MTN-Qhubeka aims to become Africa’s first team in a Grand Tour as early as 2014 and possibly next year.

“The long term goal is to race one of the three-week tours [in 2014], tough the Vuelta already said they could be interested in us [in 2013],” European team manager, Brent Copeland told Cycling Weekly. “It’d be nice, but we will have to see come July or August. … If we throw these guys into a three-week tour [too early] we’d just be making fools of ourselves.”

The team is slated for a second division licence next year with 21 cyclists, with 15 coming from Africa. The team signed European riders, like Gerald Ciolek (from Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Ignatas Konovalovas (Movistar), but still relies on local talent such as rising star, Rwanda’s Adrien Niyonshuti. Niyonshuti got his start in mountain biking, rode the London Olympics and last month won the national road title.

The team’s registered and currently based in South Africa. However, Copeland is busy setting up home for all the Africans in Lucca, Italy, so that they can live and breathe cycling. He and team principal, Doug Ryder, also made the rounds last month to speak with the Grand Tour organisers.

Tour de France organiser, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) already gave MTN the nod to race its Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman stage races. The team plans to field Ciolek, a couple of other Europeans, Algerian sprinter Youcef Reguigui and perhaps Niyonshuti to gain experience and lead out.

“We don’t want to go into the big races and make a fool of ourselves because first impressions last,” Copeland said. “When we presented the project to RCS Sport and ASO, we said that we don’t want to race the Tour of France, Tour of Italy, Paris-Nice, Dauphiné, and these kind of races, but what we’d prefer is something like Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, Qatar, Oman, Flèche Wallonne, Lombardy, some of the Spanish one-week races. We’d like to get into those races where we can be competitive to a certain extent.”

Ryder has been running teams in South Africa since 1997. He brought the team through the ranks to the Grand Tour organisers and attracted unique sponsors. Qhubeka provides free bikes for Africans in return for helping the environment, such as growing 100 trees or collecting 1000kg of waste. He believes the team, which budgeted through 2015, will appeal to European organisers.

It feels different to Australia’s Orica-GreenEdge with Eritrean Daniel Teklehaymanot, who became the first black African to ride a Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España this year. And different to the former Barloworld team that featured Robert Hunter and Chris Froome, but with the majority of riders from Europe.

“Our team is unique in that it is the first ever registered African UCI Pro Continental Team. If you remember team Barloworld they were a British registered team with a South African sponsor and a few South African riders. We are an African registered, African sponsored team with 70 per cent of our riders from the African continent,” Ryder told Cycling Weekly. Its goal. “To ride a Grand Tour like the Vuelta a España in 2013 and then the Giro d’Italia in 2014.”

Team MTN-Qhubeka 2013 roster

Gerald Ciolek (GER)

Ignatus Konovalovas (LTU)

Sergio Pardilla (SPA)

Jay Thomson (RSA)

Louis Meintjes (RSA)

Johann van Zyl (RSA)

Andreas Stauff (GER)

Martin Reimer (GER)

Youcef Reguigui (ALG)

Kristian Sbaragli (ITA)

Frekalsi Debesay (ERI)

Tsgabu Grmay (ETH)

Adrien Niyonshuti (RWA)

Meron Russom (ERI)

Jani Tewelde (ERI)

Songezo Jim (RSA)

Bradley Potgieter (RSA)

Dennis van Niekerk (RSA)

Jacques Janse van Rensburg (RSA)

Jaco Venter (RSA)

Martin Wesemann (RSA) 

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