Team Bonitas, one of South Africa’s leading professional men’s road cycling teams, arrived back home on Wednesday after a successful six-week stint in Europe where the team not only held its own, but also excelled, against some of the world’s best riders in demanding races and cold conditions.

In keeping with the 2012 progression plan as set by Team Bonitas owner Malcolm Lange and team manager, Barry Austin, the team sacrificed its usual early season domestic success in South Africa’s short, fast summer races in order to put in the appropriate preparation for a first ever European racing campaign.

It was a big-picture plan that had the full backing of all of the team’s sponsors who’d become accustomed to South African podium-topping success during the first quarter over the past three years. However, it was somewhat of a risk considering the relatively low success rate of South African teams racing in Europe in the past. But it was a well-thought out plan and it paid immediate dividends.

The 2012 Team Bonitas European campaign comprises two six-week stints, the first in March and April and the second in July and August. Racing began in Portugal at the four-day Volta a Alentejo stage race from 22-25 March and immediately the South African team made an impact.

Darren Lill won the King of the Mountains title in a hard-fought battle over the four days, while Tyler Day showed his ability to hold his own in an international sprint when he claimed third place on Stage 3.

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Darren Lill won the King of the Mountains title at both stage races in Portugal.

Next up was the two-day Volta as Terras de Santa Maria on 30 and 31 March, also in Portugal. Team Bonitas sprinter Herman Fouche got the team off to the perfect start by winning the opening 141km stage and claiming the race leader’s jersey. During the same stage, Lill claimed the King of the Mountains leader’s jersey.

The team lost Fouche’s leader’s jersey after the following stage, a team time trial (they didn’t have the benefit of time trial bikes like the European teams did) but Lill managed to retain his King of the Mountains competition lead and claimed his second climber’s title in as many races. Jason Bakke managed to feature at the sharp end of the final 60km stage in the finale, claiming third place to help Team Bonitas complete a successful stint in Portugal.

From Portugal to Spain and up a notch in terms of race grading. The Klasika Primavera Amorebieta was a 171km one-day race graded 1.1 by the UCI. Day spent a large part of the race in a breakaway, which was caught, but Lill managed a top-15 spot to be the top finisher for Team Bonitas.

With morale high and all riders mended from illness or injury, the Castilla y Leon three-stage 2.1-graded race presented the team’s biggest challenge. Besides snow in the mountains, the climbs were long and the competition fierce.

The first two stages saw Team Bonitas riders adjusting in one of the biggest races of their lives. However, by the final stage they’d adapted to the pace and depth of the talent around them. Johann Rabie and Lill showed pluck and got themselves into a 10-rider break. On the second major climb Rabie was dropped, but Lill stayed with the leading group until the final kilometres where a puncture ended his hopes of a high stage finish.

Lill was again in the action at the team’s final race, the 1.1-graded 190km Vuelta Ciclista a La Rioj in Spain. He was joined by Fouche and Bakke in a mid-race move that saw a group of 25 move off the front. Only Lill was able to stay with the front riders though as the bunch split under pressure on the final climbs and ended up in very respectable 13th place.

Experienced team manager, Barry Austin, was instrumental in getting the appropriate support structure in place for the riders, an essential element that’s often overlooked when South Africans compete in Europe.

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Tyler Day (left in black and white) finished third on the final stage of the Volta a Alentejo.

He says he wasn’t that surprised by the team’s success: “We carefully chose a programme that would suit our riders and style of racing and slowly brought them into bigger and bigger races. I think what was ‘surprising’ to many, was the way they pulled together and relished the challenge in Europe.

“We focussed on being a team on the bike. After every race and many team-training sessions we went over what we didn't do that was team orientated. Humans tend to self-preserve and in cycling you must learn that the only path to self-preservation is if you preserve your team first,” explained Austin.

In Austin’s opinion, the riders adjusted quickly to the different conditions, which didn’t only mean adapting to the cold weather.

“Yes, the weather was a big adjustment as a good day in April in Europe was like July in South Africa. But I think the biggest adjustment was not the speed of the race, but the holding of a position in a bunch and seeing how hard so many riders fight to be at the front. Then when entering into the races with the ProTour teams, understanding that the initial break will be made under great pressure and split decisions; and the same in the finale.”

The team arrived back in South Africa on Wednesday, 25 April and departs for the second leg of its 2012 European campaign at the end of July. Races Team Bonits willl compete in will be finalised and announced soon.