The mere presence of Qhubeka Assos at the Giro d’Italia was cause for celebration. Eight months ago, with no replacement for their title sponsor NTT, “Africa’s Team” came perilously close to folding.
A cosmopolitan squad, with almost as many nationalities as a Eurovision Song Contest, was patched together and a sad backwards step was avoided. Now, after three stage wins within a week, Qhubeka Assos are the toast of the Giro d’Italia. With triumphs from Mauro Schmid, Giacomo Nizzolo and Victor Campenaerts, no other team has won as many stages at the race than this likeable lot who usually finish bottom of the WorldTour rankings.
Really, it’s a success story that all cycling fans can enjoy. Because their raison d’être is not just race victories, but promoting African cycling and changing lives through bikes with Qhubeka, a not-for-profit organisation which takes its name from the Nguni word for “go forward”. The team has raised funds for more than 30,000 bicycles for distribution to Qhubeka programmes in South Africa that range from helping kids to attend school to recycling waste. I’m a sucker for any sporting underdog, but especially one espousing values like education and sustainability.
Some fans may remember the team for their attention-grabbing Tour de France debut in 2015, in their former incarnation as MTN-Qhubeka. Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot briefly wore the King of the Mountains jersey and Steve Cummings took their maiden stage win on Mandela Day. If it was a Hollywood film, Jason Statham would be playing the buccaneering British racer, the credits would roll and the audience would have cheered. But this is professional sport and the job had only just started.
Mauro Schmid winning stage 12 of this year's Giro. Photo credit: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
The African cycling revolution that they are pursuing doesn’t happen because of one good race; bringing those riders through is a drawn-out fight for decades in which glossy triumphs are few and far between. They may have lost their novelty value, but integrity and staying power are more worthy attributes. They’ve given Grand Tour starts to 16 African racers since that 2015 Tour. And while their budget pales in comparison to the sport’s powerhouses, in the words of their principal Doug Ryder, “money doesn’t buy heart or passion.”
Inevitably, their number of African riders has waxed and waned over the years; there are none in their line-up at the current Giro d’Italia. But powerfully, their principles have seemingly been assimilated by everyone on board, regardless of nationality. “For two years we've been speaking about [the Nguni phrase] Ubuntu in the team – I am because we are – which is about riding as a team,” Victor Campenaerts said after winning stage 15 into Gorizia. “We cannot go alone, we're stronger as a team together, and the spirit we have in the Giro is building up to an even greater spirit.”
Victor Campenaerts after his stage 15 victory. Photo credit: Marco Alpozzi/ Getty Images
The challenge remains; countries teeming with talent like Eritrea, Rwanda and Ethiopia still need a crucial hand-sling – financial, tactical, technical – into Europe, the sport’s hub. Meanwhile, the UCI World Cycling Satellite Centre in South Africa continues to discover promising, raw bike racers. The fruits of their collective labour will ripen over the next decade. It’s an exciting period: the Road World Championships will go to Africa for the first time in 2025, with Morocco and Rwanda the bidding candidates.
I hope the team is still around then so its management and riders can enjoy that historic moment. Stage wins like those from Mauro Schmid, Victor Campenaerts and Giacomo Nizzolo at the Giro will be key for exposure and ensuring the outfit’s future.
The squad is still seeking a title sponsor for 2022; anyone with deep pockets, good intentions and a love of cycling could do little better than help them. That way, the Qhubeka Assos story will have a lot more stirring scenes before riding off into the sunset.
This is an extended, updated article, based on the Editor’s Letter that appeared with issue 103 of Rouleur