Picture:123RF / FEDERICOFOTO
Picture:123RF / FEDERICOFOTO

The future for SA’s first and only World Tour cycling team seems to have been secured after it was announced on Wednesday that Team NTT Pro Cycling (formerly Team Dimension Data) would partner a company co-owned by former Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis.

The announcement, at the five-star Hotel D'Angleterre in Copenhagen, will result in Danish company Virtu Cycling Group acquire one-third of the shares of the “operational company” of Team NTT.

Riis, who has owned and run top-tier teams in the past with much success, will also take over as the team’s sporting manager.

It had been rumoured that Douglas Ryder, the team founder and principal, had been looking to secure the long-term sustainability of the team with just such a partnership. The team have struggled for good results over the past two years after announcing themselves with a bang as “Africa’s Team” at the 2015 Tour de France, taking two stage victories and wearing the King of the Mountains jersey.

“Today is yet another significant moment in the history of this team, and indeed its future,” said Ryder. “The expertise and breadth of experience that Bjarne Riis will provide in supporting the sporting development through our technology-driven performance approach will be hugely significant, and further add to what we have built with our title sponsor, NTT.

“I believe this partnership will benefit the entire team to help them achieve great results which helps shine a spotlight on our partners, our way of working as a team but most importantly our commitment in support of the Qhubeka Charity.

“Danish cycling is in a very strong place and this partnership, together with the foundation that we already have in place, I believe will help develop the team to become one of the best in the world in the years to come. That is our ambition.”

As a team owner and manager, Riis won the 2006 Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France in 2008 and 2010, and the Vuelta a Espana in 2012.

He is a controversial character in the sport, having admitted to doping to win the 1996 Tour de France. After leaving the World Tour in 2015, Riis took over a small Danish UCI Continental team and absorbed it into the Virtu business he runs with fellow Danes Lars Seier Christensen and Jan Bech Andersen, the latter the chair of the Brondby football team.

The three Danes have been looking for a World Tour to buy into ahead of the 2021 Tour de France, which will have its grand depart in Copenhagen, and had been in negotiations with other teams.

Danish media have suggested that Riis and his partners have lined up Velux, a Danish company, as co-sponsors.

“I’m really excited by this partnership and its potential,” said Riist. “Together, I believe we can develop one of the world’s best cycling teams built on being performance and technology-driven, combined with our many years of experience from the World Tour.

“We have had thorough and fruitful talks and meetings with Doug Ryder on the team’s future and potential. I’m really looking forward to our collaboration and to take on the sporting leadership of the team in this new set-up.

“I have nothing but admiration for what Doug has built and achieved with this team starting on continental level onwards to become a World Tour-team.”

There will naturally be questions about whether the SA-registered squad will continue to be the pipeline for African riders to the big show in Europe that it has been since its inception.

The African and SA representation on the team has decreased over the years as Ryder has attempted to balance the need for development with the pressure from sponsors for good results.

Wins at the Tour de France by Mark Cavendish, now departed, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Steve Cummings gave Dimension Data, their sponsor, extraordinary coverage from a team with one of the smallest budgets on the World Tour.

Those wins served to increase expectations and a tough, dry few years for the team have taken their toll, with sponsors asking questions focusing particularly on results.

Late in 2019 the team suffered another blow when Nic Dlamini, from Muizenburg, who had been pencilled in for this year’s Tour de France, had his arm broken in an ugly altercation with Cape Town park officials and is still recovering.

Dlamini was hoping to become the first black South African to ride at the Tour. He and Ryder will be hoping that can still become a reality either in 2020 or in the future.

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