The story behind Gerard Ciolek, the surprise winner of Milan - San Remo on Sunday, has to be one of the feel good stories of the sporting year so far.
The first Monument of 2013 ended in a sprint finish that saw the young German deliver a devastating blow to the ego of pre-race favourite Peter Sagan and as the lead group crossed the line, the Slovakian wunderkind looked across at his victor dumbfounded Some of the worlds leading riders, including Fabian Cancellara, Sylvian Chavanel and Ian Stannard had been dealt a masterclass in race tactics - perhaps they had been too busy watching one another to notice Ciolek timing his strike to perfection!
Gerard Ciolek crosses the line ahead of Cannondale's Peter Sagan (left) and Fabian Cancellara
It was an epic race, contested in such horrendous conditions that it had to be neutralized and shortened, but despite the snowstorms, ice and hypothermia, the race delivered a fascinating dénouement in San Remo.
Ciolek's victory was special. On a personal level, the German's triumph heralded the renaissance of a cyclist whose career had stuttered in recent years. More importantly, however, his victory catapulted the name of his team - MTN-Qhubeka - into the public consciousness. Hailing from South Africa, the team was set up to promote and help raise donations for the Qhubeka initiative - an organisation that is working to improve the lives of many hundreds of underprivileged children and their communities in South Africa.
Founded in 2007, the team is enjoying its first season in the Pro Continental Tour, though before Sunday you could be forgiven for knowing little or nothing about the team. In the latter part of 2012, RCS Sport in Italy, organiser of two of the most high profile World Tour races of early Spring, the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race and Milan - San Remo, invited MTN-Qhubeka to compete in both events.
Team Principal Doug Ryder with members of MTN-Qhubeka.
In accepting the invitation, MTN-Qhubeka became the first African-registered team to compete in a World Tour event. That in itself was an historic achievement and now, thanks to Ciolek's tenacity and timing, everyone connected with the Qhubeka initiative, from the man himself to children living in some of the most deprived areas of South Africa, are reaping the benefits of their wildcard entry.
After Ciolek's astounding win, Anthony Fitzhenry, founder of the Qhubeka charity, summed up the feeling in the team camp with admirable understatement:
"It means so much to this team and this set-up. Just getting into this race was an unbelievable achievement. It's going to raise the profile of this team and of the charity hugely".
The Qhubeka story is an inspiring one and what makes the success of Team MTN-Qhubeka on Sunday all the more fitting is that the non-profit organisation they promote is changing the lives of thousands of impoverished children in rural South Africa through the provision of . . . bicycles!
Tough, resilient yellow bicycles to be exact - very far removed from the sleek Trek Madones ridden by Ciolek and his team mates on Sunday! The Qhubeka Buffalo bike is a far more bulky and muscular beast, designed by World Bicycle Relief in Chicago to withstand the roads and terrain of rural South Africa. Weighing in at 20 kilos and built of steel , this robust workhorse features a rear rack that can sustain a load of 100kg and the fenders that generously wrap around the wheels would no doubt have been appreciated by the riders competing in the blizzards on Sunday.
In rural South Africa, a Buffalo bike is a passport to a better education and personal empowerment
The word qhubeka is a Nguni word that roughly translates as 'to progress' or 'to move forward' and the organisation's slogan is 'Mobilizing change in Africa, one bicycle at a time.' In rural South Africa the bicycle is far more than a mode of transport. For children and rural communities the Buffalos offer a lifeline - providing, for example, transport for children to attend school, a means of carrying food and water and allowing health care workers to visit their patients faster and more regularly.
Furthermore, and this is where the Qhubeka organisation is so innovative and influential, the Buffalo bicycles are not simply given to the most needy. They have to be earned.
The means by which individuals go about obtaining one of these yellow bikes is helping to instil a respect and awareness for their communities and this is an ethos that underpins the organisation: In return for growing 100 tree seedlings (from free seeds supplied by the organisation's 'hubs') or collecting 1200 kilos of recyclable waste in their local area, the children are provided with a Buffalo bike and all the accoutrements required to keep the bike on the road, including a helmet and a pump!
So the project is not only about supplying transport to some of the most impoverished people in South Africa, but also nurturing a fundamental appreciation of how people can improve their own communities through the reforestation of urban areas and fostering a responsibility for keeping the environment clean and recycling waste.
Grow 100 tree seedlings to a height of 30cm and you become the proud new owner of a Qhubeka Buffalo bike.
The success of the Qhubeka project is borne out by the figures. Since 2004, over 100,000 Buffalo bikes have been handed out and schoolchildren who have earned a Buffalo bike through their own hard work have decreased their journey times to and from school by 75%. That's an impressive figure, but when you consider that in South Africa over 12 million children have to walk to school, you realise the magnitude of the issue that Qhubeka is attempting to alleviate.
It is too early to say how Gerard Ciolek's victory will impact on the Qhubeka story, though Press Officer Xylon van Eyck admits that the media attention has been 'massive' with newspapers and TV stations across the world eager to learn more about this South African team and the Qhubeka project. Enquiries from donors have risen too.
So what next for Team MTN-Qhubeka? Cioleks triumph was a popular one and his former HTC-Highroad team mate, Mark Cavendish, who finished behind him in 9th position, was one of the first to congratulate him: "He’s won a few races and he’s right back up there. He’s a super guy and I’m really happy for him."
The implications of the victory were not lost on Team Principal, Doug Ryder: "This will make such an impact in the lives of many South African kids and encourage them to take up cycling. This is an incredible week for our team, especially in only its first year in the Pro Tour."
Ryder and the MTN-Qhubeka management make no secret of their hope to one day compete in the Giro d'Italia or the Tour de France and deliver the first ever African World Champion. Ambitious? Yes, but given the huge pool of innate talent to be found in Africa and you have to share their optimism. The Qhubeka organisation is inspiring a new generation.
The team is made up of both European and African riders and one of the latter, Songezo Jim, became the first black South African to compete in a World Tour event when he rolled off the start line in Milan on Sunday. The significance of his achievement cannot be underestimated and the impact his story will have on young South Africans can only increase.
MTN-Qhubeka's Songezo Jim, who is inspiring the next generation of black South African cyclists.
Doug Ryder is hoping that by getting more bicycles to children and putting cycle racing in front of the public with this African team, it will inspire more of the continent's innately talented athletes to consider a career in the sport.
So will we see MTN-Qhubeka competing in a Grand Tour soon? Well, not this year, though they were invited to compete in the Giro d'Italia in May alongside the likes of Bradley Wiggins - an invitation that, though welcome, came far too early for Ryder. He is aware that his team is young and the riders, especially the young Africans in the team, need careful nurturing as they start to compete on the European circuit.
What the team have attained in the last 10 days is the respect of the rest of the cycling world, whilst at the same providing a huge boost to the global profile of the Qhubeka organisation.
Van Eyck speaks for all the team when he says: "We're hoping this is just the beginning of a long successful time for African cycling on the world stage."
There will be many in the cycling who share that sentiment and hope that one day a rider from the Rainbow Nation, whose first tentative attempts at cycling were made astride a bright yellow Buffalo bike, will stand on the podium and pull on the Rainbow jersey of World Champion!
To learn more about the Qhubeka initiative and how you can make a donation, visit their website: qhubeka.org
Team MTN-Qhubeka also has an official website with more information on the team, rider profiles, news and blogs: teammtnqhubeka.com
Pictures courtesy of MTN-Qhubeka and RCS Sport
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