Africa's first pro cycling team races for change at home, at Tour de France
Look out France, Africa is coming. Last year Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first African to wear the polka-dot jersey in the Tour de France, leading the King of the Mountain classification through stages 6 to 9. And British teammate Steve Cummings scored the first stage victory for an African team—in the first ever appearance of an African team at the three-week race—on Jul. 18, 2015: Nelson Mandela Day.
A couple of weeks ago Teklehaimanot won the best climber classification at the Critérium du Dauphiné, one of the main warm-up events for Le Tour, defending a title he’d also won in 2015. Now he is setting his sights on a first stage victory at the main event, which runs from July 2 through July 24.
Since last July, Teklehaimanot’s team has rebranded from MTN-Qhubeka to Team Dimension Data. In September, the team signed rider Mark Cavendish, a previous winner of the points classification at all three Grand Tours, and head of performance Rolf Aldag from the No. 4-ranked Etixx–Quick-Step team. Dimension Data has also rapidly climbed the cycling ladder. It was a Continental team four years ago, a Pro Continental team until last year, and is now a UCI World Tour team. “Those are big steps,” Aldag cautions, explaining that his team may need time to adjust to its new status.
Cavendish is less coy. “I truly believe in five years it’s going to be the biggest team in cycling,” he says. “Not long after there can be the first black winner of the Tour de France.”
Within Dimension Data there is a sense of purpose beyond simply winning races. The team promotes and raises money for Qhubeka, the South African subsidiary of a nonprofit called World Bicycle Relief. Veterans like Cavendish, Aldag, and U.S. rider Tyler Farrar cite this charitable cause as a major reason for signing up for a fledgling World Tour team. At this year’s Giro d’Italia, Aldag was approached by the daughter of Bert Tolhoek, an ex-pro and former bus driver from one of Aldag’s previous teams who passed away last August at age 74. She wanted to contribute the proceeds from selling her father’s high-end road bicycle, turning a carbon fiber bike that just one person could use into 50 or so steel bikes than a whole community can.
“Freedom,” Cavendish says. “That’s the one word that comes to mind with riding a bicycle. To be able to go whenever you want, where you want, with who you want for as far as you want, as fast as you want.”
Set up by SRAM co-founder F.K. Day and his wife Leah in 2005, World Bicycle Relief aims to fuel development by using bicycles to reduce the obstacle of distance. In Nguni, a Southern African language, qhubeka means “to move forward.” According to Dave Neiswander, president and former Africa director of World Bicycle Relief, over the last decade the organization has distributed 300,000 bikes in impoverished communities around the world, with 80% of those being in Africa. Neiswander estimates that about five people will use each bike, so that equates to over a million more Africans on two wheels.
Like most pro teams, Dimension Data is effectively based in Europe most of the year—just four of the 2016 UCI World Tour races take place elsewhere—but training camps in South Africa offer the team’s riders a chance to take part in bicycle distributions and visit the communities they are supporting. “To learn after a year or two that they have used their bicycle to build a business, and to use it to go to school and back, and just make their lives easier,” says Jacques Janse van Rensburg, a South African native who has ridden for the team since 2012. “It’s really nice to know you’re riding for another cause as well. A greater cause.”
Besides charity, there is another side to the relationship between Team Dimension Data and World Bicycle Relief. “We’re an African team and we have clears goals to develop African cycling,” Aldag says. Though 15 of the team’s 27 world tour riders come from elsewhere, all 10 of the riders in its developmental continental team are African. In total, Dimension Data’s African contingent includes riders from Algeria, Eritrea, Rwanda and South Africa.
“There’s this massive wealth of talent in Africa, and it’s largely untapped,” Farrar says. “A guy like Daniel Teklehaimanot. He’s a national celebrity now after his exploits in the Tour last year.”
Teklehaimanot was born in the town of Debarwa in the Eritrean Highlands, roughly 6,000 feet above sea level. He grew up riding an everyday bike on dirt roads at an elevation greater than all but a handful of the highest climbs on the Tour de France. “If you see the way African runners dominate the endurance running events, there’s no question if you have the physical engine to dominate in the marathon,” Farrar says, “then why not dominate on a bike?”
World Bicycle Relief’s $180 Buffalo bike is, however, a long way from the $10,000, 15-pound Cervélo machines that Dimension Data races. “It’s about 50 pounds of love. There’s a lot of steel in that bike,” Neiswander says. “It’s built to be durable.”
But even the greatest pros started somewhere.
“If you give five young kids, no matter where, a bike, they will sooner or later race each other and try to find out who is faster,” Aldag says.
He hopes his team can raise funds for as many as 7,500 more Buffalo bikes in Africa this season alone. That would mean tens of thousands more African kids learning to ride. If just a tiny fraction of them find their way to the pro tour, a decade from now the makeup of pro peloton might be very, very different.