Running a World Tour cycling team is a challenging proposition at any time. The logistics operation alone is more complex and dynamic than that of a Formula 1 racing team. Throw a global pandemic and then a war on the European continent into the mix, and those everyday challenges become amplified. For the African cycling team Qhubeka, a purpose-led organization based since 2019 in Oosterhout in Brabant, 2021 was an uphill struggle – even in the flat polder topography of the Netherlands. A series of insurmountable setbacks, including an unreliable corporate sponsor, meant that for the first time in its 15-year history, the team failed to secure the required funding and consequently its World Tour accreditation papers, forcing it to observe 2022 from the sidelines. However, if anything, cycling is a sport of endurance. It demands commitment, resolve, and a strategy for the long run, and some stages are brutal and unforgiving. It takes a special sort of courage to keep the momentum going.
Sports audiences are skyrocketing, and corporate sponsors are tripping over themselves to get on the gravy train of Formula 1 and major league soccer. So, it is bewildering that a purpose-led, charity-based World Tour cycling team with a truly global audience and a dedicated fan base should struggle to secure backing. This is especially unusual when you consider that cycling generally has never been more popular with the general population. The global demand for bikes is growing exponentially, driven partly by the popularity of e-bikes. Furthermore, the current high energy prices may stimulate further growth. Team Principal and former Olympian Doug Ryder laments the current state of affairs: “Our team, which is a global team with an African heritage and a strong purpose, really struggles to find substantial international funding. For the last 14 years, we were funded out of Africa, and the continent is a politically and economically unstable environment, so it hasn’t been easy for us.” The struggle is all the more poignant considering the aspirational path this team has provided for upcoming African pro-cyclists, the 6.5 million euros it has raised for charity, and the 100,000 children it has mobilized by providing access to bikes. Qhubeka is a Nguni word that means ‘to progress, move forward.’ Mobilizing people helps entire families, improves lives, and brings untold benefits to communities. “Everything we have done; our story is so authentic, genuine, and pure in its intentions, and yet it’s not understood or supported. Maybe we’re ahead of our time,” he proposes. Qubekah’s trailblazing certainly appears to be bearing fruit. In an historical victory, Biniam Girmay became the first ever African to win a stage of the classic Ronde van Vlaanderen (Gent-Wevelgem), beating top riders such as Mathieu van der Poel.
Next Big Thing
Team Qhubeka’s 2021 sponsor, the crypto-currency firm NextHash, ultimately failed to deliver the goods. However, Ryder rationally defends the decision to ally with crypto. He asserts that there haven’t been many new partnerships associating with the sport historically. The current trend he observes is that crypto and digital currency are effectively replacing alcohol and tobacco sponsorship in sport. “I see a massive value in digital currency because Africa, where we are from, has no single currency, so there is huge value in digital assets and digital currency, and that’s why we were so keen on NextHash. For the diaspora and the refugees worldwide that originate from Africa, one of the major challenges they have is transferring funds back home. Africa is one of the fastest adopters of mobile technology and mobile banking, so digital wallets, digital assets, digital tokens, this whole digital world for Africa is huge. So, with our heritage and our commitment to Africa and getting people on bicycles, it was very attractive for us to focus on the new world and the new way of working.”
Access All Areas
And it is here that Ryder begins to reveal what he envisages as some of the sport of cycling’s untapped potential. “With cycling’s massive audience, I think there is a huge opportunity to trade digital tokens throughout the fan base. The beautiful thing about cycling is that our stadiums are the open roads of the world. It’s free to spectate; it’s the most amazing sport. It’s about adventure, being outdoors, and communities coming together.” The ‘killer app,’ or true differentiator as he sees it, is a combination of this sense of community plus the open accessibility and opportunity to interact directly with sports professionals at the top of their game. Call it a kind of democracy. “The beautiful thing about cycling is that you can ride virtually and physically and workout with Mathieu van der Poel or with Olympian and Tour de France competitor Nicolas Dlamini via platforms like Zwift. On the other hand, you cannot drive virtually or physically with Max Verstappen or play football with Lionel Messi – whereas in cycling, you can, and that is unique at the highest level in any sport!” Consequently, Ryder sees untapped potential around bringing the communities of sponsors, spectators, partners, clients, fans, and riders together in creative and rewarding partnerships.
The message that we want to get out is that we haven't gone away. We might not be in the Tour de France this year, but we will rise again, and we are looking for supportDouglas Ryder, principal of World Tour cycling - team Qhubeka
“The message that we want to get out is that we haven’t gone away. We might not be in the Tour de France this year, but we will rise again, and we are looking for support.” Ryder’s resolve is even keener knowing that the World Championships will be in Rwanda in 2025. “Africa has never hosted a World Championships in 110 years of the sport. It’s a time when the best riders in the world will descend on the African continent, and Africa should represent itself in its best possible way. That’s why our team is so important and needs to continue creating this hope and opportunity for these riders. The cycling world needs a team from Africa, and Africa should not be excluded from the highest level of cycling. Nic Dlamini is an amazing ambassador for the sport and African cycling and breaking through. As an Olympian and the sole black Tour de France competitor, he is incredibly valuable to the sport as an ambassador and a role model for an entire continent and globally.” It’s clear to see that Team Quhbeka’s positive, pioneering influence extends beyond the team itself. Eritrean Biniam Girmay of the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert team became the first black African to win a stage of one of cycling’s Grand Tours when he outsprinted Netherlands’ Mathieu van der Poel in the 10th stage of the Giro d’Italia in May of this year.
Ryder has been using his ‘downtime’ constructively, building on the already strong community around the team and rallying the fan base. “We launched our Hand-up campaign last week with the Hand-up on the jersey, and it’s beautiful. Our team kit is modeled on the African horizon, the colors of the sun, the sands, and the sky.” Merchandising the Qhubeka team kit and the Hand-up casual wear provides an opportunity for involvement for people keen on cycling or just spectating, and Ryder sees it as a crucial bridge between the team and its support community. “The world needs a hand-up at the moment,” he asserts.
Return on Investment
Currently, Ryder’s process revolves around knocking on doors, chatting to as many corporates and sports marketing agencies, and sporting bodies as possible, as well as Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) funds to try and get them to put money into the team. “Any organization that gets behind our team will get such value through our team’s loyalty, commitment, and purpose, especially in the Brabant region. It embodies ESG; it underpins the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have been validated by the World Economic Forum (WEF), by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and Qubekha is the official charity of the Tour de France. For sponsors, the return on investment is huge. The opportunity to engage globally with a team that has a strong value system – you can create amazing content around it, bringing partners and clients together. Cycling is an amazing return on investment. We saw that in the past with our sponsors Dimension Data and NTT. They wrote a lot more business off the back of the team because of bringing people together, connecting like-minded people in outdoor environments via sport, and being active.”
Ryder’s steadfast commitment, courage, and belief sustain the team throughout this challenging chapter. “The point is – cycling is booming, and there is a team that uses sport and success to do good, that’s looking for communities to come together to keep it on the road. It’s not about crowdfunding – it’s about shared values. And talking of shared values, it’s great to see BOM takes an active role in sharing our story and ethos with the local business community. BOM also became a member of the Qhubeka community to show support for our values and help sustain true purpose-led organizations like Team Qhubeka here in Brabant,” he concludes. Let us hope that the belief in purpose-led organizations leads to a fruitful sponsorship deal in time for Rwanda in 2025, enabling Team Qhubeka to continue communicating the philosophy and community values of Ubuntu – ‘I am, because we are.’ There can be no other word that resonates more profoundly throughout the Brabant business community. Collaboration moves us forward.