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2021 Team preview: Qhubeka Assos

Fabio Aru in cyclo-cross action with Qhubeka Assos
Fabio Aru in cyclo-cross action with Qhubeka Assos (Image credit: Bettini)

The Qhubeka Assos team has risen from the ashes of the NTT Pro Cycling team, with team manager Doug Ryder managing to keep the team alive thanks to last-minute investment and sponsorship from the Assos clothing brand. 

The team has always promoted and supported the Qhubeka cycling charity that provides bikes to school children and will do so even more with Qhubeka part of  the team name. However, the team’s funding comes from Assos and other technical sponsors, including BMC bikes, with the team still to unveil its new colours for 2021 and set out its goals and objectives.

Bjarne Riis is no longer involved in the team after failing to buy a part of the management company, with Lars Michaelsen serving as senior directeur sportif. 

Qhubeka-Assos still fly the flag for African cycling but Nic Dlamini and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg are now the only riders from South Africa. Team Qhubeka, the Continental development squad, continue to offer a path to European racing and shares facilities with Qhubeka Assos at their base in Tuscany.   

The 28-rider Qhubeka Assos roster includes 17 new signings, including Fabio Aru after his difficult three seasons at UAE Team Emirates, valued road captain Simon Clarke from EF Education-Nippo, Colombia’s Sergio Henao, talented track rider Lasse Norman, Australia’s Robert Power and Britain's Harry Tanfield.

Michaelsen claimed he was able to select the new riders from over 100 on the market at the end of 2020. While the team budget was limited, Michaelsen appears to have recruited well, bringing together a group of riders with talent and desire to get their careers back on track. 

European champion Giacomo Nizzolo opted to stay with the team, as did veteran Grand Tour rider Domenico Pozzovivo, World Hour Record holder Victor Campenaerts and sprinter Max Walscheid.

Mark Cavendish, who gave the team stage victories and a day in the yellow jersey at the 2016 Tour de France, has moved to Deceuninck-QuickStep, Edvald Boasson Hagen moved to Total Direct Énergie, the American Ben King moved to Rally Cycling and Louis Meintjes joined Intermarché-Wanty Gobert. 

Manager: Doug Ryder 

Squad size: 29

Average age: 28.6

National Championship Italy 2020 - Men Road - Bassano del Grappa - Cittadella 253,8 km - 23/08/2020 - Giacomo Nizzolo (ITA - NTT Pro Cycling) - Davide Ballerini (ITA - Deceuninck - Quick Step) - photo Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2020

Qhubeka Assos' star sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

How did they fare in 2020?

Wins: 8

WorldTour ranking: 18th

NTT Pro Cycling had been struggling to survive in the WorldTour for a while but always fought for their place in the highest echelon even when they faced huge difficulties. It was a similar story in 2020. 

Early in the season, Riis seemed to inspire the team somewhat, with Nizzolo winning stages at the Tour Down Under and at Paris-Nice. Ben O’Connor won a stage at the Etoile de Bessèges, and Walscheid took stages at the Tour de Langkawi. 

Then, after the return to racing, Nizzolo won the Italian national championships and a week later won the European title while racing for Italy. 

O’Connor won a stage at the Giro d’Italia after finishing second the day before but the news of NTT ending their sponsorship caused huge disruption during the final months of the 2020 season as the best riders found places with other teams and uncertainty reigned. 

Ryder faced a race against time as the UCI deadline for 2021 team registration neared. He was close to failing but pulled off a miracle by agreeing to a deal with Assos. It was the team’s biggest success of the season.

Key riders

Giacomo Nizzolo: The 31-year-old Italian is not the fastest sprinter in the WorldTour peloton, but when he's healthy, fit and fighting for victory after a hilly stage, he has the ability to win against the likes of Sam Bennett, Peter Sagan, Pascal Ackermann and others. 

The Italian was hampered with a knee injury in 2019 but returned to form in 2020 and was fifth at Milan-San Remo and second in the bunch sprint in the Via Roma. He was also in contention in the early sprint finishes at the Tour de France after winning the European title, finishing third on stage 3, only for a knee problem to force him out of the race on stage 8 and end his season.

Nizzolo has been training at home in northern Italy and has already made Milan-San Remo a goal for the spring before targeting the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France sprints. Qhubeka Assos have signed several riders to help him, including Matteo Pelucchi, while Lasse Norman Hansen, Janse van Rensburg and Campenaerts can also help out in the fast final kilometres.      

Fabio Aru: The Sardinian was a late signing and has not won a race since a stage of the 2017 Tour de France, yet he brings a Vuelta a España victory and two Giro d’Italia podium places to Qhubeka Assos. 

Aru’s poor showing during his three high-salary years at UAE Team Emirates are well documented. Less known are the effects of his iliac leg artery surgery and a breakdown in relations with the UAE team, especially after former team manager Giuseppe Saronni openly criticised him on Italian television when he was dropped during stage 9. Aru had been told of his grandfather’s death the day before and was emotionally distraught but the team was focused on supporting Tadej Pogačar.   

Aru had several offers for 2021 but opted to join Qhubeka Assos and so stay at WorldTour level. A spell of cyclo-cross racing seems to have rejuvenated him and he may ride the World Championships for Italy before focusing on road racing. 2021 will be about rebuilding his career. 

EF Education First's Simon Clarke on the attack during stage 8 of the 2019 Tour of Britain

Simon Clarke has signed for 2021 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Simon Clarke: The 34-year-old Australia is the kind of rider every team needs and he will be especially valuable at Qhubeka Assos as they try to unite their new line-up and create a new WorldTour squad.

Clarke can win races as he showed by taking the Royal Bernard Drôme Classic last March, but most of all he's a solid road captain who can call the shots in the thick of the action, help his team leaders and no doubt bang some heads together on the team bus if needed.

Clarke has come up the hard way, through the lower ranks of the sport and could turn out to be Qhubeka Assos’ most strategic signing.

Victor Campenaerts: The Hour Record holder is not as popular as Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel, but can still produce a good time trial and could win TTs in 2021 and secure a place on the Belgian team for the Olympic Games.

Few noticed but he was third in the European time trial championships and then second in the final TT at the Giro d’Italia just two days after finishing second on the shortened road stage to Asti.

Campenaerts is known for his unique character and loves to share his daily life via social media and videos. He has recently reconned Paris-Roubaix and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, indicating he will tackle the Classics before focusing on time trials and Olympic selection.   

Robert Power: The Western Australian was one of the most talented young Aussie riders of a special generation, winning somer of the most prestigious under-23 races on the calendar. He has struggled to emerge in recent years and is looking to reboot his career in 2021 after two seasons at Team Sunweb.

Power showed glimps of his ability with second place on the uphill finish to Paracombe at the Tour Down Under and on the testing Formigal finish at the Vuelta a España. He will surely have more freedom at Qhubeka Assos and so could get his career back on track.

TORTORETO ITALY OCTOBER 13 Domenico Pozzovivo of Italy and NTT Pro Cycling Team James Knox of The United Kingdom and Team Deceuninck QuickStep Joao Almeida of Portugal and Team Deceuninck QuickStep Pink Leader Jersey during the 103rd Giro dItalia 2020 Stage 10 a 177km stage from Lanciano to Tortoreto girodiitalia Giro on October 13 2020 in Tortoreto Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Italian climber Domenico Pozzovivo is back for a second year at the team (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Strengths

Qhubeka Assos came together very late but the massive changes in the teams roster and the arrival of several new team leaders offer everyone a chance to forget the problems of 2020 and start afresh. 

The riders will need to come together and build on their combined strengths, but the likes of Aru, Power, Henao and Tanfield have been given a great chance to get their careers back on track. Surely they will do everything they can to make it happen and a newly found harmony in the team, with fewer egos, could make it happen.

Weaknesses

WorldTour racing is relentless and demanding and the Qhubeka Assos 27-rider roster will be stretched at peak moments of the season. Injury or a lack of results could grind down morale in the team and expose old weaknesses.    

Verdict

Qhubeka Assos start 2021 with a new sponsor, a largely new roster and new ambitions. 

Nobody should expect Qhubeka Assos to win big in 2021 but the financial support and stablity from Assos should provide the foundations for the next chapter in the team’s history.