Dimension Data, the former MTN Qhubeka squad, will be a World Tour team in 2016, taking over the license formerly held by Europcar, the UCI announced today. The move was not a major surprise, given the open slot and the expansion of Dimension Data's roster upon securing additional sponsorship such as Deloitte, Cervelo and others. But it is a major milestone in the development of African cycling, representing acceptance of an African team at the sport's highest level for the first time.
The team itself is currently gathered in Cape Town and welcomed the news with joy. You can find lots of quotes via Twitter et cetera. Call it serendipity. But since I'm not exactly breaking news, I'll switch to Offseason Capsule mode here. Let's look in on where this team is headed exactly, given the news.
What We Thought Coming In
We didn't do a capsule last year, since the team were Pro Conti. Had we done so, we would have said a few things about them launching Edvald Boasson Hagen in some minor sprints and stage race stages, plus hoping for some classics and/or sprints results from Tyler Farrar. If someone besides me were doing it, they might have been astute enough to mention Louis Meintjes as a threat to do something big. Not sure beyond that. Jens doesn't like Italians, so chances are we would have glossed over Kristian Sbaragli.
What We Got Instead
A bit more depth than we expected. Meintjes spent much of the year hanging around, even winning the Settimana Coppi e Bartali (in a modest field), but his tenth in the Vuelta, after nearly completing his first Tour de France, was a splendid result. This is a 23-year-old in his second season on the top level, and while Vuelta results come and go, just getting here is a huge benefit and a sign of good things to come for the South African.
Beyond that, Boasson Hagen quietly turned in an excellent bounce-back season -- quietly, I say, because many of his top results were in Scandinavia at young-ish races like the Arctic Race of Norway (4th), Tour des Fjords (7th with a stage win), Tour of Norway (2nd) and Danmark Rundt (6th with a stage). National champ on the road and against the watch. But he saved his best for nearly last, winning the Tour of Britain by finishing in the top ten in eight of the nine stages, allowing him to hold off Wout Poels for the title.
Top Three Highlights
- Pretty hard to top Cummings winning a Tour stage on Mandela Day -- the first win by an African team at the Tour.
- I'll go next with Youcef Reguigui winning the Tour de Langkawi. Quality win, outside of Africa, for a young Algerian sprinter.
- Tour of Britain win. Big stage for the Team That Could.
Bottom Three Lowlights
Let's just skip over this for now. There were minimal expectations coming in. If you want one, I'd say it was the day Meintjes signed with Lampre for 2016.
Comings and Goings
Out: Gerald Ciolek, Matt Goss, Meintjes (oof), Andreas Stauff.
In: Mark Cavendish, Bernie Eisel, Omar Fraile, Nathan Haas, Cam Meyer, Kanstantin Siutsou, Mark Renshaw.
What We Expect in 2016
Finally, we get to the meat of this post.
Losing Meintjes is a HUGE bummer. Serge Pauwels stands as the team's general classification rider, coming off a very nice 13th at the Tour. He's 32 now, so it's not exactly a sign of good things to come, but rather one of maybe saving face on the big stage. Today's news means the team have to staff up three grand tour appearances, not two, atop an otherwise very busy season, and it's not going to be easy.
To their credit, however, Dimension Data have assembled a first-class stage-chasing squad, shedding a couple sprinters who weren't delivering (Ciolek and Goss) in favor of the top available free agent, Mark Cavendish, and his primary leadout guy Renshaw... AND on-road coach Bernie Eisel. Add in Farrar, who showed some strength at the front for Boasson Hagen, and you have the ingredients of a top-end finishing team, on both the flat stages and the modest rolling ones.
And then there's the classics. Farrar and Eisel both have some pedigree dating back to the start of the decade, when they were going head-to-head in Gent Wevelgem (won in 2010 by Eisel). The American suffered through his lowest-scoring season in a while, as well as his first winless campaign since 2006, when he was a neo-pro at Cofidis (and the peloton was, um, those were different times). I'm anxious to connect with Farrar for another talk, as his career continues to evolve. Cavendish's signing means that Farrar isn't their main sprinter, which was already more or less the case with Sbaragli on board. On the positive side, the Cavendish signing, along with Eisel and others, means perhaps Farrar spends the season focused solely on the classics. Racing either for himself or a teammate, he makes it a bit more interesting than otherwise, but I won't say more than that for now.
Dimension Data have gone from a team named for the charitable cause they broadcast last year -- bikes for Africans hampered by poor transportation -- to a team with a corporate name and a top license. Now it's no longer a feel-good story, it's a cycling story. They need results to justify their position, and winning on Mandela's birthday won't be enough (though it'll never get old either). Cavendish virtually assures them a lot of camera time at places like the Tour de France, but wins will mean a lot more than just getting noticed. Only 30 and with a solid team behind him, Cav could vault himself right back to the front of the sprint peloton... nobody would be shocked if he did. But he's got plenty of company these days, including younger company, so it can't hardly be expected either.
It's great to see them take on this challenge. And hopefully, those rooting hard for great days ahead for African cycling will show a little patience. You don't build a juggernaut overnight in cycling.