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2021 Team Preview: EF Education-Nippo

ALTODELANGLIRU SPAIN NOVEMBER 01 Arrival Hugh Carthy of The United Kingdom and Team EF Pro Cycling Celebration during the 75th Tour of Spain 2020 Stage 12 a 1094km stage from Pola de Laviana to Alto de lAngliru 1560m lavuelta LaVuelta20 La Vuelta on November 01 2020 in Alto de lAngliru Spain Photo by Justin SetterfieldGetty Images
Hugh Carthy wins on the Angliru (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

EF Education-Nippo pulled off another sponsor takeover, merger, and evolution for 2021, managing to survive and thrive even during the global COVID-19 pandemic that hit language and travel company Education First extremely hard. Team manager Jonathan Vaughters has fought to keep the team alive several times, completing mergers with other teams. He found EF as a new sponsor and WorldTour team owner in 2018; and this year he secured the Japanese construction company Nippo as a vital second title sponsor, bringing on board several riders from the troubled French Nippo-Delko-Provence ProTeam. Their loss is EF's and Vaughters' gain.

The team has lost several key riders, retained most of those who emerged in 2020 and signed several interesting names for the new season to again fielded an eclectic roster of 28 riders of 15 different nationalities.

After shaking up their jersey design with skateboard brand Palace and pulling off a huge publicity stunt at the Giro d'Italia, EF Education-Nippo are expected to be back in their pink Rapha kit but begin yet another new era in 2021.

"Our team comes from far and wide, and the same is true for our partner family. There is a freedom and freshness on our roster and in our thinking between our partners since we all come from so many different places in the world. I'm very proud of that fact," Vaughters said announcing the arrival of Nippo.

Manager: Jonathan Vaughters

Squad size: 28

Average age: 27.8

How did they fare in 2020?

Wins: 15 (plus 2 national titles)

WorldTour ranking: 10th

EF Pro Cycling profited from the investment and stability provided by EF to win 15 races in 2020, impressing early on in Colombia, winning the Critérium du Dauphiné with Dani Martínez and then taking a stage win and eighth overall with Rigoberto Urán at the Tour de France despite some setbacks. They also won two stages at the Giro d'Italia and Michael Woods, Hugh Carthy and Magnus Cort then won stages at the Vuelta a España as Carthy emerged to fight for third overall.

The EF team seemed to know how to come together as a force to win specific stage races, backing Sergio Higuita at the Tour Colombia after dominating the opening team time trial. Martínez was protected at the Dauphiné and emerged on the final stage as attacks blew the race apart. Martínez and EF kept cool heads to take a prestigious WorldTour victory.

Woods also won at Tirreno-Adriatico, while Simon Clarke took the Royal Bernard Drôme Classic in France, while other riders were aggressive even if the breakaway attempts and attack failed to come off.

Alberto Bettiol and Sep Vanmarcke perhaps underperformed in the Classics but the Italian was fourth at Strade Bianche on his home road and then fourth at Gent-Wevelgem as the likes of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Mads Pedersen fought for victory.

Key riders

Rigoberto Urán

Urán is now the veteran Colombian of the team but while he may perhaps be past his best as a rider, his ability, charisma, attitude and appeal make him a vital piece of the EF Education-Nippo team.

Urán will turn 34 in January and fought back from his terrible injuries from the 2019 Vuelta to finish eighth at the 2020 Tour de France. He could do better than that in 2021 or also mentor and support Carthy, Higuita, Jonathan Caicedo and Ruben Guerreiro.

It has been suggested Urán helped bring in the support of the Colombian government to back a new development team and could easily have a future management role in the team when he retires.

Michael Valgren

The Dane replaced Vanmarcke as a key Classics rider and will share leadership with Bettiol, while Sebastian Langeveld, Jens Keukeleire, and Mitch Docker make-up a solid cobbled Classics crew.

Valgren joined NTT after a successful 2018 season with Astana that yielded wins in Amstel Gold Race and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad but injuries and illness then scuppered his progress. Clearly in need of a fresh start, EF Education-Nippo could be a great chance for him to get his career back on track in 2021.

Lachlan Morton

The laid-back and likeable Australian leads EF Education-Nippo's alternative race calendar, mixing gravel and endurance events with Grand Tours and WorldTour races.

Some cycling Luddites dismiss his approach to the sport but others love it. Either way, he is forcing people to reflect on the traditions of pro cycling and forging a possible path for the future. That makes him far more valuable than other riders even at EF Education-Nippo.

Hugh Carthy

The straight-talking Lancastrian has shown talent and potential in recent years and they emerged with full force at the Vuelta a España, with his third place overall and impressive consistency in the mountains.

Carthy is a pure climber with an aggressive streak matched by superb racecraft. He was in the top 10 on eight of the 18 stages and claimed the biggest success of his career with victory atop the iconic Angliru – one of the hardest climbs in cycling. Equally encouraging was his stage 13 time trial prowess, where he placed fourth and lost just 25 seconds to overall winner Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).

He will no doubt have a major role in EF Education-Nippo's Tour de France squad in 2021 and at 26 will surely continue to develop and improve.

Strengths and weaknesses

EF Education-Nippo are arguably weaker on paper after the loss of Woods and Vanmarcke to Israel Start-Up Nation, Martínez to Ineos Grenadiers and road captain Simon Clarke to Qhubeka-Assos but have made some interesting signings and the emergence of Carthy, Higuita, the USA's Neilson Powless and others will be exciting to follow in 2021.

Valgren is surely a new strength for the spring Classics, while 24-year-old Will Barta from CCC Team is an interesting addition, as are youngsters Daniel Arroyave, Diego Andres Camargo and Britain's Simon Carr.

Vaughters was forced to strike a salary sacrifice deal with his riders in the spring of 2020 after EF's income was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic but he later offered contracts for 2021 to the riders who took cuts as a sign of respect and support. Several took him up on the offer and so the team retains a solid core with Docker, Tejay van Garderen, Craddock, US national champion Alex Howes, Jens Keukeleire and Powless.

The riders from Nippo-Delko-Provence and the young Colombians face a big step up as they race at WorldTour level and so could expose an underlying weakness in the team's roster but the team's experienced staff will offer the support and direction needed for them to learn fast.

Verdict

EF Education-Nippo have tried to take on their richer, more talented rivals by creating a unique environment in the team that fans around the world love to cheer for.

The Moneyball, Rapha-cool, and underdog hipster attitude has paid off numerous times, with Uran taking second at the 2017 Tour de France, Bettiol winning the 2019 Tour of Flanders and now Carthy at the Vuelta. As the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic emerges in the 2021 WorldTour, watch for EF Education-Nippo to punch beyond their weight and win something big yet again.