grand Tour. We caught up with Team Principal Douglas Ryder before Sunday’s Tour of Flanders:
What is the significance of the team getting an invite to the Ronde? How does it fit in with the team’s goals, both competitively and to further the mission of Qhubeka?
Tour of Flanders is the highlight of cycling in Flanders. It is an absolute honor for Team MTN-Qhubeka powered by Samsung to be on the start line in the heart of cycling. The race has everything from cobbles to climbs, wind and rain. Only the strong survive this race to the end, and we will be hoping that good fortune shines on us to be in the front at the end. Our goal is to be a good Classics team with riders such as Ciolek, Stauff, Thomson, Sbaragli and Venter. We have a team that wants to beat themselves up over the toughest terrains and races in the Spring. The biggest one day races attract many cycling fans and crowds, and this is great for the team to raise more awareness for the team’s #BicyclesChangeLives cause through the Qhubeka Foundation and World Bicycle Relief.
What has the team learned about preparing for the cobbles and selecting its roster for the Tour of Flanders? It’s tough racing!
Stay upright and near the front is the main lesson. This is still a challenge for some of the lesser experienced African riders, but they shadow Ciolek and Stauff during the races as they know where to be positioned at what times in the races. This mentoring from our European riders is really helping fast-track the African riders to success. Our roster, unfortunately, is pretty much the riders that are not busted and broken from the early season race crashes affecting many teams, but we have a core of riders that will hopefully be in a good position to pull off a result in the end.
The team has helped raise awareness of the Qhubeka non-profit group and its mission. When you are out and about with the team, what is the most common question you get about Qhubeka and its work or about the team and its mission?
We often have the Qhubeka Buffalo bicycle in the team truck, which the soigneurs ride around behind the riders going to sign on and the public love the look of the bike. They then get a sense of what we do and that the mission is kind of real. Most questions relate to how they can contribute and what the people will do with the bikes. They cannot believe that we have so many people that walk kilometers to places and have no access to transport. We sell our rider autograph cards and the money collected goes to Qhubeka, so they feel they are contributing in some way by supporting our team and that makes them feel good.
Gerald Ciolek’s victory in the 2013 Milan – San Remo was a milestone for the team. But now, more than a year later, does that victory have even more significance to you as you compete in races like the Ronde and realize just how big they are and how difficult they are to win?
The Milan-Sanremo victory has had huge significance to the team. It not only gave Gerald Ciolek the confidence of his ability to perform again, but it gave our team the credibility and interest of other race organizers to invite our team. Last year after winning Milan-Sanremo the public was like, ‘how could we not be racing Flanders, Roubaix, Fleche Wallone, Liege-Bastogne-Liege after having just won a monument?’ Now a year later we are in all those races except Roubaix, so it has helped our race calendar. It also has meant that our riders have had to step up another few percent to be able to compete with consistency and depth in these high profile races against the best riders in the world. We showed this year how much the riders have progressed by the performance in Milan –Sanremo with the ninth place of Gerald Ciolek and how well the rest of the team rode. These races are really tough, but our team is responding well to the pressures and demands of the racing.
Has the team done any testing on the cobbled climbs with the Zipp 303 Firecrest? What feedback have the riders given about the wheels on the cobbles?
Gerald especially is loving the stiffness and rigidity of the wheel set. The wider rim and tire configuration seems to be giving us less punctures and problems in the races than most other teams which are hugely energy sapping when they happen.
What about SRAM RED 22? How did the groupset perform so far on the Spring Classics? What the extra speed brought for the riders?
SRAM RED 22 is more responsiveness than its predecessor. The riders are loving and having the extra gear and close ratio cluster really helps on the leg- ripping roads of Belgium and Holland, so all in all it is a vast improvement for the riders morale and performance.
We know about riders like Ciolek and Linus Gerdemann and their accomplishments. Are you any up and coming MTN-Qhubeka riders you are especially excited about?
Currently, we are mostly excited by Merhawi Kudus, our Eritrean 20 year old ride, who was the youngest starter in Milan-Sanremo. He also became the youngest finisher. We never thought he would get through the 300kms especially in such cold weather since he had just returned from a second place finish in the 40 degree heat of the Tour de Langkawi. He is not for the Classics, rather for the mountains but a rider to remember in the future. Louis Meintjes, current SA Elite Champion, who is still an U23 rider this year and who finished second in the U23 world road race championships last year in Florence is another rider to look out for this year especially in the mid stage races coming in the next couple of months. For the Classic group, our most exciting young star is Italian Kristian Sbaragli. A super powerful one-day specialist who I believe is going to light up the Classics next year. He is a little sick at the moment and we hope he will recover for Sunday’s showdown.
What is your reaction to the team's Vuelta invite?
Drink champagne and get your butts to Spain because history gets made only once.