An African Bicycle Reality – MTN Qhuebeka’s Nic Dougall From The Heart Of The Peloton

DougallI hold my hand up to being as guilty as the next man in viewing MTN Qhuebeka as a bit of an oddity when they first appeared in the European peloton a couple of years back. An African team? Really? Ok, Ok –I know- victory at Milano San Remo.. but that was Ciolek, on a filthy day, on his own. Interest was piqued, however, so I checked out the (utterly superb) Youtube video series of that 2013 season and followed it through. The team’s underdog attacking style, classy Castelli kit and the unique message of the Qhuebeka foundation soon found a place in my heart. Jet forward to 2015 and the team have a roster of big hitters, deftly assembled by new manager, Brian ‘Eurosport’ Smithy, who are lighting up the racing across the continents along with the ‘home-grown’ talents from the team’s heartlands within Africa. I had the pleasure of catching up with an ‘end of season’ Nic Dougall, newly promoted to the pro squad from the feeder team, in Lucca over a prosecco or two..but  enough about that.. Smithy might be reading..

(Photo credits:Tim Lindley from iguideride, Lucca ; MTN Qhuebeka Facebook page : Tessa Langley, her holiday box brownie camera)

Ciclissimo!. First of all, Nic, is it Doo-gal or Dou-garrll? My other half said she pictures you as a cosmopolitan Dou-garrll, I say the UK birthplace may render you a Dougall with the clipped Northern pronunciation..

Nic Dougall. Yup you got one over her there. My birth in the UK does render me a Dougall (with two l’s just to further confuse everyone). On my passport it’s Actually Johnstone-Dougall but that’s a proper mouthful so I Normally only use the last half.

C!. On the subject of birthplaces- who on earth has first claim on you? Herts, Brisbane, South Africa? It’s a pretty varied list of places you’ve lived so far! What’s the story and where is ‘Home’?

ND. This I get asked a lot and for a long time I didn’t really know myself. I’m lucky enough to Nic Solohave three passports which makes travelling really easy but questions about my nationality slightly more difficult. Normally I would just try to dodge the question and pick one rather than trying to explain the situation. Now I tend to say that I was born in the UK and raised in Australia with strong ties to South Africa. In terms of home it’s difficult to think of only one place like that. I love Australia because it’s where I grew up, where my girlfriend is from and where my immediate family is. At the same time I still have a lot of my extended family living in South Africa and having lived there for almost two years I feel at home there too. Home is a feeling more than a place so I guess I’m lucky enough to have two places that feel like home to me.

C!. When and where, amidst those formative years, did the bike first start featuring in a big way?

ND. I started out doing the normal endurance sports like cross country running and swimming when I was around 10 years old at school and then started racing triathlon a few years later. That’s when I got my first road bike but even before that my dad and I would always sit down and watch the Tour De France highlights religiously. He loves cycling and it must have rubbed off on me. The sport has fascinated me since then. I think a lot of it has to do with how hard it is and the challenge of doing something as utterly ridiculous as riding a bike for three weeks straight or riding 230kms over cobbles in the driving rain. It’s not normal to be able to do something like that and that’s part of what drew me to it. Thinking, how could these guys possibly do this? The sheer challenge of professional bike racing is hugely compelling.

C!. First teams and races: Who were they and which ones stand out?

ND. My first national series race in Australia was one I’ll always remember. I think I was 18 and on trial with the Virgin Blue team at the Tour of Tasmania. They were leading the series at the time and had some of the best riders in the country.  The first day we had hail during the criterium in the morning and snow at the start of the road race in the afternoon. There was an uphill TTT a few days later where I was the designated last man who had to finish. All in all a crazy tour but I loved it. A few years later I went to Thailand with the Australian national team which was an awesome experience. Such a different country for a bike race but we had a really great time and won the tour overall. The race had some 25-30% climbs in it, it was over 30 degrees with 90% humidity some days and the bunch was so uncontrolled that you never knew what would happen. Tour de Boland this year was also really special. They had a very competitive field with some of the top domestic pros and a whole bunch of mountain bikers preparing for the Cape Epic. The team pulled together in a way that I couldn’t believe and ended up with us taking first and second with Till Drobisch. The third day in the crosswinds Till and I made it across to a group with three other teammates in it. We still had 70kms to go and those four guys rode the front the whole way, with no help from any of the other teams, putting 12 minutes into the bunch. The other guys in the group started attacking close to the end but we covered everything and then led out our sprinter (Meron Teshome – big talent) who went and won the stage after pacing the whole day for me. That’s what bike racing is all about, when a team can come together like that and be better than its individual parts.

C!. Talk us through the WCCAfrica feeder team and its role in landing you up at MTN.Nic Group

ND. The feeder team is a huge part of where I am now. I definitely couldn’t have come this far without their guidance and willingness to develop me as a rider. They run the team in conjunction with the UCI out of this tiny town called Potchefstroom, about an hour from Johannesburg. They have a team house where all the riders stay together, eat together and train together every day. The team has riders from Eritrea, Tanzania, Rwanda, Egypt, South Africa and Namibia who have been scouted by the team principal JP van Zyl. There are so many different cultures in one house and living in such close proximity to each other was hard at times but for the most part it was an amazing experience. The stories you hear about these guy’s homes, seeing what they eat every night and hearing them talk to each other in their native languages was an eye opening journey into a world that is completely unique and foreign to anything I had experienced. They are some of the nicest guys I have ever met and there are friendships I made in that house that I hope will last a lifetime. The management of the team worked really closely with me to help me develop as a rider and I owe a lot to both JP and my coach at the time, Andrew Smith. They believed that I had the potential to make it to this level of the sport at a time when I had doubts and they put so much time and effort into the team as a whole. They provide such a huge opportunity to us as riders and really put everything into helping us succeed. The feeder team works closely with the professional team and there is a definite pathway for riders to come up through the feeder team and into the professional ranks. I really hope the team continues to provide these opportunities and that a few of my teammates from the WCCA will be joining me soon. Nic Riding

C!. There’s a nice traceable progression in your career through the last few seasons. I’m guessing that’s going to ramp right up for 2015 – any indications of a race program yet? Personal goals? Tour de Boland; will someone else have a chance?

ND. The team has really kicked things up a notch in the last six months with so many big name signings and the announcement of some pretty ambitious intentions. They want to have a big start to the year and then keep the ball rolling. Obviously with the riders we have we’re going to be looking at doing well in some of the classics. It’s no secret that the Tour is a big goal for the team. With a few good results at the start of the year and our fan base continuing to grow I think we’re in with a pretty good shot at landing a wild card entry. For me I just want to try learn as much as I can from some of the more experienced riders in the team and help them as much as I can. Hopefully I can put into practice some of what I learnt in the back half of last year too. Haha as far as Tour de Boland goes I know that the team is going to do a great job of defending the title. They’ve got an even stronger roster this year and with a hard route that suits them I think it’s going to be hard for anyone to take it off them.

C!. How was the change from racing in Africa and Asia to arriving in Europe? Tactics? Climate? The Arctic Tour may have filled you with some anticipation after the climates you’d been enjoying previously. The story you told about some teammate pilfering your cold/wet weather kit from the car mid race sticks in mind. How do the African riders feel when they find themselves in Belgium?

ND. The racing here is completely unique and is definitely the hardest in the world. I think the biggest difference is the length of the racing and the depth of the field. In South Africa most of the races we were doing were only 100kms long and nowhere near as hard as the races here. When you compare that to Paris – Tours which is 240kms it’s just a whole different level. The fields here are also so stacked with good riders that anyone on the start line has a good chance of winning. You’re racing the whole peloton and not only 20-50 guys that are competitive. That story about the kit pilfering was actually told to me by another teammate who was trying to illustrate how important it was to put your name on your belongings- haha! On the subject the African guys are super tough but they do struggle with the cold. It’s mainly because of their physiology. They have such low body fat percentages they really aren’t genetically suited for the colder races like some of the European riders. Add that to the fact that most of them are great climbers it means that they do really well in races in Spain and Italy in the summer. The great thing about an African team is that they understand their riders and they know how to get the best from them, as opposed to just throwing them in races that they physically don’t have the tools for.

C!. MTN, new face on the block: Underdogs to Vuelta. Tell us about the team, the project and the vision.

ND. The last few years have obviously been an amazing progression for the team. They started as a small team in South Africa and are now competing in the biggest races in the world. Doug (Ryder) has done such a fantastic job of growing the team in a way that is sustainable, never overreaching but still targeting ambitious goals. The Qhubeka foundation is a huge part of the team and you could say it’s the reason the team exists; to bring recognition to and help support the work the foundation is doing. We ride to mobilise people through bicycles, which they earn through initiatives like growing native plants, collecting rubbish in the community or through attending school regularly despite the distance they must travel. To most people the bicycle might not seem like a big deal but it is an incredibly powerful tool. It can turn the two hours you have to walk to school, each way, into 20mins. It can triple the amount of produce a person can carry to the local market. Using a bike instead of public transport means that they can save money to spend on food and other necessities. It’s amazing to see the positive impact that a bicycle can have on the lives of people and how much that they

C!. Brian Smith and team atmosphere?

ND. I had the great pleasure of meeting Brian at the recent team training camp in South Africa. Obviously he has been instrumental in the team’s growth in the last few months. He has a great philosophy on how a cycling team should be run and what he expects of the riders and everyone else that is involved. Consequently the team atmosphere is fantastic. It was noticeable even during the first few days that everyone was happily talking to everybody else, sharing stories round the dinner tables and out on rides. The more experienced riders are all great guys, very approachable and willing to give you advice when you ask. I think it’s going to be a great year and I consider myself very lucky to be able to be a part of a group of this caliber, in terms of riding ability and class off the bike.

C!. Ok-Lucca, very close to both of our hearts. What are your three favourite things?

ND. There’s definitely more than I can list here but I’ll try my best to narrow it down to three. -The roads: the area not only has some of the best variety in terms of terrain but is also stunningly beautiful. You can ride everything from flat roads along the beach at Viareggio, to rolling hills through the countryside towards Empoli with long climbs up the valley to Abetone and San Pelligrino. LuccaThe sheer amount of options you have for riding is truly staggering. After 6 months of riding here I am still riding some roads for the first time, through towns I have never been to before. When you have to ride almost every day variety really saves you from boredom and in Lucca you’ll find some of the most diverse and beautiful terrain I have ever ridden. – Da Ciacco: This is my favourite place to go for aperitivo in Lucca. It’s in the main square of the town and is run by a couple of young guys from Lucca who I met through a friend and resident pro. In the summer it’s a great place to watch the crowds in the square and in winter the inside of the restaurant is warm and inviting. They have a great selection of wine as befitting an Italian trattoria, good beers on tap and if you’re after something stronger, they specialize in gin with a great selection behind the bar. Di CiaccaThe cold cuts platter is a must if you plan on having a pre-dinner drink. A whole plank of wood filled to the edges with prosciutto and salami of every type along with 4 or 5 different cheeses. For lunch they do great fresh sandwiches, I would go for something with grilled zucchini. The guys behind the counter all speak English and are always up for a chat. Great food, great atmosphere and good times have been had here. – The community: Here I have been very lucky to find some of the most welcoming people I have ever met, especially as a foreigner. When I first came to Lucca I only knew a few teammates and had one friend who I knew from Australia. That didn’t last long though. Everyone who I have met has offered me their friendship, their time and when I have needed it, their help. The people I have come to know here all look out for each other and in that way I think it’s really special. They’re happy to take the time to show you around, introduce you to their friends or even just to have a coffee if you feel like company. I’ve met so many people, both Italian and foreigners, in the short time I have been here and every one of them has been so open and welcoming that it makes you feel part of Lucca instantly. The town is small enough so it’s got that small town vibe where everyone knows each other, but it’s big enough that if you want some alone time, you can disappear into it. It’s easy to feel at home here.

C!. That last stage of the 2014 Franco Belge- I switch on the TV and see you smashing it in No Man’s Land in an attempt to bridge up to the break: Courageous, forlorn, battling. All the things you want as a hopeless romantic watching a bike race! What on earth were you thinking!!?

ND. I’ve been told by riders that did previous editions that this year’s Franco Belge had some of the best weather they’ve seen in a while. It was pretty damn good by Belgian standards but the last day dawned a bit colder and grayer than the previous days. We desperately wanted to put a rider in the break as we had missed it every day before. For the first 30kms we tried but every team seemed to have the same idea and nothing ever looked like it was going away. I got a puncture, changed wheels and was paced back through the convoy to the bunch. The break still hadn’t gone. As I made it back on we hit a crosswind section and the bunch exploded into four groups, with me in the last one. It all came back together but it took 20kms of hard pacing and a bit of desperation. Meanwhile the break still hadn’t gone. By this point after chasing back on from the puncture and being in a bad position in the crosswinds I was starting to feel my legs. The break had just gone, they had maybe 30 seconds and I was out of position when it went, we were just about to hit the laps and so I thought I would put some food in me while I had the chance. Our team leader had other ideas and seeing as I was the closest guy to him, decided I could make it across. So with half a bar in my mouth and some motivating words he rode me up the side of the bunch and sent me on my way up the road. The whole of FDJ were on the front pacing and I’ve never seen a bunch of guys as confused as they were when they saw me try bridge across on the other side of the road. In the end I almost made it across, I think I got the gap down to 10 seconds but it was a little bit too far. It ended up working out alright, I got some TV time and learnt that if you don’t go, you’ll never know. It might not have been my idea but sometimes you just need a push in the right direction..