Africa’s only top-flight professional cycling team, NTT Pro Cycling, is facing a make-or-break month after its title sponsor unexpectedly pulled out two weeks ago.
A new sponsor is needed in the next few weeks if the team is to enter the top global events next year, after Japanese telecommunications company NTT decided to end its support.
NTT rider Domenico Pozzovivo is currently fourth in the ongoing Giro D’Italia, one of cycling’s three grand tours – a position which marks an historic high for the team.
But the financial pressures on the team are intense.
“We’re struggling to keep the lights on but at this point in time, we’re looking ok hopefully for a future partner,” team principal Doug Ryder told the BBC’s Newsday programme.
“We’ve literally got three to four weeks, so the clock is absolutely ticking. We hope we can find somebody who can keep us going.”
Without a new sponsor in place by early November, when teams must register for next year’s events with global cycling body, the UCI, the loss in the team’s finances mean it may not be able to contest the WorldTour next year.
The competition features more than 30 of the sport’s biggest events, including the Tour de France, the Giro D’Italia and Spain’s La Vuelta.
A merger with another team which wanted to use NTT’s WorldTour licence could mean some form of continuation – but that is not what Ryder is aiming for.
“We’re looking for a title partner – no question – to continue as we are today,” he said.
Bicycles change lives
Since it was created in 2007, a team that has had several different sponsors – including MTN and Dimension Data – has maintained its strong links to South Africa’s Qhubeka charity, which raises money to provide bicycles for young people across southern Africa.
“This is our tenth year in solid partnership with them and we’ve helped [give more than] 100,000 bicycles to individuals and give them hope, opportunity and change lives,” Ryder said.
“The team has given that initiative global exposure. We will continue to support Qhubeka, no question, but if the team doesn’t exist then it will severely impact Qhubeka as a whole.”
The team has also been a driving force in developing African cycling talent, having started out in lower-ranked events before making history, in 2015, as the first African-registered team to take part in the Tour de France.
They made an immediate impact with Eritrea’s Daniel Teklehaimanot becoming the first African to wear the famous red-and-white polkadot jersey, awarded to the Tour’s best climber, after claiming it on stage 6.
Shortly afterwards, on a day that had special significance for the African team – South Africa’s Mandela Day – British rider Steve Cummings won their first stage on the world-famous event.
A year later, the UCI handed them team a licence for the WorldTour – the highest tier of cycling – and with it entries into the top cycling races.
Over the years, Ryder has attracted some of the biggest names in cycling – such as Britain’s Mark Cavendish, who won four Tour de France stages with the team in 2016, and Norway’s Evald Boassen Hagen.
He has also provided a platform for some young African talent, such as South Africa’s Louis Meintjes, Teklehaimanot and his compatriot Natnael Berhane, to gain experience at the highest levels.
“This team shows that Africans are – and deserve to be – in the world of cycling and that there is a door open for them,” added Ryder.
“It is incredibly important for the future and the globalisation of cycling to bring Africa into it and I think it will regress if our team doesn’t exist and there isn’t that door open for people across the continent.”
But he remains confident that a new sponsor will be found to allow the team to carry on.
“I have to be positive, I am positive and we have this incredible purpose that drives us, so I am confident we will find something for sure.”