“Come on Jaco! Allez! Up! Up! Up! That’s good!”
Jaco Venter rode for more than 200km in the break at Liège-Bastogne-Liège last season but being smashed by headwinds and breathing sand on a tight, technical time-trial circuit on stage three of the Tour of Qatar presents a different kind of suffering.
Rouleur watches from the cab of the MTN-Qhubeka pick up truck, alongside directeur Jens Zemke, a man able to shout encouragement with bone-shaking force and who knows a thing or two about winning in Qatar. His Cervélo TestTeam won the opening stage of the inaugural men’s edition, and he has directed women’s teams for Highroad and Cervélo to victory on numerous subsequent occasions.
There are no time-trial bikes at this race, a bid by the organisers to reduce the logistical challenge of racing thousands of kilometres from the team’s European service courses, and Venter rides on the hoods almost from the moment he leaves the start house.
He is a competent tester, fourth in the ITT at Coppi-Bartali two years ago, and his progress along a course held on service roads for the ornate Lusail Sports Arena and accompanying motorcycle circuit is smooth. Later, he marvels that MotoGP riders are able to ride at 300kph in the winds he has faced and remain on their bikes.
Venter is an experienced campaigner, starting his ninth season as a professional and well-used to wind and suffering, as a native of Cape Town who lived in Belgium for many years before his recent move to Lucca. He admits that nothing had prepared him for the ferocity of the previous day’s racing, particularly a first hour conducted at 55kph, but he deals expertly with the headwinds, drifting smoothly to the left hand side of the road or the right, depending on the direction of attack from his unseen foe.
Zemke is pleased. Venter is a time trialist of sufficient skill to ride at full gas, whereas the team-mate who preceded him, sprinter Kristian Sbaragli, was not. It is Edvald Boasson Hagen, arguably the greatest talent squandered by Team Sky, who is MTN-Qhubeka’s greatest hope for the time-trial. Venter crosses the line in tenth position, ultimately finishing the day 1-10 down on stage winner Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick-Step) in 53rd place. Boasson Hagen cracks the top ten, finishing eighth, just 21 seconds slower than the defending champion.
Boasson Hagen’s signing represents a new level of ambition from an already highly professional team, one that carries greater goodwill than any of its rivals. The team’s results are part of a wider project to develop African talent and the simple slogan of the charity Qhubeka – “Bicycles change lives” – is one to which any of its riders might attest.
“I think it’s very special to have a new continent in cycling,” Zemke reflects. “I remember the US coming to the sport, I remember Australia coming to the sport, and now it’s Africa. As a rider, I raced in South Africa and had relatives there, so it’s really a passion for me. “
The demands of racing in the Qatari desert represent a more immediate challenge, however. Venter, the silent figure ahead of us on the road, is coping with them well, pedalling without pause around a roundabout, clicking through the gears and accelerating smoothly on the exit. He speaks highly of his wheels – very deep offerings from Enve – and is pleased with his performance. “Nothing special, but I’m happy with my ride,” he shrugs.
“The first part was really nice and I felt really good. We were going so fast and then all of a sudden we turned right into the head wind and just slowed down. I had to get another rhythm: we were going from 60kph to 40kph or 30kph. It’s quite a challenge.”
It is a challenge too for pre-race favourite Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), unexpectedly beaten into third by Terpstra and a resurgent Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), the four-time world time trial champion who last won an international time trial at the 2013 Vuelta a España.
Ian Stannard finishes the day as Sky’s highest placed rider on GC, just 12 seconds behind Terpstra, who speaks confidently to the encircling reporters as he waits to receive the gold jersey of race leader. The Dutchman followed victory here last year by winning Paris-Roubaix. He is not asked explicitly if he can repeat this seemingly improbable double, one achieved four times by his team-mate Tom Boonen, but more general enquiries concerning “condition” and "the season” surely point to little else.
For MTN-Qhubeka, after the disappointment of the previous stages, Boasson Hagen’s top ten finish will represent hope: a quality embodied by his team for those Qhubeka supports. It is the bicycle that unites the professional athlete racing in a desert with the African child now able to cycle to school, rather than being forced to walk. The tide of negative press routinely faced by professional cycling might be stemmed by MTN-Qhubeka’s efforts. Victory in one of Europe’s historic races for an African rider on this African team would be newsworthy indeed.