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News feature, July 20, 2007

Robert Hunter: first stage win for Africa

Never before has an South African cyclist won a stage in the Tour de France. In 2001, Robert Hunter became the first South African to start the biggest race in the world, but he had to wait for his sixth participation before claiming a stage win. From Montpellier, Cyclingnews' Jean-François Quénet took a look at how the new Tour stage winner got to the top step of the podium at the end of stage 11.

Hunter shows the winning smile
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Hunter came close in 2001, when he finished third in stage 2. He was the fastest rider that day in a group on the road from Calais to Antwerp. His Lampre team at the time was the only squad with three riders in the lead group; however, his teammate Johan Verstrepen, perhaps overcome with a sense of nationalism on his home turf, forgot to chase down Belgian compatriot Marc Wauters.

Hunter has played different roles in the Tour de France over the years. Last year, he was a faithful domestique for Floyd Landis at Phonak. Low on morale after Phonak folded at the end of the year, he was keen to go race crits in the US, but instead he joined Barloworld, a team that born in Johannesburg, South Africa, like him.

Poor management at Barloworld had put the future of the first South African sponsored team in danger two years ago, but when respected Italian team manager Claudio Corti took over, the team's reputation and security grew. By the time Hunter came onboard, it was the perfect plaform for re-launching his career.

The excitement of Hunter
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"We only got our selection for the Tour de France one month before the start," said Hunter. "There's already more respect right now for Barloworld. We have won two stages, and we currently are second in the running for the green jersey and the polka dot jersey. There are not many ProTour teams who have done better than that. Barloworld will be one of the best teams in the world in the years to come."

Hunter has an even broader goal for the future in mind. He'd like to see more South Africans coming and racing the Tour de France. "Cycling is really a big sport at the amateur level in South Africa," he said. "But the structures of competitive cycling aren't good enough to bring the sport up to the level there that it is in Europe. This stage win will boost [the sport and] get more young riders. There's a huge amount of talent there." Hunter is calling for involvement in cycling from all Africans, not only white South Africans.

In the eyes of the South African public, Hunter is truly a winner now. "There was a huge pressure on me back home with all the critics because I never won at the Tour de France. Now I feel a huge amount of relief and satisfaction."

Hunter shows the winning smile
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Hunter kept it upright when a crash occurred during the finale into Montpellier. "Sometimes you need a little bit of luck for winning," he said grateful not to have gone down. Hunter was full of praise for the team's who indicated that "someone could try something in the feed zone because there was a lot of wind." In fact, seven Barloworld riders were ready to take on Astana at the time.

Following stage 10, Hunter sits only 11 points behind Tom Boonen in the points classification. "But I still believe it'll be very hard to beat him," he predicted.

After the stage, Hunter was so overjoyed that he was in tears when he made two phone calls. First, he called his wife, who didn't watch the race because she was busy with her studies, and then he called Tony Harding, South Africa's national cycling coach. Hunter said Harding was "just as emotional as when his kids were born."

Hunter's win marks the start of a new era for cycling--an era for which the door has opened to a new continent: Africa.

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