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Brian Smith – “There are no dodgy deals anymore”


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Brian Smith MTN
Brian Smith.

If there were any doubts that MTN-Qhubeka is going to be a force to be reckoned with for season 2015 they were dispelled when Steve Cummings relegated none other than 2014 world number one, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar & Spain) to the second step of the podium in the Trofeo Andratx Mirador d’Es Colomer in Mallorca, this week.

The South African Pro Continental squad have been busy over the winter; as well as recruiting Cummings they’ve added Matt Brammeier, Theo Bos, Matt Goss, Tyler Farrar and Edvald Boasson Hagen.

A new jersey and change of air often works wonders for a rider’s morale and we’ll be surprised if Big Steve’s win is their last of 2015.

We recently got Steve’s impressions as a staunch Liverpool FC fan on racing in what looks dangerously close to Newcastle United strip to us …

But we digress; this piece is about the man behind the re-structuring of the team – Brian Smith.

We caught up with Brian prior to the Challenge Mallorca and not long after the announcement had been made that the team has been granted one of those coveted ‘wild card’ spots in the world’s biggest bike race, Le Tour de France.

Is it true that you heard the ASO announcement that the team was accepted for the Tour on social media, just like everyone else, Brian?

“Yeah, funny, isn’t it ?

“I was actually on a conference call when Douglas Ryder Skyped to tell me – I had thought that ASO would contact the teams before they made the announcement …”

Brian Smith MTN Qhubeka
The team’s joyful tweet in response to the news from ASO in January.

How many Africans can we look forward to seeing in your Tour team?

“It’s very early to say but potentially four or five with perhaps two being black Africans.

“But it’s our first Tour and we have to take a team which is going to get publicity – we want to win stages.

“I think we’re going to have to make some very hard selection decisions in June.

Louis Mientjes is one rider who has proved himself and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg is another man with Grand Tour experience.

“We’ll have black Africans in the team, riders like Merhawi Kudus – but we have to bear in mind that they’re young guys and we don’t want to put them into a race that will kill them.”

Brian Smith MTN Qhubeka
The team roster for 2015 has a rare mix of seasoned euro veterans and African youngsters. Photo©MTN

How’s the programme up to le Tour looking?

“It’s good – we’re in Tirreno-Adriatico and Langkawi then we’re into the Spring Classics before the Tour of California in May then Germany with the Bayern Rundfahrt; the Tours of Norway and Luxembourg before the Dauphine and altitude training for the Tour team.”

Tell us about the thought processes behind your recruitment, please.

“The biggest part of the team is Qhubeka, they’re a charity and need brand awareness to publicise what they’re doing.

“But we don’t actually get any money from them, in fact we give them 10% of our prize money !

“We wanted winners – sure, there are guys on the way up out there, like Steele Von Hoff but we felt that a rider like Matt Goss still has a lot to offer and would be rejuvenated with us.

“The same applies to Tyler Farrar; when Matt and Tyler’s signings were announced, MTN’s social media peaked which shows the interest those riders generate.

“Matt is very highly motivated, he didn’t want a two year deal, he told us that he’d sign for one year – he wants to prove himself but he’s so hungry and motivated just now.

“Both riders are well capable of giving us opportunist wins in the Spring Classics, Tour and Vuelta.”

Brian Smith MTN Qhubeka
Tyler Farrar is enjoying the change after a number of years with Slipstream/Garmin. Photo©MTN

“We have a squad where the guys all get along – but there’s competition within the team, they want to win and they’ll all have opportunities to do so. And it won’t just be about sitting in the bunch waiting for the sprint, we’ll be looking to put sprinters in the breaks – shake things up!

“I think Matt has been blocked and the change will refresh him.

“And Theo Bos is another guy we think is capable of being up there with the fastest of them.

“We’ll be racing aggressively and if you do that in the Classics then anything can happen.”

Who do you make the first approach to – the rider or his agent?

“We talk to the agent but insist upon talking to the riders direct, too.

“Everyone uses the standard UCI contracts these days, there are no dodgy deals any more – you can’t use your own contracts.”

How did you get into the rider transfer arena?

“I was involved with the set up of the Cervélo Test Team and then with Netapp Endura.

“But NetApp is ‘all change’ for 2015 as Bora-Argon 18; which is understandable given that Bora is a German company and cycling is back on the ‘up’ in Germany.

“I had a two year contract but because the team was changing and going down the German route I decided to go – with no hard feelings …

“But I personally manage David De La Cruz (now Etixx) and Leo Koenig (now Sky) who are both going to World Tour teams – so I guess I must have done something right when I was with the team.

“As for MTN, I go way back with our team principal, Doug Ryder to when he raced himself.

“We shared an apartment when we both raced in the States and have remained in contact.”

Team Principal Doug Ryder with some of the riders at the squad's presentation. Photo©MTN
Team Principal Doug Ryder with some of the riders at the squad’s presentation. Photo©MTN

What’s your title with the team ?

“I’m not a ‘title person’ but it’s an Operations and General Management role – the DS’s report to me and I report to Douglas.

“I have budgetary and structural control.

“I have an office at home in London but am thinking about taking an apartment in Lucca because you have to speak to people on the ground from time to time – that said, nowadays with Skype you can speak to people anywhere.”

The 2015 Tour de France will be a success for MTN Qhubeka, if …

“That’s already set out – we want a stage win and a competition jersey.”

No lack of ambition there, then – we wish Brian, Douglas and MTN Qhubeka every success for 2015.