“Frekalsi Debesay of Eritrea is now a top-class international rider” – Kevin Campbell, MTN-Qhubeka’s Africa Director
Team MTN-Qhubeka has recently signed some high profile new athletes, as well as re-signing many of its current riders, as it focuses on the goal of developing the first-ever UCI African Pro Continental Team in 2013, and ultimately competing at the Tour de France in the next few years.
Along with the new riders, there are additions to the staff and management team. Although Kevin Campbell has been working with the team in various capacities over the last few years, the team’s new focus means a new role for him too. Campbell will be on board in 2013 as a Directeur Sportif (sports director). The South African already has valuable experience in working with many of the athletes and has travelled throughout the continent and further abroad with Team MTN-Qhubeka. He also manages the team house – a challenging but exciting role, given the diverse range of cultures and languages of the MTN-Qhubeka riders, who are predominantly from countries around Africa.
Campbell has been cycling since he was a schoolboy and raced competitively until 2000, when he left the sport for a period. In 2006, he visited friends in the USA and began riding again socially. On his return to South Africa, he continued to cycle and in his spare time managed local women’s cycling teams.
In 2010, MTN-Qhubeka Team Principal Doug Ryder approached Campbell to assist with the MTN-Qhubeka women’s team and Campbell accepted. It began as a part-time arrangement, but in 2011, Campbell became more involved, travelling with the women to races abroad and working alongside MTN-Qhubeka team coach, Dr. Carol Austin. In 2012, he joined the team full time and began to assist in managing the men’s team as well as the women’s team.
In 2013, he will be working with the expanded men’s team. “We will be running two racing squads, racing a dual programme,” Campbell explains, “So our riders will be split across two different continents at any given time. It’s going to be a busy racing year for us.”
Ryder is full of praise for Campbell. “Kevin has had incredible success this year as a Directeur Sportif, starting in Malaysia at the Tour de Langkawi with a top ten on GC and five top ten placings in stages, through to winning The Tour de Maroc and Tour of Eritrea and coming a close second in the Tour of Amissa Bongo in Gabon,” he says.
“His knowledge of the African riders and the effort he has put in to understand the dynamics of living with people from countries as diverse as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Namibia and Rwanda has been instrumental to this success. Kevin is key to the success of the team in the future as we move the base to Tuscany in Italy and take on a whole lot more challenges.”
2012 SUCCESSES AND CHALLENGES
In 2012, Campbell accompanied the MTN-Qhubeka athletes on various tours, both in Africa and in Europe. “It’s been challenging, but very rewarding,” he says. “We started 2012 with the Tour du Maroc with some of our top riders. It was a good tour for us. We won eight of the 10 stages and took the overall win, and it got us good points for the UCI Africa Tour.”
After a period back in South Africa doing local races, the team did the Tour of Gabon, this time sending a fairly inexperienced team of riders to represent MTN-Qhubeka. Campbell notes that it was a very encouraging tour. “Our younger riders stepped up, and we were only really beaten by the Europcar Team,” he says. “We got more good points and the guys showed that they could take on top riders. They weren’t scared to get involved in the racing.”
The Tour of Eritrea was next and was a chance for the three MTN-Qhubeka Eritrean athletes to show their mettle in their home country. Team MTN-Qhubeka won the tour, as well as three stages.
“What was interesting and exciting was to see all the spectators and how many supporters came out for the event,” Campbell enthuses. “Cycling is definitely one of the biggest sports in Eritrea and it was great to be part of that. Something that was an eye-opener for me in Gabon and Eritrea is how different things are in South Africa to other countries in Africa. We sit here in the south of Africa and think we’re similar to other African countries, but some of those countries are very poor. The infrastructure is scarce, but there’s a great spirit and vibe and great support for cycling, and that’s really encouraging for me. We could learn from that in South Africa.”
Campbell has also learnt to navigate the difficulties of racing in African and managing a team without much of the logistical support that European racing enjoys. While older tours like the Tour of Morocco have vehicle sponsors and decent hotels available, other tours have seen organizers hiring cars from the public, and Campbell spent one such tour trying to follow the team in a vehicle with more than 400,000 km on the clock and virtually no brakes left.
“You learn to cope and to adapt,” he smiles. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. In Eritrea, we came around the corner and there was a camel in the road. You can’t tell a camel not to be there, so the race just had to make its way around the camel. It keeps it interesting, but you’ve got to be ready for anything!”
Campbell believes that Africa offers an abundance of cycling talent. “There’s a long way to go in getting African racers competing at a level where they can take on the top riders in the world, but that’s something we’ve proven can be done,” he says. “ We’ve allowed riders to bridge from their local races to enter into international racing in Europe, in conditions that are completely foreign to them on roads that they’re not used to, and they’ve developed and adapted to the situation.
“While a lot of other teams talk about development in that they’re looking to give opportunities to younger riders, their talent tends to come from countries with a strong cycling background, whereas MTN-Qhubeka is looking to take riders from countries where all they have is the basic equipment – they just know how to ride a bike and ride fast – and develop that raw talent into something really fantastic.”
Despite the challenges of managing such a multicultural team, Campbell believes that the fact that the team is based in South Africa with mainly South African staff helps. “Being from South Africa, we understand that there are different cultures and that people think differently and react differently to things,” he says. “People have different priorities. For most people in Africa, getting decent food, running water and shelter is obviously more of a priority than winning Olympic medals. It’s important for anyone who is part of our team to have patience and understand that.”
THE FUTURE PATH
While it takes time to integrate different cultures together into a team, particularly with many different home languages, Campbell notes that it’s incredibly rewarding to see the athletes catching onto the shared dream and harnessing their talent to pursue it together. “The future is bright,” he says. “We have some great athletes with natural abilities. It may be raw, but what’s really exciting is to see the thrill and joy of cycling that the African athletes show. They’re very professional in their training, but when you watch the joy they experience and the fun they have as they race, you know it’s something the rest of the world can learn from. Nobody starts riding a bike as a job.”
Campbell describes the most rewarding part of his job as watching athletes achieve breakthrough success, citing Frekalsi Debesay’s podium position at a recent Pro Kermis Koers in Belgium as an example. The Eritrean rider proved himself among top European cyclists who would not have given him a second thought.
“He’s now a top-class international rider,” says Campbell. “And there are more athletes like him coming. MTN-Qhubeka has been instrumental in developing those athletes and I’m proud to be a part of this first wave of African riders who are going to take the world by storm. If people are patient and allow us to develop our riders, they’ll see the success in two or three years, when we take an African team to the Tour de France and compete and race and win stages. I’ll be thrilled when that happens.”