20 July 2007
Robert Hunter became the first South African to win a stage of the world’s greatest cycling race when he sprinted to victory on the eleventh stage of the Tour de France in Montpellier on Thursday.
It was a second stage win in three days for Team Barloworld, the first South African-sponsored team to contest the Tour de France, following Tuesday’s victory by Juan Mauricio Soler.
Hunter was strongly supported by his team on a day in which strong side winds helped split the field as Team Astana attacked strongly when it became clear that French champion Christophe Moreau was struggling. Those tactics worked as Moreau fell from sixth to twelfth in the overall standings, but Hunter’s team gave him all the support he needed in difficult conditions.
As the leaders headed towards the finish line, Hunter was well positioned near the front of the pack, along with a number of other sprinters.
With 900 metres to go, however, points leader Tom Boonen, New Zealander Julian Dean, and Fred Rodriguez of Predictor-Lotto were all halted as they failed to negotiate a sweeping right hand corner, with Boonen forced to stop and Dean and Rodriguez crashing.
The South African star avoided the pile-up and remained in a good position. Then, with about 350 metres to go, he swung out wide to the left and charged for home. It seemed he had gone too early, but Hunter opened a decent gap on the chasing pack.
Back they came at him, but the Barloworld sprinter had done enough, crossing the line a wheel ahead of Fabian Cancellara to secure the biggest win of his career. Letting out a yell of delight, Hunter clenched his fists, pumping the air as he celebrated the win.
Punching above their weight
In the post-race interview, Hunter said it was difficult to describe his feelings because he had no words, but his wide smile spoke volumes.
He praised his teammates for the part they played in his victory, noting that although Team Barloworld is a small team when compared to some of the big Pro Tour outfits, they have been punching above their weight.
Indeed, following his win, Hunter is up to second in the sprinters’ standings – the competition for the green jersey – while Juan Mauricio Soler is second in the king of the mountains standings, the competition for the polka dot jersey. There are plenty of big teams that are not in the running at all and who have not won a stage.
‘Makes all the years worth it’
Writing on his website, Hunter said: “This makes all the years worth it. Thanks for everything, but more than anything thanks for being my mate.
“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.”
‘A big jump’
In a story posted on Team Barloworld’s website, Hunter said: “Ten years ago I moved to Europe from SA. It was a big jump at the time, but today many things have changed and cycling, and sport in general, moved many steps ahead in my country.
“I’m really proud to represent a team supported by an important South African company. Now we deserve more respect, we are a great professional team, and I’m sure we’ll become one of the best teams all over the world in the next few years.”
For the team’s directeur sportif, Valerio Tebaldi, who also won a stage of the Tour in Montpellier 18 years previously, it was an opportunity to relive a great day.
“For me,” Tebaldi told the Team Barloworld website, “it was like watching a movie again, the same setting, the same feeling as 18 years ago. On Tuesday, when Soler won, I was about to cry, today I have a stomach-ache for too much happiness.”
Reward for the sponsors
Barloworld became the sponsor of the team five years ago and, with the team having been invited to the Tour de France this year, the company is being well rewarded. Its name has become well known, thanks to the superb performances of their multinational collection of cyclists.
The highly respected Tour de France commentary team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin summed up the impact Barloworld has made on the Tour de France by calling the team one of the stories of this year’s event.
Summing up the outfit’s extraordinary showing in the Tour de France, Tebaldi commented: “I’m tasting a lot of extraordinary emotions, day after day. We have just won twice. Both Mauricio and Rob expressed two amazing performances in this Tour de France.
“Here we are on the spots, two stages already in our pocket, several good placements, ranked second in points and climbers’ classifications.
“Who could have imagined so much?”