For now, hope springs eternal for the Doug Ryder and his African team as he searches desperately for a sponsor to replace NTT, who decided at the weekend they would not continue their relationship with the squad.
There had been rumours for some time that NTT had no distance left to run with Ryder and the team. Ryder dropped a hint to this writer back in December just after Nic Dlamini had had his arm broken by a Table Mountain National Park ranger. He suggested the injury could end Dlamini’s chance of riding the Tour de France as NTT had just one more year left on their contract and had not confirmed to extending it.
Ryder is in the fight of his life to save his team, the first and only African-registered World Tour outfit. It’s October. The world has been turned upside down by a pandemic. Economies have been squeezed, corporates have tightened purses. Sponsors are few and far between. His African dream may be coming to an end.
Ryder has had to make compromises the last few years as he has fought to keep his team viable and afloat. His budgets have always been tight, but he has worked his salesman smile hard around the world. There is a story of him sitting in the lobby of the offices of Trek bicycles in the United States until the CEO would see him and listen to his pitch. Trek came on board as a partner and provided the bikes for the team when it was still a Pro Continental outfit.
“Selling, you are always selling,” Ryder told me at a book launch last year. “Selling the team. Selling the sport. Selling the dream.”
Perhaps that is why he went into a partnership with Bjarne Riis, the Danish team manager who comes with baggage. Riis’s doping past, both as a rider and a manager, has made him a divisive character in world cycling. He tried to buy into the Ryder’s team in August 2015, just after the team had finished a successful Tour de France as MTN-Qhubeka.
“There has not been any negotiations on our part, but it is true that Bjarne Riis has inquired about the possibilities,” said Brian Smith, the team’s general manager at the time.
“For us it has not been possible to initiate a collaboration with Bjarne Riis. Our values are not consistent with his history; Riis has previously doped. It was emphasised very clearly that it would not be feasible, and it was solely because of Riis.”
In January this year, Riis was confirmed as manager and co-owner and it was reported he had bought a third of the team’s shares with partners Lars Seier Christensen and Jan Bech Andersen. Ryder was effusive in his praise of Riis in January, describing it as a “significant moment” for the future of the team. “The expertise and breadth of experience that Bjarne Riis will provide in supporting the sporting development through our unique technology-driven performance approach will be hugely significant,” said Ryder. “I believe this partnership will benefit the entire team to help them achieve great results.”
In June, it was reported by a Danish newspaper that Riis had not, in fact, taken co-ownership of the team. “We still have to work out exactly which direction the team is headed in, and it’s been difficult under the circumstances we’ve had in recent months,” Riis told Ekstra Bladet, but that it was still the “intention” for him to buy into the squad. During the Tour de France, Riis said he was confident about attracting a new backer but a Danish sponsor, a window manufacturer, said to have been lined up by Riis, did not come through.
For now, nothing is certain. The team has been quiet in the transfer market for next year and some, like European time trial champion Victor Campenaerts, is hoping to ride well at the Giro d’Italia to make him attractive to a new team.
“It would be nice to have a new sponsor but it’s five minutes past 12. I think it will be very difficult to get a new sponsor,” he told Sporza. “I am, of course, looking forward to a new team, because I want to remain a professional cyclist. A new sponsor would be ideal but I can’t wait for it forever. It’s not an easy moment to change teams. CCC is also in trouble, and many teams have already been formed. There won’t be many options.”
In a call to the team on Monday evening, Ryder told the staff the news about NTT not extending their contract. Cyclingnews.com reported that Riis was in on the call. Ryder told staff that while he wouldn’t give up the fight, they should perhaps look for new teams for next season. Some may retire, calling it a day.
Jay Thomson, the South African, has ridden with Ryder for the best part of 11 years, save for a spell with a team in the United States. While the number of African riders in the team has decreased over the years in the necessary search for wins to please sponsors, Thomson knows how vital the squad has been to getting African riders on to the big stage.
“This is super important as a stepping stone for us African riders hoping to make it into the WorldTour. Coming to race in Europe as an African team was a dream. I’ve known Douglas since 2005 when I rode for his feeder team,” Thomson told Cyclingnews.com.
“I can’t imagine the feeling that he’s going through because this is his baby. I didn’t know that NTT would do this, it was a shock, I won’t lie, but as I said they’ve done great things for the team. Now we’re at ground zero but we have to start again and see what’s possible.
“With Qhubeka we have a different angle with what we strive to do. We have a different purpose with our team. We could potentially lose that. People can now see what African riders can do. Robbie Hunter started it all and then with Daryl (Impey) and Louis (Meintjes), the whole bunch of us that came through. What Douglas has done for African cycling, you can never take that away. He’s opened people’s eyes to the potential within Africa. What he’s done has been exceptional. I feel heartbroken for him. I hope that something comes and that the team can continue but I know that this is a difficult year.”