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MILAN (VN) — It has been a big year for MTN-Qhubeka, but it could become even bigger if the team joins the WorldTour ahead of the 2016 season. The team said that it could “potentially” join the first division, which would help differentiate the team as it enters a new era with Mark Cavendish and new sponsors Dimension Data and Deloitte.
The South African team Tuesday rocked the cycling world with two big announcements: Multi-billion dollar professional service firm, Deloitte, will sponsor the team for 2016 and beyond, and Cavendish, perhaps the sport’s best sprinter ever, will race in its kit.
The news came at the end of a year that saw the team debut in the Tour de France — the first professional African team ever to do so — and win a stage on Nelson Mandela day. The team raced the Vuelta a España on a wildcard invitation and won a stage there as well.
Africa’s telecommunications giant, MTN said that it will step away when its contract ends this year, but team principal, Doug Ryder secured information technology company, Dimension Data as the new title sponsor. The feeling is that the party may continue.
“We could now potentially become a WorldTour team,” Ryder said. “There could be a possibility that the UCI comes to us in a month’s time and says, ‘You’re at a high enough ranking to be in the WorldTour.”
MTN grew from a small African-only Continental team to a Professional Continental team competing at the highest level. In 2013, it won Milano-Sanremo with German Gerald Ciolek, raced its first grand tour at the Vuelta a España in 2014, and this year, of course, there was the Tour and Vuelta.
The outfit signed several non-Africans like American Tyler Farrar but remembered its roots. This year, for example, MTN helped South African Louis Meintjes and Eritrean Merhawi Kudus further develop their careers. After placing 10th overall in the Vuelta, Meintjes will join Italian team Lampre-Merida for 2016.
“We lost Louis Meintjes, which was a massive disappointment. I built the team for guys like him; for him to leave was a big disappointment and setback. I don’t want that to happen because a rider feels that he can have a better opportunity somewhere else,” Ryder said.
“If we were WorldTour, how many more opportunities would our Africans have to race at a higher level? Many more, of course. There might be one to three less Africans in our team, but the ones that are in our team will go to a much higher level than they would if we weren’t a WorldTour team.”
The UCI has one free spot in the 2016 line-up of WorldTeams. For the 2015 season, 17 teams raced with WorldTour licenses after the Italian Cannondale team merged with Garmin and Europcar stepped down to the Professional Continental level, and Swiss IAM Cycling ascended to the WorldTour.
If the UCI’s license commission granted MTN, which will race as Dimension Data in 2016, a license then it would create Africa’s first WorldTeam.
“It would be tough on our infrastructure [to join the WorldTour], but for Deloitte and Dimension Data, it’s fantastic because it differentiates them from our previous team,” added Ryder. “We were a Pro Continental team, Africa’s first, but now they could be part of Africa’s first WorldTour team. That’s pretty significant.”
It would also make life easier on 43-year-old South African, who said that he had the most stressful past two months after the Tour. He secured two big sponsors, Deloitte, which reported $35.2 billion in revenues this year, and one of the biggest stars in cycling.
“A WorldTour license gives everyone more opportunities, a Giro, a Tour, a Vuelta. What people forget is that a Pro Continental team has to beg for invitations, you can never plan, but if you are a WorldTour, you know that you have 150 race days a year, you know when they are. You can plan your schedules and attract the best talent because you have a structured plan. As a second-division team, it’s like you are walking a tightrope.”
The UCI typically announces the WorldTeams in November. The body’s representatives in Switzerland were unavailable when contacted for this article.
The team announced Wednesday that Australian Nathan Haas will join from team Cannondale-Garmin and Omar Fraile will join from Caja Rural-Seguros RGA. It confirmed Farrar, Edvald Boasson Hagen, recent Tour of Britain victor, and Tour stage winner Steve Cummings, Serge Pauwels, and others would stay.
Ryder said, though losing Meintjes, he is keeping the core of his African group including hugely popular Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot.
The next major news to follow, after a year of highs, could be that the team will race in the WorldTour.