Doug Ryder says he nearly passed out when his cycling team got a wild card place at last year’s Tour de France.
But this July he will have all his wits about him as Team Dimension Data compete as a fully-fledged top division team, with realistic hopes of snagging stage wins and enjoying a spell in the leader’s yellow jersey, at the sport’s ultimate challenge.
Usually wildcards in the Tour make as much impact as a wildcard at Wimbledon. But last year MTN-Qhubeka (as they were known before a change in sponsor), were second, at a time, in the overall team classification. Daniel Teklehaimanot, one of the Eritreans in the team, wore the polka-dot jersey for several stages, as he became the first African to lead the mountain classification.
The team then trumped all of that by winning stage 14 on what Ryder calls “the Mandela Day stage”. The British journeyman Steve Cummings finished first on the anniversary of the former South African president’s birthday.
No longer a novelty, Ryder and his African side will be every bit a legitimate part of the Tour, now elevated to the status of the UCI World Tour – the equivalent of playing in the English Premier League.
To develop the footballing analogy, the team have been promoted rapidly through the leagues. It was only in 2013 that they were granted a place on the international circuit.
And in doing so they have captured the attention of the sport globally, making headlines across the world for what has been seen as an over-achievement for a group of riders most outside of the sport had never heard of before.
It has been a dramatic rise for a team built by a little known South African cyclist who has gone from trying to balance his own career with a job in IT to now effectively being the chief executive of a multi-million-dollar business.
Last year the team were operating with a budget of around $6.5 million. Now they are “well north of that that,” says Ryder as he seeks to compete with the best by signing the likes of Mark Cavendish, Nathan Haas and Omar Fraile to his team. Top cycling outfits, like Team Sky, have operating budgets estimated around $28 million.
Ryder, an energetic and effervescent 44-year-old from Cape Town, rode for South Africa at the Atlanta Olympics and three World Road Race Championships but never enjoyed the pampered existence of a professional in a major race team.
“Pretty much everywhere we went we had to make things happen for ourselves,” he says of his racing days.
So he built his own team, way back in 1997, going through a series of different names as he solicited sponsorship from the likes of Lotus Development, Microsoft, Energade and MTN.
“It was only when MTN came on board as sponsors in 2007 that is when it really started to take off. We wanted to first be the best team in South Africa, then Africa and then to try and take on the world,” says Ryder in an interview with FORBES AFRICA.
“I always wanted to do something uniquely different, to show the ability of the African continent. When I was racing in the late 90s and early 2000s as a professional in Europe, I didn’t get that many opportunities, cycling was really hard then and lot was going on in the sport. It was a bit like racing motorbikes.”
“So I came back to South Africa and said ‘let me start my own team and believe in taking African cyclists as far as they can go’.”
By 2013, the small operation had advanced to 21 riders and 25 staff, 70% of them from Africa. Riders from South Africa were joined by professionals from Algeria, Eritrea and Rwanda. Now, as they ride on the bigger stages, it is full of some of the sports top stars – notably the sprinter Cavendish, whose annual salary is in the $4 million range. Signing him was a massive publicity coup, almost as big a statement as their exploits in the inaugural Tour de France.
“He’s probably the biggest name in the sport. He loves that we are partnered with Qhubeka and what we stand for. It has created an incredible buzz in the team.”
Five years ago, Ryder added Qhubeka to the team name, handing an international profile to a non-profit organization who give bicycles to people in return for community service.
“There is a perception about bicycles in Africa and riding them. Some people would rather walk than ride a bicycle because they feel it shows they cannot afford a car. We’ve tried to make bike riding cool. If the bicycle becomes a cool thing that people want to have, then maybe we can mobilize this continent forward. But we need heroes to do so. And that was the theory, the method in the madness to put this team together,” says Ryder.
The Tour de France offers a massive worldwide profile again but since January, Team Dimension Data have ridden in all the World Tour events, from Australia to Spain, then Dubai and Qatar, Oman, Malaysia, Belgium and Switzerland. In August, they will be in the Vuelta a Espana (the Tour of Spain) and ride in Canada and then the Netherlands before the year is out.
It is a remarkable story of persistence and dogged determination, as Ryder spent much of last year just negotiating and seeking to secure a myriad of sponsors to elevate his Johannesburg-registered team into a proper international concern.
He remains the driving force behind the team and the key element in the success they have had to date with his passion to see the team not just compete, an achievement of his own, but win stages and, ultimately, races.
Never has any sports outfit from Africa made such a dramatic rise.
Now Ryder is able to take more of a hands-on role, planning to manage the team on a daily basis as the look forward to an exciting future.