Five years ago, Esqure published an article entitled: “Why the Tour de France will have its first black winner by 2020.”
It saw Tim Lewis, author of In the Land of Second Chances, visiting Rwanda and exploring the continent’s vast, untapped physical potential. The bottom line was: watch out, Africa is coming.
The obvious squad to help deliver this is WorldTour outfit Dimension Data for Qhubeka. They call themselves Africa’s Team, were the first team to race in the sport’s biggest race, in 2015, and share the same mission as that headline.
However, two summers out from that waypoint, this is Dimension Data’s Tour de France line-up: Mark Cavendish, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Mark Renshaw, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, Serge Pauwels, Julien Vermote and Jay Robert Thomson.
It’s strong, multi-national and offers lots of sprint potential, but notice something missing? It’s the second year in a row that no black African has been selected. South Africa is the sole nation from the continent represented, with two riders – Van Rensburg and Thomson – making the cut from Dimension Data’s 13 Africans.
A Tour winner by 2020
Asked about this omission, a Dimension Data spokesman said that they were focused around their Vision 2020 Project and its three aims: helping Cavendish become the most successful Tour de France stage winner ever, winning the Tour de France in 2020 with an African rider and providing over 100,000 bicycles to children in Africa through Qhubeka.
“Our selection is performance based and in-line with our greater objective, Vision 2020. We are delighted to have two African riders starting the Tour this year,” he added.
“Louis Meintjes’ absence from the Tour is notable but as we have detailed extensively already, his focus has been to ride for GC at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España this year (which is part of our Vision 2020 strategy), with a relevant team built around him at both events this year.” Incidentally, Meintjes abandoned the Giro due to a respiratory infection.
“We had five African riders at the Giro this year and based on our performance objectives for the Vuelta, we expect a similar number of African riders at the Vuelta,” he added.
Pragmatism over long-term philosophy
The reasons for their Tour line-up seem clear: it’s for the greater good, favouring pragmatic performance in France this month over the longer term goal of supporting African cycling. That’s because Dimension Data for Qhubeka currently sit 18th – rock bottom – in the WorldTour rankings, a position they also finished the past two seasons.
With the introduction of a relegation system in 2018, the team need a much-improved final three months of the season to avoid a demotion into the Pro Continental ranks that could set back African cycling further and even threaten the squad’s existence.
To maintain that top-tier spot, they’ve gone with their strongest riders, hoping that Cavendish, Boasson Hagen et al can hoover up stage wins and points. Meanwhile, there were two other Africans starting in Noirmoutier: Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) and Tsgabu Grmay (Trek-Segafredo), though the latter was an early abandon.
Dimension Data’s African riders deserve opportunities in the sport’s most prestigious race too, but they ought to be there on merit, not for tokenism, diversity (although the overbearing whiteness of professional cycling is a discussion for another day) or marketing purposes. Eritrean racer Merhawi Kudus, pictured above, is currently Dimension Data’s best-ranked rider from the continent in the WorldTour, 194th overall and seventh highest in the team; the 24-year-old would have been in the running for selection had he not opted to focus on the Vuelta, which starts next month in Málaga.
Arguably, their African complement stands a better chance of showing themselves – and getting in those all-important points – there or at the Giro. The move to eight-man teams does no favours for their prospects either.
Their fledglingContinental development squad is beginning to bear fruit too, with Amanuel Gebreigzabhier having a promising WorldTour debut in 2018 and Stefan De Bod also impressing this year and likely to make the step up.
You’d have to be a curmudgeon to not feel for Dimension Data, given its mission for African sport, philanthropic project with Qhubeka and a litany of misfortunes in 2018 which suggests team principal Doug Ryder walked under several ladders in January.
Most notably, there have been Cavendish’s spring crashes, Boasson Hagen’s winter gallbladder operation, Ben O’Connor’s broken collarbones days from the finish of his breakthrough Giro and serious injuries to Bernhard Eisel and Scott Thwaites. To put it lightly, they’re due a lot of luck.
African cycling’s Tour plateau
For African cycling, it appears to be a case of one step forward, two steps back. South African Louis Meintjes’ two Tour eighth places in 2016 and 2017 were landmark results, but the rest of Africa is still waiting to make a genuine impression.
The debuts of Eritrean riders Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus in the 2015 race brought an eye-catching number of loud and proud supporters, gathering by their team bus everywhere from Alpe d’Huez to Zeeland.
Teklehaimanot spent three days in the King of the Mountains jersey, but that was more PR coup than genuine turning point: he picked up points on the molehills of Normandy, not in the high mountains.
Their lack of presence at the Tour in recent years suggests they are at a plateau rather than continuing to progress. Teklehaimanot left the team for Cofidis this spring, while countrymen and long-time team members Kudus and Natnael Berhane are also reputedly both out of contract in 2018. The former has come closest to a landmark Grand Tour stage win, finishing second on the climb to Alcossebre at last year’s Vuelta.
Turning the vast physical potential of African cyclists into cold, hard results is a thankless and gruelling process. The numerous obstacles include the team’s middling budget (in WorldTour terms), tactical education, training, nutrition and visa complications. Ryder has also previously identified that it costs the team three times as much to support an African rider as it does a European one.
“We are just waiting for these [African] guys to step up and shine,” he told our executive editor Ian Cleverly when he visited their training camp 18 months ago for an article in issue 17.1 of Rouleur. “Don’t hide behind the Europeans any more. The baton must be handed over.”
The wait for that exchange continues. You need a bold aim, and an African Tour de France win would be one of the greatest stories in the sport. But the hoped-for timing rings increasingly hollow in the face of harsh reality.
Africa is still coming, but slower than anticipated. Victory for an African rider one day? Yes please. Victory by 2020? Most of them can’t even get a start.