With the same man at the helm, few would argue against the fact that Team bizhub might do for women’s cycling what Team Barloworld did for its male counterparts.
Cycling aficionado John Robertson conceptualised, established, owned and managed Barloworld ÔÇô the first team with South African connections to compete at the Tour de France ÔÇô racking up almost 30 international victories in 2005.
He also managed riders to multiple national elite and Giro del Capo titles and, under him, the South African team won the Tour of Egypt for the first time.
Looking for a fresh challenge this year, Robertson, who has enjoyed 12 fruitful years with sponsors Konica Minolta, literally jumped fence to take on the considerable challenge of women’s cycling through the formation of Team bizhub.
ÔÇ£Companies are continually looking for new ways to market themselves and women’s cycling offers exciting opportunities,ÔÇØ says Robertson, who believes this aspect of the sport is still largely unexplored.
Robertson, with the support of Konica Minolta, took great care in assembling some of the finest local and overseas road and mountain bike talent under the bizhub umbrella ÔÇô however, the season had its challenges to begin with.
ÔÇ£We first had to establish credibility as a women’s road team and, secondly, mountain biking is something entirely new to me. Managing women also has its own set of challenges. But, importantly, we have built a solid foundation for the future and since July we’ve had very consistent results.ÔÇØ
Robertson says the team is predominantly composed of younger riders as they have always focused on shaping future talent. ÔÇ£However, it is important to have a nucleus of experience.ÔÇØ
At 38, Dr Ischen Stopforth, the current MTN Series champion, is the grand dame of the team. She is one of the country’s top endurance riders as recent victories in the Trans Baviaans and MTN Series show.
ÔÇ£On the other hand, in a rider like Yolandi du Toit we have experience and versatility,ÔÇØ says Robertson. Du Toit is one of a select few South Africans who have competed in the Tour de Femme (the women’s Tour de France).
The former African and Pick n Pay 94.7 champion has in recent years shifted her focus to mountain biking. She lies second in the MTN Series and won the inaugural Fairbairn Capital-Old Mutual joBerg2c this year.
Among the team’s international members is the Brit Catherine Williamson. Third place at the Pick n Pay Cape Argus Cycle Tour made her the leading overseas finisher.
Williamson rides for her national outfit during our winter and has been selected for the UCI Road World Championships in Australia next month, after which she will be returning to these shores.
ÔÇ£We also target riders who are new to the sport if we believe they have the talent,ÔÇØ says Robertson. Former athlete Lise Olivier, track rider turned roadie Victoria Myburgh and rookie Chantell Swanepoel (who recorded the fastest time in last year’s Pick n Pay 94.7 from the open section) are examples.
Robertson has a proven ability to develop and manage athletes from junior level to the pinnacle of the sport.
Spain’s former world champion, Igor Astarloa, rode for his team and two years ago 12 riders moulded by him competed at the Tour de France ÔÇô among them Britain’s Chris Froome, South Africa’s John-Lee Augustyn and Slovakia’s Under-23 world champion Peter Velits.
National women’s champion Cherise Taylor, who finished runner-up at the junior worlds, was also nurtured by Robertson. As a manager, he won the SA junior title three years running and the time-trial four years in-a-row with three different riders.
ÔÇ£I believe Konica Minolta have become somewhat of an institution in South African cycling. The majority of our top riders have ridden on the team at some point.ÔÇØ
Robertson says their association with the office automation company has been a win-win scenario. ÔÇ£Konica Minolta have proved that having a long-term relationship with cycling is successful and the return which we have derived has been equally so.
ÔÇ£I believe focusing on women’s cycling has extended the life of the sponsorship and it has given a great opportunity to our female athletes.ÔÇØ
Robertson says he will now be focusing on building the depth of the team and next year he would like to see a European programme with a proper supporting structure implemented during our winter months.
ÔÇ£We will also be focusing more on mountain biking. Its growth has opened up a whole new avenue in the sport.ÔÇØ
Robertson’s vision for SA cycling is to have its own European training centre ÔÇô similar to the Australian Institute of Sport in Varese, Italy. ÔÇ£It has been a dream of mine for several years now. I have put forward proposals to SASCOC for this in the past, but so far no one has bought into it.ÔÇØ
Riders and selected results:
Ischen Stopforth ÔÇô winner MTN Series (2009), winner MTN Cullinan (2010), winner Trans Baviaans (2010)
Yolandi du Toit ÔÇô winner joBerg2c (2010)
Sanet Smal ÔÇô second Bela Bela Classic (2010), winner Lost City National Classic (2010)
Lise Olivier ÔÇô winner Trans Baviaans (2010), winner Carousel Classic (2010), winner joBerg2c (2010)
Yolandi Swanepoel ÔÇô SA Junior time-trial champion (2010)
Chantelle Swanepoel ÔÇô first season on the road
Catherine Williamson (UK) ÔÇô third Pick n Pay Cape Argus
Linn Torp (Norway) ÔÇô national champion (2009)
Victoria Myburgh ÔÇô national elite keirin champion (2008), Youth Olympics (2005)
Charlotte van der Merwe ÔÇô recently signed