30 July 2007
South Africa’s Team Barloworld wrapped up an outstanding debut at the Tour de France, which ended in Paris on Sunday, with Robert Hunter finishing fourth on the final stage and second in the points’ competition, while Mauricio Soler captured the prestigious polka dot jersey, which is awarded to the King of the Mountains.
In addition to those two excellent results, Barloworld also showed that its future is in good hands by placing two riders in the top-five of the white jersey competition for cyclists under the age of 25.
Team Discovery Channel’s Alberto Contador, the winner of the race, finished first, with Soler ending second and Kanstantsin Siutsou fifth.
And speaking of the future, there was great news for Team Barloworld during the race when Soler – about whom there was so little known before the Tour that the voices of cycling, the great and very knowledgable commentary team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, admitted they hadn’t previously heard of him – chose to extend his contract with the team by two years, through to the end of 2009.
After his brilliant performances in the Tour, Columbia’s Soler has become a hot property, a cyclist that many of the big teams would have loved to offer a contract, so his decision to stick with Barloworld is a real coup.
Team manager, the highly respected Claudio Corti, said in a statement: “I’m really delighted. Mauricio is a true professional who found in our team the perfect conditions to demonstrate his skills.”
Both Soler and the team’s captain and sprint ace, South Africa’s Robbie Hunter, recorded stage victories.
With French President Nikolas Sarkozy following him in the race director’s car, the Columbian climber tore through the field on the ninth stage from Val d’Isere to Briancon, one of the toughest of the Tour, to register a massively impressive victory.
Hunter, meanwhile, after narrowly missing out on a win on the fourth stage, and consistently being among the top finishers in the sprint stages, got it right on stage 11, which finished in Montpellier.
A six-year wait
Writing on his website afterwards, he said: “This is a victory I have been looking for for over six years and, I guess it’s true, the more you wait for something the more you appreciate it. I gotta say I hope it shows everybody back in SA that anything can be achieved if you try hard enough and give it your all.
“More than anything, I hope this causes a wave of interest in the sport ’cause I know how much talent there is back home and I’m sure there plenty of young guys that can achieve the same and more.”
Hunter’s victory gave Barloworld two stage wins within three days and, for the sponsors, a fantastic reward for their support of the team by exposing the Barloworld brand to a huge worldwide audience.
After the penultimate stage of the Tour, Chris Fisher, the head of corporate marketing at Barloworld, was interviewed on the Moneyweb Power Hour radio programme and asked about the feeling within the team.
“Well, within our team we’re absolutely delighted,” he said.
“We’ve exceeded our expectations by far, bearing in mind we came here with the objective of having a podium finish. We’ve now had two firsts, a second, two thirds, two fourths, two fifths, a sixth today – so things couldn’t be going better for us.”
And those words came before Hunter’s fourth place finish in the last stage on the Champs Elysees.
Those performances have changed people’s perception of the team immeasurably; at the start of the Tour de France, many would have, upon hearing of Barloworld’s entry, asked “Who?”
Following the completion of the epic race, people have sat up and taken notice. They know all about Team Barloworld now.
The commentary team of Liggett and Sherwin, both enthusiastic supporters of cycling in South Africa, summed up the impact Barloworld made on the Tour by calling the team one of the stories of this year’s event.
South Africans in the Tour?
For South Africans, there is a big question to be asked after the successes of the SA-sponsored outfit on the biggest stage of them all. It is whether or not there will be any cyclists that follow in Robbie Hunter’s footsteps and compete in the Tour de France.
Hunter had the answer to that one in an interview with Moneyweb.
He said: “There are a couple of guys that this Barloworld has got. You know, you’ve got a young guy like John Lee-Augustyn, who is a hugely talented bike rider. Unfortunately he’s just a little bit too young right now to feature in the Tour de France. If it was one year later, you know, I have no doubt in my mind that he would have been in the Barloworld team.
“Other riders unfortunately, like Ryan Cox, had a slight problem; he had an operation just before the Tour de France, otherwise he would have been in the race. So there are a couple of South African riders who are there and can compete on this level.”
Very bright highlights
So, while the Tour de France was dogged by some controversy, including a number of positive doping tests and Michael Rasmussen – at the time the leader of the race – being axed from Team Rabobank and sent home because of lies he had told regarding his whereabouts when out-of-competition doping tests were to have been done on him, there were also some very bright highlights.
Apart from the overall victory by the young Spaniard Alberto Contador, many of them were provided by Team Barloworld.
They included the out-of-nowhere domination of the King of the Mountains by Maurico Soler, the never-say-die attitude of Robbie Hunter in the sprints, and the stunning performances from the previously little-known team from South Africa, who took up the challenge of facing the big guns with gusto and emerged from the task having gained a new legion of fans.