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Continental Dreams

Natnael Tesfatsion — One of the 10 youngest riders to get a pro victory in 2020, Natnael got his start riding for the Eritrean National Team as a teenager. Now based in Lucca, Italy, with one more year on his contract with NTT Continental Team, he spends most of his time climbing hills and battling sprint finishes–despite only weighing 56kg.

“The reason I decided to become a cyclist was after watching Daniel Teklehaimanot on the television. As soon as I saw him, I knew I needed to get on two wheels.

I was introduced to the NTT Continental Team at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2018 when I was representing the Eritrean National Team. Natnal Berhane (current team: Cofidis, previously of MTN-Qhubeka and Dimension Data) introduced me to Kevin after I’d just got third on a stage and it was going really well for me. When I arrived in Lucca in March 2019, I was so happy to have made it — the only thing I really didn’t like was the weather! It’s so bad compared to home.

Natnael on a joint training camp with the WorldTour NTT Pro Cycling team.

I spent a lot of my season here crashing in corners and descents. Partly because I wasn’t used to the rain, but mainly because I was so used to a completely different style of racing. In Eritrea it’s all about fighting for positioning and less about respect. My new teammates taught me how to show respect for other riders and still race well.

2020 started brilliantly, winning the Tour of Rwanda and getting 2nd in the GC at La Tropicale Amissa Bongo. Unfortunately, a bad crash at the Tour of Poland in the second part of the season — the roads weren’t exactly in prime condition — left me with a niggle in my knee for the rest of the year. I think I’m just about fully recovered and my last race of the year went better.

I’ve got one more year as a U23 but I’d be happy to move up to a professional or WorldTour team for 2021. For now, I’m looking forward to going back to my home in Asmara as soon as I can get a flight, to spend the winter at home at 2,300 metres above sea level where I’ll do gym work, run, and MTB for a bit!

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Connor Brown — Born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, Connor has adopted Lucca as his home-away-from-home for the past two seasons. The tall rider had breakout results at the Giro d’Italia U23 this year and is now looking to step up to the WorldTour — or take a sidestep into fashion.

“I’d just broken the junior Team Pursuit World Record for New Zealand at the World Track Champs in 2016 when my dad met someone from the team. We started talking and by the end of 2018, things were starting to materialise. New Zealand has a strong track programme and that really helped develop me; my idea had always been to use the track in order to get something on the road.

It’s a big thing for a non-European to make it onto a Europe-based team ––probably one of the most difficult things for a young cyclist to achieve. I know so many guys in New Zealand who’d be good enough to make it over, but getting that break is tough. It’s a big risk for a team to invest in you — the visa, the flights, the whole fact that they haven’t seen you race.

I think the NTT Continental Team should work as an example to other teams. The idea of getting riders from places that aren’t typical cycling meccas is one with so much potential; just look at Natnael from Eritrea. Other teams might have easily missed out on that opportunity by overlooking this phenomenal rider.

2021 is still a bit of an unknown for me. I’m really looking forward to step up to the WorldTour. I think I’m strong enough — When I raced with the WorldTour team this summer and I got the impression that they were impressed with me.

If that doesn’t work out, I’m actually partway through a digital design degree, majoring in animation, but I’m toying with the idea of moving into fashion.

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Kevin Campbell — As a South African who cut his teeth trying to make it as a cyclist in Belgium, straight-talking Kevin is committed to promoting diversity within cycling — especially when it’s backed up by real talent, something which the general manager of NTT Continental Team knows exactly how to spot and nurture.

“How do you show you’re a phenomenon if you’re not given the chance to get on a bike?

Nowadays there’s an expectation to be a fully finished product at 20-21 years of age, but how can you do that as an African rider arriving in Europe aged 19, going from a peloton of 50–60 where you’re so strong that you’re riding at the front in a small group to races in Europe with pelotons of 150+ and 50 riders that are equally as strong as you, taking on wet, narrow roads in conditions that you’ve never ridden in before?

There are plenty of times when Europeans go to Rwanda to race — the Tour of Rwanda at 2,000 msl, in tropical climates — and their lack of performance is explained by cultural or climatic differences. Why isn’t it looked upon like this for non-Europeans who’ve outperformed in these races and now try to race in Europe?

We’ve learned that it generally takes a season for a rider to show their potential to adapt and face up to the challenges. They might demonstrate the numbers and have the physical attributes but this doesn’t always transition. It depends on their motivation; sometimes they don’t pack the rider that they were in Africa into their luggage when they come to Europe, or they’re unable to unpack the same game when they arrive here.

The best way to find up-and-coming talents is through word of mouth, talking to riders who’ve already made it who can point us towards the next generation. We keep an eye on results coming from the continent but getting things like power data is almost impossible — plus, these riders often don’t test well and ride on instinct and talent. This shows us the potential to develop them, but we really have to help the best one to learn how to race astutely. All the things that we accept as normal here in European racing are a huge challenge for all-non Europeans, racing downhills, in the wet at speed, cornering in a group of 150 and even things like nutrition and fuelling yourself when the race starts in the afternoon. We’re not a boarding school that mothers riders, but one of our goals is to make sure they learn to live independently — a WorldTour will never chase after them. We’ll teach them how to cook, but we don’t cook for them; we’ll teach them how to shop, but we don’t shop for them. This is why we’ve created our hub in Lucca, it serves as constant team building, giving a space for them to learn from the experienced Italian riders on the team — on and off the bike.

Other teams are less willing to take a risk — both at a Continental level like us, and at the WorldTour. An Australian talent can win a stage at the Tour Down Under and be on a WT team by the end of the year, but if an African performs well at a similar level, teams will turn around and say there’s a lack of experience.

The proudest moments for us as a team aren’t necessarily the wins, but the breakthroughs, the moments when the world sees a surprise, storming performance up a climb. We don’t want our riders to be considered charity cases; they should be considered genuine contenders. They’re good enough.”

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Doug Ryder— NTT Pro Cycling’s team principal understands better than most how the benefits of cycling go way beyond the WorldTour. It isn’t so much a matter of only winning races — but more importantly, developing the sport within Africa, fostering new talent, and ensuring that doors are opened fairly across the globe.

From my perspective, the Continental Team is critical for the development of African cycling. They come from a continent that didn’t exist in the sport before now; they end up in Italy in an environment that is very nurturing, with the support needed for them to develop — on a physical, mental, nutritional, and cultural level. Under the mentorship of Italian riders and other nationalities, the environment that the Continental Team provides — being in the team house, learning each other’s cultures, understanding each other in a different way, making food for each other — is critical for creating value in their lives and their future, putting them on a fast-track into a different way of life. It’s also about the opportunities within Italian cycling, where the racing is really tough. It gives them a stepping stone — probably the best stepping stone around — into the world of cycling and a potential long career.