The transformation of MTN-Qhubeka continues apace. Overall victory at the Tour of Langkawi for the Algerian Youcef Reguigui is a significant result for a team with ambition to develop African talent, and its more celebrated riders are beginning to function as an effective sprint train, as Gerald Ciolek’s second place on the sixth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico and Edvald Boasson Hagen’s top ten finish at Milan-Sanremo attest.
La Primavera will doubtless be counted as a disappointment, with neither of the team’s two former winners – Gerald Ciolek (2013) and Matt Goss (2011) – able to double their tally, but there were signs on the run to the Ligurian coast that MTN-Qhubeka will be able to mix it with the heavyweights this spring. “We are in the rumble,” DS Jens Zemke joked to 1 at the partenza.
Ciolek had sufficient energy to hurl his helmet to the ground in frustration after crashing on the descent of the Poggio. Who knows what he might have achieved had he arrived in contention? Boasson Hagen salvaged a top 10 finish on the Via Roma from the wreckage on the famous descent into Sanremo. For Zemke, all that the team’s high-spec sprint train has lacked this season has been a victory. While he is clearly not delighted by the fact, he is far from panicking. These things take time, he concedes, and he is realistic.
“What we miss is a [sprint] victory. It’s coming. We had good lead outs at Tirreno, but I’ve been telling the boys that with former teams like Skil-Shimano, it didn’t come together in a month. It takes a bit of time, it takes trust, it takes procedure, but we have come a good way.”
The clearest example to date came on the sixth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, where MTN-Qhubeka’s four-man sprint lead out dominated the final kilometre, only for Ciolek to be passed within the last 50 metres by an indomitable Peter Sagan, after being perfectly positioned by Edvald Boasson Hagen.
An equally favourable impression of the team’s progress was created at the Tour of Oman with performances perhaps even more significant to a team with a sporting agenda as large as developing talent from the world’s largest continent. Zemke describes the team’s African mission as “super important”.
“In Oman, we saw Louis [Meintjes] and Jacques van Rensberg, both fifth and sixth, then Youcef winning the Tour of Langkawi, his first pro victory. The development of the Africans is our biggest goal. You see already after these first three or four years that it is paying off.”
The established talent is delivering, too. 140 gained the team’s first win of 2015 by claiming a stage of the Vuelta a Mallorca, and finished an impressive sixth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico.
The Northern Classics will rise to the top of the MTN-Qhubeka’s agenda in the coming weeks, but here too the team is well provided for. Boasson Hagen has long been expected to win another of the big cobbled races of Spring after, in what seems like another lifetime, he won the 2009 Gent Wevelgem. Goss may also feel that he has unfinished business with the pavé.
“Unfortunately, we are not a WorldTour team, so we will be one of the last cars, which is a disadvantage in Flanders and Roubaix,” Zemke observes. “We have WorldTour points, other teams have no WT points, but they are ahead of us, so the system is a bit weak, but we are happy with our sporting performance.”
A wild card invitation to the Tour de France will present the team’s biggest opportunity of the season and the prospect of an African team claiming a stage is exciting and not unrealistic. For now, MTN-Qhubeka can consider the early season to be a success. “We have a team that is absolutely ready,” Zemke believes. “The mood is good. We only have to make a good strategy, and get used to each other, and I think it should be fine.”