Sponsor leaves African cycling team despite impressive Tour
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) The title sponsor of the African cycling team that made an impressive debut at the Tour de France said Wednesday it was ending its agreement, citing the ''normal business practice'' of reviewing commercial agreements.
Despite praising the team's ''outstanding performance,'' cellphone network MTN said its partnership with South Africa-based MTN-Qhubeka had ''reached its conclusion'' and it wouldn't be renewing.
The team ''put on a fantastic display of power and athleticism at the Tour de France and we are very proud of their achievements,'' MTN group corporate affairs executive Chris Maroleng said in a statement. ''Our partnership with the team has come full circle and we wish the team the absolute best in the future as we pass on the baton to the next sponsor.''
The announcement was a surprise after MTN-Qhubeka achieved a series of firsts at this month's Tour, becoming the first African team in the Tour's modern era and allowing two Eritreans riders to become the first from their country to ride at cycling's top race.
The team also had meaningful results: One of the Eritreans, Daniel Teklehaimanot, became the first African to wear the polka dot jersey as leader of the mountains classification, and Stephen Cummings won a stage for the team, another piece of history for an African outfit.
MTN-Qhubeka finished fifth overall in the team classification after earning an invite to the Tour from organizers. Belgian Serge Pauwels was 10th overall in the mountains classification for MTN-Qhubeka and Merhawi Kudus, the other Eritrean on the team and the youngest rider at the Tour at 21, was 10th in the final standings for young riders.
MTN said it had invested $9.5 million in the team since it was founded in 2007, helping lift it from an outfit riding only in small African races to a professional continental team with bases in South Africa and Italy - and now with a history at the Tour de France.
Using its profile at the Tour, MTN-Qhubeka set itself a target of financing 5,000 bicycles for children in South Africa, where road racing is gaining in popularity but can't yet compete with the country's main sports of soccer, rugby and cricket.
The nine-man team had five Africans on it, maintaining its promise of keeping the majority of its lineup from the continent. Three of the riders were from South Africa and two from Eritrea, the northeastern African nation with barely any cycling history.