UTRECHT, Netherlands (Reuters) - When five African cyclists stood on a podium in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch this week Douglas Ryder probably pinched himself.
Former Olympic cyclist Ryder is the man who a decade ago took on a small continental African team and dreamed of turning it into one capable of competing in the world’s greatest races.
On Saturday, 50km down the road in Utrecht, nine men kitted out in the distinctive black and white striped jerseys of MTN Qhubeka will roll down the ramp for the start of a Tour de France adventure few believed possible.
The team, funded by a South African mobile phone giant, is the first from Africa to compete in the Tour having been handed a wildcard from cycling’s governing body the UCI.
Hard-nosed cynics might sneer — after all positive PR for a race tarnished by scandal down the years is priceless.
But accusations of tokenism would be grossly unfair to the ceaseless efforts of 42-year-old Ryder and the cyclists who will wear the colors of the Rainbow Nation on their backs on Stage 14 to mark Nelson Mandela Day.
In their ranks will be the first two Eritreans to compete in the Tour — 21-year-old Merhawi Kudus, the youngest rider in the race, and national champion Daniel Teklehaimanot.
They will be joined by South Africans Jacques Janse van Rensburg, brother Reinardt and Louis Meintjes.
Experienced American Tyler Farrar will act as “road captain” while Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen is the team leader with Britain’s time trial expert Steve Cummings and Serge Pauwels from Belgium completing a lineup that will target a stage win.
The team’s German sports director Jens Zemke said the rookie Africans will have “goose bumps” when they speed through the thousands who will line the route of the prologue in Utrecht on Saturday, but they have earned the right to ride.
Teklehaimanot won the climber’s jersey in the prestigious Criterium du Dauphine last month while 23-year-old Meintjes was sixth in the Tour of Oman and 11th in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
“What can they achieve? Their dream has already come true, the dream to take part in the biggest cycling race in the world,” Zemke told Reuters.
“Now we have to find a strategy which can help them.
“The goal of our team this year is to make an impression, to ride aggressively, be visible. We have to take little pieces of the cake. If you look at the 21 stages there are only four or five maybe where the smaller teams can survive in a breakaway.
“But the goal will be a stage victory.”
Should that happen, the sound of cheering from some of those in African townships and villages who have received bicycles from the Qhubeka Foundation — the heart of what the team is about — might well be heard in Paris.
Qhubeka in Nguni means “to progress” or “move forward” and so far 220,000 bicycles have gone to people who take part in community-based activities, helping them travel to school.
While the Tour riders go for glory, back in Africa it’s a case of Bicycles Changing Lives — the Foundation’s motto.
It is not lost on Tour de France and Giro stage winner Farrar.
“It’s an exciting project, it’s unique, and us putting the Qhubeka Foundation out there and trying to raise funds is special,” he said at the team’s media night at the Rijksmuseum.
“A 150 euros ($166.31) bike can literally change a life in Africa.”
Not that the humanitarian philosophy gets in the way of the day-to-day business of cycle racing.
The team is well-funded, ambitious and, according to Ryder, could be the launch pad that puts an African on the podium of a Grand Tour within three years.
“Look at what African runners did for 40 years, how the likes of Kip Keino revolutionised endurance running forever,” South African Ryder, who competed at the Atlanta Olympics, told Reuters earlier this year when news of the Tour place broke.
“I wouldn’t be surprised in the next three years if a black African rider is on the podium in a Grand Tour. I honestly believe that.”
That is still in the realms of fantasy for this year, but team leader Farrar warned: “We’re not here to make up the numbers.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris