The column: On Team Qhubeka Assos and the potential for a fresh start for "Africa's team"
The good news is, Africa's team will continue to exist next season. The bad news is, it seems all but certain that they’ll be racing at a much lower level.
Even before this morning’s very welcome announcement, that looked likely. The NTT Pro Cycling organisation was not on the list of teams that applied for either a WorldTeam or ProTeam licence, published by the UCI at the beginning of November.
The phrase “WorldTour” was also conspicuously absent from the press release that arrived in our inboxes this morning. Would their departure from the sport’s top tier really be such a terrible thing, though?
Symbolically at least, there’s no doubt that it would. For the world’s second most populous continent to be no longer represented in the WorldTour can’t help but seem like a step back for the sport.
But how much better served has the publicly stated mission of being “Africa’s team” been by that higher level representation?
On the front page of the NTT Pro Cycling website it says that: “We ride to help people in Africa to move forward with bicycles forward through our relationship with Qhubeka.”
South Africa has remained the team’s country of registration, but NTT, which took over the title sponsorship for the 2020 season, is Japanese. In retrospect, perhaps we should have seen the writing on the wall.
In 2016, its first season in the WorldTour, the team had 14 African riders on its books. That fell to a low of seven this year, with only one of those holding a passport for any country outside of South Africa itself.
They started out as MTN-Qhubeka before their promotion to the top tier, but that link to the charity has - publicly at least - not seemed quite so strong in recent years.
Which leads one to ask if a WorldTour presence is ultimately compatible with any mission beyond that of winning bike races? If a team is successful on the road, that’s really what gets the attention. Likewise if the wins don’t come, the only questions that get asked are about why they haven’t won, and when they will.
Drop down a division or two and winning seems to matter less. Pro Continental Team Novo Nordisk is an example of an outfit that seems to have found the right balance between racing bikes and standing for something greater. Raising awareness of diabetes is at the heart of what they do, not just an afterthought.
Their riders don’t win many races, no, but they do participate in the odd WorldTour event and always make sure their presence is felt when they're there. There’s no reason to think Team Qhubeka Assos can’t move into a similar or superior position.
And it’s only right that in 2021, at whatever level the team is racing, Qhubeka will return to the title of the team, alongside premium Swiss kit makers Assos.
That a company of their standing has signed onto the project is itself a vote of confidence in the direction Doug Ryder is taking it.
“We love the mission, the people and the challenge that comes with it,” says Assos Brand Chief Roche Maier, son of founder Toni Maier, of the decision to increase their involvement in the team. “We are made in cycling and contributing to support and further develop the pinnacle of high-performance cycling is just the proper thing to do, especially in these uncertain times.”
There’s a lot that we still don’t know about the form the team will take. Will any of the riders from this season stay on? We’ll surely find out in due course.
Regardless, it’s a relief that we are not seeing another team disappear completely, that a number of people who would have otherwise lost their jobs, now won’t.
More than mere survival, however, this lifeline appears to present an opportunity for the organisation to regroup, to reset, to return to their roots. A step back, if they are indeed forced to take one, to allow for a step forward, on a much firmer footing than before.