Africans to make a splash at Tour de France
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THE Big Show, la Grand Boucle, the Tour de France. Six Africans, three of them from South Africa, will start the grandest of the Grand Tours on Saturday with different hopes and dreams. All, though, will carry the hopes and dreams of a continent that has so much promise in a sport that remains very old school.
It has been a refrain of Doug Ryder, team founder and head honcho of Team Dimension Data, that one day an African rider would become World Champion and win the Tour de France.
That day feels like it is coming closer. This, the 103rd running of the Tour, should give another indication of how Africa is developing.
Louis Meintjes, once of Dimension Data, joined Lampre-Merida in a move that was announced during the Vuelta a Espana, shocking his then teammates and management. There was some anger and frustration. Some felt it was the wrong move for him, that he would be swamped in an Italian team with Italian ambitions and methods. But, with an agent in Rob Hunter, the first South African to win a stage at the Tour, and a South African team manager at Lampre in Brent Copeland, Meintjes, pictured, has been quietly building himself into a strong general classification rider. It also helped that Hunter rode for Lampre for some years, making his Tour de France debut with them.
Meintjes, still just 24, has the face of a cherub, which hides his ferocious ambition. The man from Rustenburg finished 10th in the Vuelta a Espana last year when some thought the furore around his move would distract him.
He took fifth on the stage to Plateau de Beille, regarded as the toughest mountain stage of the Tour last year, after crashing heavily on a descent. It was, believed Brian Smith, then manager of MTN-Qhubeka, a breakthrough ride for him.
“Since the start of the Tour we’ve been telling him that he can do rides like that,” Smith told Cyclingnews.com last year. “It’s never easy for a young guy to come into the Tour de France and get respect from the big names and the strongest teams. But you’ve got to try to break down that respect barrier and ride your own race.”
Meintjes rode his own race at the Criterium du Dauphine, taking ninth. With him at the Dauphine was former MTN-Qhubeka rider Tsgabo Grmay, whose aggression on the climbs there convinced Lampre-Merida to make him the first Ethiopian to ride in the Tour.
Admittedly, there are the same number of African riders in 2016 as there were in 2015. Daryl Impey will be hoping to make up for his crash last year having been picked by Orica-Bike Exchange for his fourth Tour.
Dimension Data have cut back on their African contingent from five to three through necessity to make room for the train of Mark Cavendish, their marquee signing at the end of last year. It is part of the team’s strategy to spread the word of Qhubeka, their charity.
Dimension Data have come off a strong Dauphine. Daniel Teklehaimanot, the Eritrean who became the first black African to wear a major jersey at a Grand Tour when he held on to the King of the Mountains jersey for four days in last year’s Tour, won the KOM category at the Dauphine. Edvald Boassen Hagen, their Norwegian sprinter, took the points jersey and a stage victory.
Briton Steve Cummings, who famously won a stage on Mandela Day in the 2015 Tour, won the final stage at the Dauphine.
Expect Africa to make their presence felt at this year’s Tour de France. Last year was a seminal moment for cycling on the continent. This year, the expectations are higher. This year, it will be tougher. - The Star