With their debut season as Africa’s first UCI Professional Continental team almost at an end, Cyclingnews grabbed MTN-Qhubeka media man Xylon van Eyck for the low-down on a season of highs.
1. What were MTN-Qhubeka’s key objectives and goal races for their first ProConti season?
X: At the end of last year, we spoke about what we wanted to achieve this season. We wanted to be a team that is respected and to create an environment that other athletes want to be part of. Our goal was to win ten UCI races and as many national titles as possible, as well as a top-15 finish in the team time-trial at the world championships.
2. Did the team achieve these goals?
X: We exceeded that with 13 victories, as well national titles in South Africa, Ethiopia and Lithuania, and a silver medal in the world championships thanks to Louis Meintjes. The only result we didn’t achieve was the top-15 finish in the team time-trial.
3. What were the team’s top three performances this season?
X: It’s hard to narrow it down, as every victory is special in itself. Obviously Milan-San Remo was the biggest one, as it went a long way in publicising the team. Most people in cycling now know about us and the work we’re doing with Qhubeka. Louis Meintjes’ ride in the world championships was a special one and everyone was emotional after that. The first victory of the year was also nice because Jay Thomson and Louis won the South African championships and, later that afternoon, Gerald Ciolek won in West Flanders, so that was a great day for us.
4. What was the lowlight of the season?
X: We’ve learnt a lot this year, not only from a sporting point of view but also from a structural point of view. We set up our base in Europe from scratch, which had a lot of financial implications, and on the sporting front we’ve suffered several injuries. This year has taught us a lot and we’ve now got a better hold on how to approach next year.
5. Has there been a lot of pressure on the team as flag bearers for African cycling?
X: We didn’t feel a great deal of pressure except for the pressure we placed on ourselves. One of our aims was to create an environment where our athletes felt safe and secure. We’ve found it’s actually a winning formula and they perform better.
6. How have the riders matured or changed psychologically in the course of this season in terms of big match temperament?
X: To answer that question, we’d have to divide our athletes into our European and African line-up. The Europeans are used to the workload they experienced this year but it’s been a great learning curve for our African athletes. To be successful, you have to increase your workload every year in terms of training and racing – and that load has doubled for most of our 15 African athletes on the team this year. Living in Europe for an entire season has also taught them about being independent, away from home.
7. Has Gerald Ciolek proved his worth as the team leader this year (on and off the road)?
X: Yes, absolutely. It’s evident in Gerald extending his contract with the team through to 2015. It’s a working relationship that’s benefiting both his career and the team tremendously. He’s an incredibly humble athlete who’s very generous with his knowledge.
8. Who were some of the other standout riders in the squad?
X: We’ve structured our team in a way that benefits most parties. We’ve brought experienced European riders on board to mentor the younger athletes, while backing them up with the best science, coaching and equipment to allow them to get back to their best. It’s worked really well. Sergio Pardilla won his first race since 2010, Gerald Ciolek has had his best season in years and Ignatas Konovalovas regained his national time-trial title for the first time in a couple of years.
9. Tell us about the team’s recent performance at the UCI Road World Championships.
X: The championships took place on our doorstep, so we decided as a team to support Cycling South Africa with our staff and infrastructure. It was a great event with great results. Ignatas was the first rider from a non-WorldTour team to finish in the men’s elite road race.
10. With Louis Meintjes finishing second in the U/23 road race and grabbing the world’s attention, is he an integral part of MTN-Qhubeka’s focus going forward?
X: Louis’ ride wasn’t a surprise to anyone on the team. We’d earmarked him as one of the best riders in the race. In fact, one of our German riders, Andy Stauff, messaged Louis the night before and told him that he and the team believed in him. Just like Andy said, Louis was in fact the strongest in the race. We identified this talent in him a while ago and he has an exciting future ahead.
11. Can we expect any squad changes or new announcements ahead of the 2014 season?
X: We’ve already announced Linus Gerdemann as an addition to the team. He’ll add great depth to our shorter stage races and experience when heading to our first Grand Tour. We’re also passionate about taking African talent to the world stage and this remains our priority. We’ll be making more announcements with regard to African athletes soon. We’re keeping all our riders from 2013 and adding great reinforcements for 2014.
12. At any given time, MTN-Qhubeka could be sending two squads to race tours on different continents. Give us some insight into the travel and logistics behind managing the team’s movements.
X: We’ve got fantastic support staff behind all the athletes. There are staff members who handle race entries, visas, vehicles, race bikes, spare bikes, race food, flights and airport pick-ups. It’s a big part of the job but we have incredibly passionate people who are part of the project.
13. What kind of support staff is in place for the team? Give us an idea of the scope in terms of managers, medical doctors, sports psychologists, coaches, mechanics, drivers etc.
X: The support staff is divided into several departments. Dr Carol Austin of Activeworx heads up the high performance team. She oversees all medical staff, doctors and coaches, and looks after the overall health of the athletes. This includes training programmes, injuries and operations. We have two sports directors based in Europe who oversees the race programmes and selection of riders. Riders also have specific directors to report to and are in touch with them on a weekly basis. A logistics manager looks after the mechanics, equipment and logistics around the vehicles. We also have administrative staff who look after the business side of the sport.
14. From a media perspective, how receptive have the international media been to the team?
X: The reception the team has received internationally has been overwhelming. We could never have imagined the success 2013 would bring us. We’ve been featured on CNN, Sky News and Al Jazeera to name a few. We’ve made headlines in the biggest newspapers across the world. It’s been great exposure for our wonderful partners.
15. What international tours or races are still on the cards this season?
X: We’re busy wrapping up our season but although the riders are starting to get tired, they’re super motivated as we have two highlights for the year left. One is Il Lombardia, a WorldTour race that is owned by the Giro d’Italia. Paris-Tours, which is organised by the Tour de France group, is the other.
16. When is the team expected home at the end of the year?
X: The team finishes the European season in the middle of October and everyone will then have a few weeks’ break before we prepare for a training camp in South Africa and racing the Tour of Rwanda.
17. Will the team make the Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge one of the two local events they’re allowed to compete in?
X: We’ll be present at the Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge but not competing in the professional peloton. The team will be supporting Qhubeka and raising funds for the charity. While our development squad will race for victory, the professional team will help a group of people riding for a purpose – to help raise funds to distribute bicycles throughout Southern Africa.
18. Based on this season’s performances, is there a Grand Tour on the cards for next year?
X: We’re confident that 2014 will be the year that an African team heads to a Grand Tour for the very first time. We’ve made our intentions clear to the organisers of the three Grand Tours and we’ve been preparing for it in terms of bolstering our staff and athlete line-ups. We’re very hopeful.
19. With the team’s new high profile, how has the Qhubeka bike initiative benefited this year? How many bikes have been handed over to kids so far this year?
X: We don’t have final numbers yet but the awareness in the market for the Qhubeka brand has been amazing. In the beginning of the year, when we got to races, we had to explain all about the project. Now most people who visit us already know about it.
20. Any other exciting developments on the cards that you can share?
X: Our dream is to develop an African world champion and take the team to a Grand Tour. This will be the culmination of hard work and determination by a passionate group of people. When we started, it was said that this would be near impossible. We’re hoping the hardships we’ve been through and the sacrifices we’ve made will yield results in the future. It certainly seems that way.
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