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[MY TAKE] Riding with Africa’s dream team

EWN's Jean Smyth spends a week ‘embedded’ with the continent’s only representative at the Tour de France 2017.

The special Qhubeka bike featuring all four jersey colours that travels on the bus everywhere. Picture: Jean Smyth/EWN.

“Do you know where Latvia is?” Oh shit, I’m thinking, there’s a lot riding on this answer, I’ve only just got to the Tour de France. I do know where it is but my brain is in overdrive struggling to place it on the map, his eyes are locked on mine.

While flailing in mental quicksand, I’m just praying he doesn’t ask the inevitable, follow-up. Which, of course, he then does: “Do you know any famous sportspeople from Latvia?” I still don’t know why Marians Pahars didn’t leap to mind but then a save… or so I thought: “Yeah, I do actually, Ruta Meilutyte, 100m breaststroke champion from London 2012. Great swimmer.”

“No, she from Lithuania, next door. Jelena Ostapenko is Latvian, recent French Open champion, look her up. Here, Leffe (type of beer) or wine?” And so I met Aldis Cirulis, soigneur for Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka, just one of an eclectic, fascinating and friendly multi-national support staff chasing excellence in one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

It was Monday evening on the race’s final rest day with a full week of racing to go and the staff were having drinks in the back parking lot of a Saint Etienne hotel. It was stressed to me, more than once, that this wasn’t commonplace but I was rapidly realising this was no ordinary sports team.

Staff watch a stage finish in the team bus.

TOUR DE FRANCE 2017

A quick rewind then as to how my opportunity to spend a week ‘embedded’ with the continent’s only representative at the Tour de France 2017 came about, allowing me deep into the inner sanctum of ‘Africa’s Team’.

Team owner, the effervescent Douglas Ryder, had loosely lobbed a throwaway comment about joining them while being interviewed earlier this year for the Laureus Power of Sport podcast series.

The team’s position as ambassador of the foundation closed the circle and together with the opportunity to report for Eyewitness News resulted in tickets being booked with a simple: “See you at the team hotel in Saint-Étienne.”

Doug Ryder on a phone interview with Radio 702 & Cape Talk.

The key to this assignment was to observe, in the background, the machinations of the team and plot the story of the week and tour as I watched it unfold. It was a simple execution of a note I’d sent Doug in the build-up: “I’m very good at keeping out of the way.” His reply simply: “I know.”

As someone with only a base understanding of cycling at an elite level, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to witness the sport function at its optimum while also remaining mindful of an editorial mandate to ask probing questions, delve deeper into the backgrounds of those involved and form a balanced assessment on what I witnessed.

It was overall an experience that will be hard to do justice. From the people involved, to the sheer brutal lows and searing highs of the sport, to the scale and size of the event, it’s simply extraordinary in every sense. And so it requires extraordinary people to complete it, as I found out.

MEETING THE TEAM

I joined the team on the last rest day of the tour in Saint-Étienne and tried to slip into the hotel, as per my promise: undercover and unrecognised. Alas, Doug was being interviewed in front of the hotel and it turns out my short, rather gruff “Howzit” to the media manager standing nearby gave the game away.

Meet Damian Murphy, the first character of an extraordinary team. More on him later.

Room key issued, Damian simply said we’d meet for dinner in the team room much later on. That gave me time to drop off my stuff, charge some of my equipment and have a quick wander around in the 38°C heat.

I’d be lying if I said I had no trepidation about meeting the rest of the crew: a vast melting pot of nationalities with team partners, sponsors and clients all present, their passion for the sport absolutely second to none.

This was effectively an open-door policy to one of the team’s in the Tour de France. Unique to the sport perhaps? No, as I found out, but rather unique to this team.

It was a simple approach to dinner: dive straight in by introducing myself to the support staff and offer help with anything they needed. I quickly worked out who’d be taking care of my meals and ensuring my bags followed me around southern France and on to Paris.

But then an even bigger revelation… at the team’s truck and kitchen vehicles (a chef and his assistant prepare all of the meals for the team) an informal drinks gathering in the parking lot featured a cooler box full of cold beers and, of course, copious amounts of wine thanks to team sponsor Nederburg. Astana and Lutto Jumbo, staying at the same hotel, were all tucked up in bed. I immediately knew which team this was on tour.

To put the evening into context: this was a team that had been beaten up by tragedy and bad luck up after 15 stages. They came into the tour with a very strong and experienced rider roster, but Mark Cavendish was essentially the money ticket. Keep him fit and they were almost sure of one, if not more, stage victories. That was the team’s strategy.

Well, that went out the window when he and Peter Sagan came together in stage four and two of the biggest names in the sport were on their way home, for different reasons.

Did I expect them to let their hair down (Aldis is bald) the night before stage 16? No. Did I think it was brilliant? Yes. This was after all Doug Ryder we’re talking about, where the only thing that’s conventional is his unconventionality.

RACE DAY

Tuesday dawned bright and hot and so unfolded quite simply one of the slickest logistics operations I’ve witnessed. Times are set for the bags to be at the truck and there’s a time everyone leaves for the start. Simple golden rule: if you miss either then make your own plan. One of the soigneurs reminded me curtly that my bags nearly missed the truck. Suitably admonished I was delighted when the team doctor arrived behind me, bags in tow. We’re both from Cape Town, which might go some way to explaining that.

One truck, one bus, two kitchen vehicles and four cars carry seven cyclists (there were nine at the start), around 20 members of staff and tonnes of equipment and bikes.

The truck normally leaves earlier for the next hotel followed by the bus and the cars, which drive in a supercharged convoy to the day’s start. It’s very unusual for a team to ever stay in the same place as the actual start of a stage, they’re likely travelling anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours just to get to the start.

The convoy makes its way to the start through the French countryside.

The arrival at the start cues another interesting experience. Lined up one behind each other from near-enough the start line; pens are set up, bikes come out and fans, sponsors and special guests mill around with everybody perfectly happy to interact with one another. It’s a completely unique environment. It’s like 200 of the world’s leanest men have rented big motor homes and are on one massive road trip through France (and others) with all their rather mismatched families tending to their every need.

Once the riders have registered for the day’s start the entire team splits up, with the day’s logistics having being carefully planned and distributed via Whatsapp - two groups, one for the staff and another one for the riders.

Stay with me here: the bus stays with the riders and leaves for the finish line once they set off. It’s their sanctuary, custom-fitted to see to their every need. It’s a thing of beauty dutifully looked after by driver Francesco Villa.

WATCH: Jean Smyth meets Team DD's 'CEO of Transport'

Team cars ride the actual route lined with screaming fans from around the world, ahead of the race. Their job is to go up the road to pre-agreed points to hand out either bidons (drinks bottles) or musettes (shoulder bags) carrying lunch including the likes of cinnamon rice, sandwiches, bars, gels and fruit.

For the team cars, once their duties are completed, it’s a mad rush via an alternative route to get to the finish ahead of the race, bearing in mind huge parts of the area are closed off to traffic. It makes the Amazing Race look like navigating around a children’s traffic playground. In my week, with no names mentioned, I witnessed members of the gendarmerie being charmed (you’d normally have better odds successfully escaping Alcatraz), witnessed one member of staff walk to the front of a queue of cars to ‘assist’ a particularly slow customer at a toll booth (the driver initially thought they were being hijacked by a very polite blonde lady from the Netherlands), barriers moved to create gaps to pass through on sealed off roads and one of the world’s most enviable contraptions - a foot-powered siren to acknowledge not only the crowds but a warning to other cars and the fast-moving pack. You also quickly learn how to wave non-stop in the most economical fashion possible. ‘Africa’s Team’ it seems is everybody’s team.

Aldis Cirulis and Bernard Eisel relax outside the team bus.

How do you actually keep up with what’s happening in the race? Well, to be honest, you don’t really. You try and follow it online but the signal’s not great skirting around Col de Galibier or in fact anywhere outside of towns or villages in rural France. There’s also a race radio inside the car from which live updates from the official car at the front of the race are issued (not affiliated to any team). It’s largely garbled static, which requires the listening abilities of a bat-eared fox to not only hear, but decipher.

Serge Pauwels greets his daughter after a brutal stage in the Alps.

For the two race cars (Team Dimension Data) following the team they are the most fundamental part of the day from a support point of view.

Rolf Aldag, head of performance, and Roger Hammond, sporting director, usually take up roles in the lead car with one of the mechanics. Their job? To deliver, via radio, constant updates directly to the riders on any number of issues and also carry spare wheels, bikes, food and drinks to hand over when required.

A second car also follows and would be behind the team rider last on the road. Sporting director JP Heynderickx takes up that spot, along with a mechanic, with space for one of the team doctor Adrian Rotunno, a guest (as I was) or coach Mattia Michelusi who masterminded Edvald Boasson Hagen’s clever decision to go right on a finishing roundabout that shot him to the front of stage 19, and eventually to victory in Salon de Provence.

While there are around 200 of the best cyclists in the world on the road, the quality of their bike-handling is not that far ahead of the quality of the driving skills displayed by almost every member of the team.

It was simply extraordinary. Such is the nature of the sport and the jostling of position that the drivers find and take impossible gaps, all while driving at high speed and doing a myriad of other things. I’ve finally discovered what the handles on the roof are for, inside and out.

It’s a day largely of helter-skelter on an unbelievable scale punctuated by the fact that no detail is left uncovered. Every car, thanks to the soigneurs, has a fully stocked cooler box, homemade lunch, and a healthy quantity of quality confectionary.

Fans wait for the leaders at the top of the Col de Vars.

What surprised me, although I now realise that I should never have been, is the speed at which proceedings are completed at the end of a stage. As the riders finish, they hand over their bikes to the mechanics, climb onto the bus and hit the showers, often having to step around the exceptional team photographer Scott Mitchell. He’s a ‘Mod’, lives in Edinburgh and an artist in every sense. His work is outstanding.

But finally, the first hitch: the Tour de France is an exceptionally well organised race but they’ve simply forgotten about what to do post-stage. Without fail there is no traffic solution for the teams who get stuck - often for hours - trying to find the next hotel in another part of the country. The advance team at the hotel has started preparations for dinner and the mechanics work on the bikes for the following day’s stage - normally a Whatsapp goes out to the riders requesting their ‘set-ups’. The staff and riders normally eat at a similar time - a glass of wine, battle stories shared and alarm clocks set for the next day. That’s the routine for three weeks.

THE STAFF

One of the most intriguing insights for me from the experience was the stories of the staff who come together to make this environment click. We’re used to talk of team culture and how it exists in various sports, and what makes teams hugely successful, and in some instances weak. We know of the systems, for example, within the All Blacks, Manchester United under Alex Ferguson and Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers as entities where culture played a major role in long-term, sustained success.

What I encountered though was something different: the range of personalities and their backgrounds, together with the virtual equality of voice, stood out. Roles were clearly defined but responsibility for those never seemed to waver and instead there was always the inclination to do more. As mentioned earlier this was a team that had been beaten up, even luck had seemingly hitched a ride elsewhere. So what was it?

Make no mistake, there’s arguably not a tougher sporting event in the world to complete in as an athlete as the Tour de France and the unique ecosystem that Ryder has created is simply unique. A key element for any member is to be fully invested in the team’s link with the Qhubeka charity. It’s a non-negotiable and it gives the team a real purpose. I was shocked, I’ll admit, at how there was complete buy-in from every man and woman into the Qhubeka charity. In a high-performance environment it’s easy to box tick social upliftment initiatives, and perhaps if you’re a national representative it’s easier to engage with a project in your homeland. For this team though, Qhubeka was clearly the anchor point. It was hugely powerful.

The special Qhubeka bike featuring all four jersey colours that travels on the bus everywhere. Picture: Jean Smyth/EWN.

The special Qhubeka bike featuring all four jersey colours that travels on the bus everywhere.

So who are these people then?

Meet Rob van de Brand, one of the mechanics from the Netherlands. He likes to kitesurf, ski and he’s single. But he’s a thinker and innately personable. He’s also completely obsessed with cycling and once realising he wasn’t going to be a pro got the next best job he could, to set up bikes for some of the world’s best.

So too, Kenny Latonne and Martijn van Schaijk, from Belgium. Both have magnificent hair and thoroughly enjoy having a good laugh. One’s a dark Johnny Bravo, the other, now, a fan of Jack Parow.

There are soigneurs Aldis (who we’ve met already), Danijel Kvasina and Yvonne van Houweling.

Danijel you’d picture running a beach bar in Hvar: laidback, super relaxed with a wicked sense of humour, and is pretty handy at shooting champagne corks.

While Yvonne’s an extraordinary lady, she never sits still, is hugely experienced and is typically Dutch in her forthrightness. Both her and her husband Rien, who works for the Dimension Data analytics team, love the outdoors and South Africa, so they’ll be going off the beaten track in the year to come.

For physiotherapists Alice Rawlinson and Jenny Wupperman the days are relentless: admin, logistics, driving (either a car or in Jenny’s case the truck), preparing food and bottles for the team and staff plus the rather important job of massage for the riders after thousands of kilometres in the saddle.

Alice hails from Johannesburg and formerly worked for the Golden Lions. She now lives in Girona, Spain, and provided fascinating insights into the professional world of cycling and how they compare to other sports. We chatted about the pressures - not just on the riders with often teams riding at the same time in different parts of the world - but also on the staff, many of whom uproot and take on all new manner of lives. As with Yvonne, her efficiency in completing a myriad of tasks, from making baguettes and packing the truck to tending to Edvald Boasson Hagen shortly after winning stage 19, was mightily impressive to watch.

Similarly for Jenny. She’s from near Dusseldorf where the race started this year, and was elevated to stardom after broadcaster Eurosport aired a piece on her and her rise within the sport.

Dr Adrian Rotunno, who lives in Cape Town brings, along with other doctors in the team pool, an acute understanding into elite athletes. I gleaned an insight into how tough their roles are in managing and maintaining the health of riders. And also, some insights into the history of doping in the sport and what issues might still exist.

For Aldag and Hammond, both former riders at the highest level, their roles are driven by their interaction with the team on the road and their wicked sense of humour away from it. The sharing of their technical expertise was a fascinating insight into how a team delivers on performance and the relative lack of emotion in the execution of their duties - an often misjudged skill in high-performance sport.

Mattia Michelusi is a quiet young man from Vicenza in Italy but as a coach with a Master’s degree in sports science, he lights up when the racing starts. Few celebrated more than he when Edvald Boasson Hagen won stage 19 - made even more special by the popping of champagne at the team dinner that evening live on Norwegian TV.

Coach Mattia Michelusi supporting Qhubeka on Mandela Day.

And as for the story of Damian Murphy: a cycling enthusiast from Springs in South Africa who happened to be a head of sport at a school? He, via social media, became one of the team’s biggest fans a number of years ago and through a number of chance interventions ended up linking up with them in a professional capacity. Having never left the country before that, he now lives in Lucca, Italy. An incredible story, better told over a drink.

A week is a short time to make meaningful connections with people but thanks to JP Heynderickx’s organisational mastery I managed to spend a substantial portion of time with almost every member of the team.

Sporting director JP Heynderickx pops the champagne.

AFRICA’S DREAM TEAM

I left the Tour de France in Paris feeling not only privileged but also a bit guilty. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to the Qhubeka assembly plant and gain a better understanding of the impact the project is making around South Africa and the continent.

But despite that I couldn’t help but feel that experience and having broadly covered the team over the last few years, I’d underappreciated exactly what had been achieved in an incredibly short period. My time spent with the team opened my eyes to the scale of the success of the operation that while fundamentally looks to win bike races, is a celebration of South Africa and its sporting culture at the very highest level. Not only via the team’s performance but also the contribution that Dimension Data was making to sport on a global scale via its technology offering. I don’t believe the average South African sports fan truly understands what Ryder’s achieved here. It’s a dream of almost impossible proportions realised and a simple walk around the race ‘paddock’ indicates he’s up against some very deep pockets.

Ryder’s personality is firmly stamped on everything that it does - there’s simply no team in the peloton like it. No other team owner is standing on the side of the road handing out bottles or almost single-handedly handling its affairs, although he has some fantastic immediate support staff. There’s no doubt it is taking its toll and he’ll have to seek additional help in the future or step back in one or two aspects. An enduring range of memories for me will be his demeanour as the stages were running out and still there’d been no wins for the team; his sense of humour undiminished but his tired, sallow eyes at times sparked with desperation as luck seemed to be deserting them in 2017.

But Edvald’s Boasson Hagen’s emphatic victory in stage 19 was in many ways this team’s greatest triumph yet. Of course, Steve Cummings’s win on Mandela Day in 2015 was poignant, and Mark Cavendish claiming multiple stage wins in 2016 incredible, but ‘Eddy’s' seemed, from my perspective, to be more than that - it was victory for a team which firmly belonged on the global stage. It was the day that Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka proved that they were a ‘proper’ World Tour bike team. It was a day where the staff celebrated in the car park at the bus, again.

Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen after the final stage of the tour in Paris.

It was the result of a team culture epitomised in every single stage of the race, as on the road the team fought like lions: Bernie Eisel, Jaco Venter, Reinhardt Janse van Rensburg, Serge Pauwels, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Scott Thwaites, Steve Cummings, Mark Renshaw and Mark Cavendish, each and every one played their roles to perfection.

What next then? Well, the season continues and with just a few days respite the staff will come from their far-flung homes across Europe to reconvene at other events, with the Vuelta a España the main race to come before the world championships in September. A training camp for all the riders in the group to attend in Cape Town will complete another remarkable year for Africa’s Team.

So, the big question then for the future: will a South African rider of Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka be a winner of the Tour de France? Well, that might just happen sooner than we think.

Jean Smyth is an EWN Sports Editor and the host of the Laureus Power of Sport podcast. Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka are ambassadors for Laureus South Africa.

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