AIGLE, Switzerland, Dec 14 (Reuters) - African cyclists could be standing on the podium at major races within five or six years, according to the president of the sport's governing body.
Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya have the potential to succeed in a sport which is growing in leaps and bounds across the continent, International Cycling Union (UCI) chief Pat McQuaid told Reuters in an interview.
"I've taken a personal interest in Africa and I've seen athletes that will be on the podium of a grand tour within five or six years," he said.
"Africa is a continent we have very successfully developed in the past four or five years. I was at the African championships in Burkina Faso three weeks ago and I saw an Ethiopian there who has a huge amount of talent.
"There are Eritreans too, you get 200,000 people at a bike race there. It's the most popular sport there is," added McQuaid.
"Interestingly it's the same countries which produce the (middle-distance) athletes - Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya."
McQuaid said cycling had taken off in Africa following initiatives to provide equipment that was previously unavailable.
"Cycling never developed there because we didn't have the equipment but now we've set up schemes in the UCI ... to deliver it to the national teams," he said.
"We are now getting good equipment and riders are coming through. When I took over in 2005 there were four national tours in Africa in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Egypt and South Africa - now there are around 35."
McQuaid said the UCI was expanding into other unchartered territories, having already organised two Tour of Beijing races.
"We can already see an improvement in one year and I've no doubt the next couple of years will see that grow again," he explained.
"The conditions which are laid on for the Tour of Beijing are better than the Tour de France in terms of road security and road safety. It's incredible."
McQuaid said India was also on the horizon for the governing body.
"We have a sport which is a western European sport, in the case of road cycling, and we feel it has a huge amount to offer globally," he added.
"As an international federation we have to bring our sport into emerging markets.
"We have a Tour of Russia coming up in 2014, we have had a lot of discussions and India will be another place. It will take longer because the infrastructure in India for cycling is poor," said McQuaid.
"Brazil is certainly a market because of the Olympic Games in 2016 and we are paying special attention there in terms of development.
"These are huge markets. If we get in with big events it can motivate a focus on the development of the sport."
Other sports including Formula One have also expanded into Asia recently but McQuaid said it would be a slower process with cycling.
"We're not looking to follow the same route because Formula One goes with the same concept to every market, it's a circuit with different configurations," said McQuaid.
"We work in the landscape that's there, we don't create a landscape. Some places it's flat, some places it's hilly so we work within that.
"The vision the UCI has would be one in which you bring in the new markets gradually and, as you do so, you might weed out some races that have less interest with the public than the great races," said McQuaid.
"We wouldn't be as radical as Formula One. I wouldn't have the power that (F1 supremo) Bernie Ecclestone has - I've got to work to processes and the management committee and democracy." (Editing by Tony Jimenez)
- Sports & Recreation
- Pat McQuaid