Dimension Data – keep dreaming?
Former South African pro cyclist – and Springbok cycling captain, when we still had such a thing – Douglas Ryder had a dream. He told anyone who would listen that he would get a South African-registered, South African-sponsored, mostly South-African-staffed team to the pinnacle of world cycling. He did. We should be immensely proud. How proud? We asked one of South Africa’s most vaunted sports journalists and regular Coronation Double Century legend Kevin McCallum to take a look.
This article appears in the July/August edition of Ride, on sale now for just R39…
On an early Monday morning 10 years ago, I took a stroll down the Champs-Élysées, looking for a coffee and some small memory, a souvenir, of the rushing madness that had taken place here the day before. There was little to show that the 2008 Tour de France had finished the day before.
The barriers were gone, the banners taken down, bikes replaced by cars. On a bench not far from the finish line where Robbie Hunter had dug deep and hard to try to salvage something from a Tour that had been a horror show for Team Barloworld, a man sat cutting his fingernails, letting the clips fall onto the road and pavement. He looked up and caught me staring at him. There was no shame, no embarrassment. He held up his fingers and admired his work.
It felt sacrilegious. A stain on this grand cycling stage. It was just simply wrong. I sighed and walked on.
Just four Barloworld riders finished that 2008 Tour de France. Three of them were African: Chris Froome, JohnLee Augustyn and Hunter. I had said goodbye to Froome and Augustyn at the Arc de Triomphe the night before, at around midnight. The two of them were going out on the town. They were dressed in their team tracksuits. Their plain clothes were in their cases, which were in the team bus, on its way to the team headquarters. They were somewhat tipsy.
Drinks had been taken. Three weeks of the Tour de France will leave you in dire need of a drink and dreaming of doing it all again.
The Tour. It’s always the Tour.
The be-all and end-all of professional cycling, the beginning, middle and end of cycling conversations. Doug Ryder had a dream to take a team to the Tour de France. Nic Dlamini’s dream? To ride at the Tour de France. Louis Meintjes’ dream? Podium at the Tour de France. Daryl Impey’s dream? Stage win at the Tour de France. Chris Froome’s dream? To be allowed to ride the Tour and win it five times. Augustyn’s dream? To stop being asked about his crash coming down the Cime de la Bonette at the 2008 Tour.
Augustyn could have been part of the Team Dimension Data Tour dream. He desperately wanted to be, but his hip had other ideas and after coming out of retirement to join MTN-Qhubeka, he was forced to retire once again. He was an exceptional talent. He could have been a contender. He could have been the first South African on the podium of the Tour de France. He is still just 31 and yet his career seems a lifetime ago. What could have been.
It also seems a lifetime ago since Ryder said that his dream was to take an African team to the Tour de France and to have an African win it. Meintjes is now that man, with the ‘2020’ project in full swing to get him or any African onto the podium by then. Dlamini could also be that man, having shown the desire at the Tour Down Under this year. Dlamini is just 21 and has time on his hands. He has said that he wants to ride the Tour in 2020. Perhaps it won’t be a South African. Perhaps one of the two Eritreans.
Dimension Data fought hard to get Meintjes back. They were shocked when he left them in 2015 heading to Lampre, believing they had agreed a new deal. But Lampre had money to burn and Meintjes and Hunter, his agent, believed he was worth more than Dimension Data were offering him. Two years ago, there was talk about him going to Bahrain-Merida to join up with South African Brent Copeland, but Lampre had him on a two-year contract and wanted to hold on to him. Their loss was Dimension Data’s gain.
The plan for Meintjes was for him to ride the Giro and Vuelta this year, and then possibly go back to the Tour next year. The first step of the plan hit a stumbling block when Meintjes was forced to pull out of the Giro with illness. He had a tough start to the year and there has been some concern and confusion around his form. The numbers tell one story and his results another. Perhaps this is just simply not his year. Perhaps there is something else ailing him. Perhaps he needs this low to set himself up for the future.
“We had planned for a better GC result for Louis at the Giro, but it hasn’t worked out that way so it is a disappointment,” said Dimension Data’s head of performance sport Carol Austin. “We’ve got a good understanding of where he is and what needs to be done. The learnings from the mistakes can really inform an improvement for the future.”
Meintjes has admitted he is not at his best.
“At the start of the season, December, January, February the numbers were looking really good,” said Meintjes. “It looked like it I was heading towards a really successful first part of the season. But, when I went over to Europe, things just kind of stood still from there. I, unfortunately, don’t have any results or anything to show for it, but there has been a lot of hard work and preparations done. It’s just a little bit of the unexplained.”
“Nothing’s impossible. That’s the dream and that’s what we are working towards, so if we can pull it off, it will be brilliant. The team has been really good with supporting me with the plan, looking at what we need to do to get there. That’s the dream and the plan for the next few years. It doesn’t make any sense for me to do the Giro again if the route doesn’t suit me. It is likely we will be going back to the Tour again, but it has to suit me and my strengths, and be good for the team. You will see me back at the Tour soon.”
And Dlamini. Dimension Data are playing it canny and careful with the man from Capricorn Park. He has undoubted talent and a hunger. Ryder believes he is an “awesome” talent. He has spoken of nights sleeping in his room in his family home, pictures cut from cycling and running magazines covering up the cracks in the walls, dreaming of riding in the Tour. Winning the King of the Mountains jersey in Australia was a massive step. He worked hard for Edvald Boasson Hagen at the Tour of Norway, helping him take a stage win. He is learning and growing.
Dlamini exudes calmness and patience but a fire burns in him. His programme has consisted of some of the “smaller” races in his first full season with the World Tour squad, but a Grand Tour place cannot be far away. His importance to Dimension Data and African cycling is measured not just in his performances, but what he represents. A black African cyclist from a township in Cape Town is a beacon for black African cycling and the development and furthering of the sport. He is what Kagiso Rabada is to black cricket players; a beacon of hope and change in a country that needs much of both.
Dimension Data have some flak for their recruitment policy in the past. The signing of Mark Cavendish a few years ago changed the priorities of the team, and it is very likely they will once again be dedicated to him at the Tour this year. Over half the team is African. But is it still an African team?
“Yes, it is,” said Brian Smith, who was the team’s general manager for a spell before returning to his television commentary role. “It’s registered in Africa. We have South African staff, we have African riders, we have South African sponsors and the team principal (Doug Ryder) is African. If we could entice more South African sponsors to get involved that would be brilliant, but we are definitely African.
“To turn the question around, what nationality is (British-registered) Sky? Is it a foreign team? It is a British team? It has so many nationalities. You could say the same about any number of teams on the World Tour. Etixx-Quickstep, BMC, etc.”
You would be hard-pressed to find a South African or African who will not be supporting Dimension Data at the Tour de France. It’s in their name and their DNA; their history is rooted in Africa. Ryder has remained constant in his refrain about his country and his continent, having to balance and the dream with the need for results and success.
Perhaps this is the start of part two of Ryder’s dream. He has taken an African team to the Tour de France. Next step – the podium on the Champs-Élysées.
Perhaps in a few years’ time, I’ll be walking down that street in Paris looking for a small memory of the final day of the Tour de France.