When The Outer Line first talked with Team Dimension Data general manager Doug Ryder several years ago, he emphasized that he was building a different kind of team – one structured around a philanthropic cause, but ultimately focused on earning an African-based team the opportunity to participate in the Tour de France. He has made major strides since then, and today, the WorldTour’s sole African team is continuing to demonstrate – to the other teams and to the overall sport – an innovative model to improve the accessibility and sustainability of pro cycling.
But along the way, Ryder has found that holding onto that spot in the WorldTour is just as hard as winning any of the sport’s Monuments. The controversial UCI points system, which ranks the athletic competitiveness of teams and individual athletes, also dictates the fortunes of teams aspiring to join or simply maintain their spot in the WorldTour. Team Dimension Data found itself in a perilous position due to changes in this points system, and several other rule changes imposed by the UCI at the end of 2016.
Among those UCI changes was a proposal to cap the number of top teams at 17. When two top teams – IAM Cycling and Tinkoff – both opted to leave the sport, a glut of points-rich riders suddenly became available in the transfer market. This created a chaotic last minute scramble for talent, which ended with two new teams acquiring enough riders’ points to qualify for the final WorldTour spots. Team Dimension Data was suddenly bumped to 18th, outside of the proposed total of 17, and faced potential relegation to the Pro Continental level. After a flurry of dissension and debate, the UCI backed off, temporarily leaving the number of WorldTour teams at 18 – and allowing the inclusion of points earned by a greater number of a team’s riders.
The UCI points system is clearly important to team managers like Ryder, but it isn’t the only measure of success in pro cycling. Viewed from a different and broader perspective, Team Dimension Data may be among the more successful teams in the sport – not because of its points and victories so far – but because of its unique mission and its success in building an extensive base of loyal fans. In this regard, Ryder is different than most of the WorldTour team license holders: he is essentially an outsider to the sport’s innermost circles. Almost all of the top UCI teams today are run by ex-professional, European-based cyclists with no business management expertise outside of the cycling world, but Ryder’s background involves a broader mix of cycling and global business experience.
Ryder got into cycling at an early age. “My uncle took me to see a few stages of the Rapport Tour in Cape Town when I was 13 years old, and I got to meet the British team” he says, and that was when his love of the sport started. “My uncle and parents bought me a racing bike off the team which I loved, and started racing on, and since then I have never looked back.” He was captain of the South African road racing team for almost a decade, raced the U.S. pro circuit in the mid-1990s, and represented South Africa in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
After the Olympics, he started a business consulting career, working for Lotus (and eventually transitioning to IBM when Lotus was acquired), but throughout this time he kept one foot in the cycling world. “I started the Lotus Cycling Team in 1997, which continued until 2001,” says Ryder. “The team changed sponsors to Microsoft in 2002, and I joined them as an employee at that time.” Ryder stopped consulting 2007, capping 11 years spent building global accounts across the Europe and U.S. markets. In 2008, when South African-based telecommunications giant MTN became the new sponsor of his team, Ryder began developing the concept with the founder of Qhubeka, Anthony Fitzhenry, that would eventually merge his love of the bicycle and his desire to improve the lives of his fellow South Africans – and which would become the basis of his life’s work.
Rather than just following the European blueprint of obtaining the usual sponsorships and building a team around a few star riders, Ryder looked farther into the future. He chose to focus on a specific mission: improving the mobility of everyday South African citizens by supporting the Qhubeka charity. The clear focus on this objective, rather than direct monetary rewards or targeted victories in pro cycling, freed Ryder to adopt a unique team philosophy, set unconventional priorities, target different sorts of goals, and measure success differently than other teams at the top level of the sport. His innovative approach to pro cycling is highlighted below.
Define a Mission – As we discovered in our initial discussion with Ryder in 2015, the Qhubeka charity empowers communities – particularly children – by providing for free, all-purpose bicycles to help people get to and from school, healthcare facilities, and markets in under-served rural areas of South Africa. “Lack of mobility is a huge obstacle for kids in our education system, says Ryder. “Bicycles are the most effective and economical method of quickly addressing this problem. At the heart of things, this is really why we race.” Qhubeka’s current campaign, #BicyclesChangeLives, aims to provide 5000 bicycles per year to advance the mobility in even the most isolated rural areas of South Africa.
Define a Philosophy – A charitable mission in turn led to the general philosophy behind Ryder’s team: provide a top-level platform to compete at the highest global levels, and help give talented African racers a path upwards in the sport and earn more spots in the pro peloton. More broadly, Ryder believes this can help build a stronger and more inclusive cycling culture in South Africa, and to encourage greater ridership, more extensive urban cycling transportation planning, and greater investment in racing at all levels of ability. Ryder cites the UCI’s development of the Africa Tour over the last decade as boosting the interest in cycling on the continent. “It has inspired a new generation of racers, including many of those just now entering our feeder team program. We hope to have a Tour of South Africa back again, along with other new races in the not too distant future.”
Helping his African talent develop into world-class racers requires more than just bicycles, though. It requires a base of talent and racing experience from which to grow, and a strong leadership organization that can heighten the visibility of pro cycling to new African fans and inspire them to ride. Of course, a team based on this sort of social mission, and with a selfless philosophy, may at first seem like an unlikely destination for top European or American riders. However, such riders have actually flocked to the team.
Ryder has found that the WorldTour racers interested in joining his team have different commercial or personal priorities. “Typically, they have joined us more because of what we stand for, not for the money,” he explains. “They want to leave a legacy in cycling.” The experience of seasoned pros like Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings and Tyler Farrar, and the career enrichment being realized by riders like Serge Pauwels, Nathan Haas and Edvald Boasson-Hagen has resulted in a tight team culture – and this has fast-tracked the athletic development of their African teammates.
Ryder is pragmatic about having so many international and well-respected riders on his squad. The team’s aspirational message and global image might not be as strong without these riders, but at the same time, the additional investment required to sign them sets the bar higher for his developing riders. “Experience is hard earned, it can’t just be purchased off the shelf,” he says. “Our team is not for everyone. A rider needs to believe in our vision of developing African cycling and fit into our diverse culture and unique purpose.”
Ryder has structured the program so that athletes have a strong support system and greater freedom to pursue individualized racing goals than is typically the case on most top teams. He believes that this helps to bring out the best in every team member. He also places no direct pressure on the riders to perform; he says he measures their contribution as 50% on the bike to achieve racing success, and 50% off the bike to do good things for Qhubeka. This alternative way of thinking about pro bike racing and the resulting culture has made Dimension Data a magnet for talent. “Just the other day, another top rider came to me and said he had not fulfilled his potential yet,” adds Ryder, “and asked if he could join us.”
Define a New Sponsorship Model – Dimension Data is also bucking the trend of the established European team business and commercial models. Rather than partnering with a major brand sponsor and fully committing itself to that sponsor’s business objectives, Ryder also aligns his key sponsors behind the team’s social mission and philanthropic message. “We ride for a purpose,” explains Ryder, “it is not all about winning.”
Ryder’s approach to the sponsorship issue suggests many new avenues for enhancing the sustainability of the sport – something which many teams are desperately looking for. The team will soon launch a social media app, which will connect thousands of Dimension Data cycling fans world-wide to the team mission, its riders, and to each other. “To give you some idea of its potential,” explains Ryder, “we started a campaign called #Giro100Bikes to put 100 girls on bikes during the Giro, and it received almost 764,000 impressions and reached 288,207 accounts in less than a day.” As this unique fan community grows, Ryder is building a very valuable commodity for his current sponsors and potential partnerships in the future: a direct audience with which they can communicate and offer exclusive products and services, or to mobilize as a cycling-friendly community.
For the team’s sponsors, the traditional brand recognition model shifts from the individual rider on the podium, to the mission of the team. Ryder’s sponsors and partners are able to cross-market a much different message of empowerment and progress, improving the public perception of these brands, which in turn enhances their outreach to new customers.
While there have been charities associated with top-level UCI teams in the past, such as ONCE (the Spanish association for the blind, which directly funded that team) and Livestrong (associated with teams run by Tailwind Sports; restructured after the Armstrong affair), neither created the same kind of value proposition for sponsors which Ryder is building with Qhubeka. “Our sustainability model is attracting long-term partnerships through what we stand for in the sport, and I wish that more teams would join us to help change the face of the sport and beyond. I do believe that there is a shared responsibility between teams, partners and organizers to define a different working model that benefits everyone in pro cycling.”
Define New Measures of Competitive Success: Even though he is taking an innovative approach to pro cycling, Ryder also realizes that good competitive results are needed to maintain a spot at the top of the sport. When asked about measuring the successful development of African riders in his program, Ryder proudly says that 2017 will be the year African-based riders make their mark.
This is his fifth season fielding either a Pro Continental or WorldTour team at the top level of the sport; already in 2017, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg was runner up at the Dubai tour, and Merhawi Kudus was runner up on the Queen stage of Valencia. And Ryder cites the performances of other African athletes leading into this season, including Daniel Teklehaimanot, Natnael Berhane, and Louis Meintjes’ eighth place in the Tour de France last year. “I think this could be a breakthrough year,” says Ryder. “Soon, I hope to see African-based riders on podiums in all the major events.”
Ryder states that he doesn’t advocate a “win at all costs” type of team, but he does provide his riders with the best preparation, coaching and support staff that he can. “And when you add to that the most motivated riders, people who culturally connect well together, then magic can happen,” he says. He’s banking on that approach being successful, and the team’s WorldTour ranking will necessarily be his primary focus for the remainder of 2017.
Take an Active Role in Shaping the Success of Pro Cycling – Ryder’s experiences with the UCI’s ever-changing ranking rules have led him to take a fairly critical stance on the points system. “I believe teams should start at the bottom and work their way up from Continental, to Pro Continental, to WorldTour. It doesn’t seem right that teams can just show up and start poaching riders and points. No point system is going to be perfect, and I realize that money talks, but this current system can devalue the investments and sacrifices other sponsors and teams have made.” To underscore his concerns about the current points system, Ryder made his position clear to the UCI at the end of 2016, which may have helped lead to certain changes in the current WorldTour regulations.
In Ryder’s view, a team which works its way up from the lower divisions shows two key attributes that the sport must value: the seriousness of a team owner to stake a long-term commitment to pro cycling, and the commitments of the team’s sponsoring partners. The team’s goals, and those of its sponsoring partners can be set realistically as it progresses year over year. His experience is that when a team finally makes it to the WorldTour level, it may need a few years to establish its capabilities and adapt to the extra demands of racing at that level, before its license should be open to challenges.
While there will always be turnover at the top of the sport because of sponsor attrition and other market factors, this is healthy because it creates opportunities for strong, lower division teams to step up and keep pro cycling highly competitive. But according to Ryder, “For us to jump to the WorldTour, and in that same year ride three Grand Tours for the first time put an enormous strain on the team. We had a good year, but that was in terms of wins – not points. That indicates not only the depth of our team, but also the problems inherent with the ranking system.”
For Ryder, pro cycling teams must have a vision to be successful over the long-term. In his view, teams are more than just a sponsorship vehicle to reach a market, more than just a place for cyclists to win races, and more than just a platform for a few people to make a little money. Rather, he believes teams can provide riders with an environment in which they can strive to be both successful athletes and people – and to contribute some good to the world. “So many top sportsmen and women get to the end of their careers and realize too late the power they had while they were competing,” he explains. “When they are no longer in the limelight and the phones stop ringing, only then do they miss the opportunity they had to focus on broader causes, on other people, and not just on themselves.”
By adopting a charitable focus and building the team around a set of principles unique for a top-level pro cycling team, Ryder has redefined some of the basic assumptions of how a WorldTour team should be run – and how it can be made to be more sustainable. The “Ride for Qhubeka” message is helping to shape the mobility of ordinary people on the African continent, which will in turn improve education, financial prospects, health care, and independence. This may inspire other teams to change their business models and the value proposition they offer to the sport’s sponsors.
Team Dimension Data may find itself in the swirl of issues affecting pro cycling sponsorship, but Doug Ryder has focused ahead of the pack. He understands the need to collect UCI points today, but Ryder remains clearly focused on the longer term future, and ways of improving the health and sustainability of pro cycling for tomorrow. “The legacy we want to leave is that this African-registered cycling team shifted the African continent, and provided hope and opportunity through the power of the bicycle. The #BicyclesChangeLives is just one part of that larger effort.” And one would hope that this larger effort might also help to transform the overall sport of cycling along the way.
Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell, The Outer Line, May 15, 2017