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Much has been said about the decline of Gerald Ciolek, the German sprinter who, just a few days after his 20th birthday, won the U23 road race at the world championships in Salzburg. After a string of promising early career results, including a Vuelta a España stage victory with Milram in 2009, he went winless for nearly two years until finally stepping back onto the top of the podium on stage 4 of the Volta ao Algarve this year with Omega Pharma-Quickstep.
Now, at 26, Ciolek joins the newest Pro Continental squad, MTN-Qhubeka presented by Samsung, and as one of the senior members he has accepted the responsibility of leading the squad as European captain.
Some may think it is a step down for Ciolek, a decision that takes away the certainty of the WorldTour race calendar and puts his schedule at the mercy of race organizers, but he says the move to the first truly African professional team is a good choice.
"It looks like a big step [down], but if you look at the team it's on a really high level," Ciolek told Cyclingnews at the team presentation near Johannesburg. "At first I didn't know what to expect, but I spoke to many guys and they said it's a good, professional, really organized project. I know [directeur sportif] Jens Zemke, and I trust in the team."
Ciolek valued his two seasons at Omega Pharma-QuickStep, where he often rode in the service of Tom Boonen, but he's ready to move on and help to guide his new teammates and carry the expectation of getting results. "QuickStep was a great team, and it was nice to ride for, especially this year, the most successful team in the world. The team was a good experience," he said.
"There were opportunities in Quickstep, it wasn't like I had to ride the whole year for somebody else, but I was also kind of a domestique. Here it's different. Here I'm the captain for most of the races, and that's a different position. It's a big responsibility. It can be difficult as you don't want to let your team down after they work all day for you. That is what inspires me: to want to win for them."
After his early flourishes on the world stage, fans and pundits expected much of Ciolek, but as the years went on, the wins became fewer. But it perhaps went unnoticed that as he moved from T-Mobile/Columbia to Milram and then on to QuickStep, his calendar included increasingly difficult races. Ciolek admits he may not have developed as quickly as some anticipated, but he hasn't been disappointed in his results.
"If you see the races I won in my first years, in 2007 I won 10 races, it was basically smaller races like Bayern Rundfahrt or Tour of Austria, and you can't say that I went down with my performances. There were a lot of expectations on the outside, but I was always realistic with my own expectations. It wasn't like I was too disappointed. For sure there were some points where you want to reach a goal and you don't, and you're disappointed, but that's normal."
An aspect of his career that will change with MTN-Qhubeka is the power-based training and coaching which is the foundation of the team and its coach, Carol Austin. At QuickStep, he says, the team didn't give as much direction because most of the riders were older, more experienced, and had their training dialled in.
Ciolek is looking forward to seeing the results of the new programme. "We're on a really high level. I'm in a position where the team is riding for me, so I will have more chances than in a few years. I hope that with all the support I can take these chances."
He has only been with his new teammates for a few days, and they have yet to do any training rides together, but Ciolek already sees the great potential in the team spirit and talent assembled in the 21-man squad.
"There are a lot of good guys here. I haven't seen them on the bike yet, but to see the level they have here, I think there is great potential in this team. I like the point that it is people from all different countries and different cultures."
For a sprinter, the team is quite important in protecting him and getting him into position to win the race. While Ciolek doesn't expect that his team will be forming a big lead-out train and controlling the front of races when they go up against the big guns, he will be able to rely on his compatriot and trusted former QuickStep teammate Andreas Stauff to lead him in the finale.
"If you look at the big races, I don't think we're going to be in a position to be a team that's leading the bunch in the last five kilometers. I don't think that's realistic. We're not the ones who will be organizing the sprint, so at that point it will be important for me to have one or two guys that I can count on. I have Andreas Stauff who was with me on QuickStep and always did a good job in the sprints, he's one guy I can count on. I think that's the most important thing to have one guy who you can trust, who can lead you to the front."
While its Pro Continental status means that MTN-Qhubeka will have to rely on invitations from organizers for its schedule, the team management is anticipating getting into races such as Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, where there will be pressure to perform in order to earn more wildcards for the remainder of the season.
"It will be different from the last years on a WorldTour team, where we knew which races we would do. Here we have to wait for the invitations, so I can't say much right now about which races are goals, but the first goal now is to be ready for the start of the season, to be good in the spring races, and then we'll see."
Until then, Ciolek is excited about the prospect of helping to bring Africa into the consciousness of cycling fans, and expose them to the riders, the team and its message of mobilizing children by putting them onto bicycles.
"It's a great chance," Ciolek said. "Africa was like the missing continent on the cycling map. It will be great to help this continent to make cycling more popular here."