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Ackermann: My comfort zone was too good at Bora-Hansgrohe

NANNING CHINA OCTOBER 19 Pascal Ackermann of Germany and Team BoraHansgrohe Red Leader Jersey Enrico Poitschke of Germany Sports Director of Team BoraHansgrohe during the 3rd Tour of Guangxi 2019 Stage 3 a 143km stage from Nanning to Nanning 83m TourofGuangxi on October 19 2019 in Nanning China Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Missing out on Tour de France selection last season was a symptom rather than a cause. By then, Pascal Ackermann was already inching towards the exit at Bora-Hansgrohe, and in early August it was duly confirmed that he had signed for UAE Team Emirates for the 2022 season.

 At first glance, the transfer seemed a contradiction. Moving to the team of Tadej Pogačar meant that Ackermann was effectively ruling himself out of the 2022 Tour to boot, and so it has proved: the Vuelta a España is the only Grand Tour on his programme this season. Yet the German maintains that the change of scene was less about finally riding the Tour than rebooting his career.

 “I’m 27 now, so there are still more years to go,” Ackermann told Cyclingnews from the UAE Team Emirates training camp in Alicante. 

“I still felt last year that I could improve, and now I’m in really good hands. For me, what’s really important now is to get better, to get back to what I achieved in 2019. That’s my biggest goal for 2022 season. After that, 2023 is still open. We will see if I get back to the shape I had. I can always speak with the team about the Tour de France later, but this season we have clear goals and we’re really happy about it.”

Ackermann won 36 times in five seasons at Bora-Hansgrohe, with the zenith of his time at the team coming in 2019, when won two stages and the points jersey at the Giro d’Italia. The two seasons that followed, by comparison, were frustrating. Although he notched up two wins at the 2020 Vuelta a España, he found himself competing for opportunities in the biggest races with Peter Sagan and, by his own admission, he found he had slipped into something of a comfort zone.

 In 2021, Ackermann didn’t win at all in the opening half of the season, although once he digested the disappointment of missing the Tour, he found his of old vim by rattling off six victories last summer, albeit at the Sibiu Tour, Settimana Italiana and Deutschland Tour rather than at WorldTour level.

 “We still had Peter in the team, so I was not allowed to do the Classics, and we had some GC  goals, so it was mainly a case of too many good riders in one place, and so I was never super happy about my race programme,” Ackermann said.

“Maybe I missed a little bit there, but maybe I was a bit lazy too. I was on the team for too long, and my comfort zone was too good. That’s why I decided that I wanted a new team. I wanted to improve more, that’s why I had to leave."

The UAE Team Emirates rosters, replete with riders like Pogačar, João Almeida, Marc Hirschi, Fernando Gaviria and Brandon McNulty, gathers just as many good riders in one place as Bora-Hansgrohe did, but Ackermann is satisfied that his 2022 programme places him in a leadership role just about every time he pins on a number.

His campaign starts at the Challenge Mallorca and then continues with Étoile de Bessèges, the Clasica Almeria, the Volta ao Algarve, the Opening Weekend and Tirreno-Adriatico, before Ackermann returns to Belgium “for most of the Classics.”

Therein lies a crucial difference to his time with Bora-Hansgrohe. As well as targeting obviously sprint-friendly events like Brugge-De Panne, the German will also make his Paris-Roubaix debut.

“If you look at the Classics last year, it changed a lot, because there was a bigger group coming to the finish line. So if you’re in there, maybe you can sprint. You can get a victory or a good place. If you never try, you never know,” Ackermann said.

“I could have a super good year, my engine is growing a lot as a sprinter, so you never know what’s happening in the biggest Classics.”

Vuelta a España sprint opportunities

Ackermann knows that UAE Team Emirates have signed him expressly for his turn of speed in the finishing straight, and the success or failure of his season will be measured by the number of wins he amasses by the season’s end. 

With that in mind, he has tweaked his training this winter under the guidance of new coach Jeroen Swart. The Kandel native’s track background meant that he arrived in the WorldTour blessed with natural speed and his early focus was on building the endurance to match.

“In the last years, my speed went a little bit less because we also had to improve my engine for the mountains,” Ackermann said. “Now we’re working to get back to being faster, so it’s more like the training for a sprinter instead of to get over mountains.”

The first obstacle Ackermann must surmount in 2022 is the construction of a sprint train. Unusually for an elite sprinter, he arrived at his new team without any of his previous lead-out for company. While the sprint simulations at the training camp have been encouraging, Ackermann knows that nothing can replicate the real thing. “We’ll have ten riders in Mallorca, including nearly every lead-out rider, like Gibbons, Oliveira and Trentin, so we can try a lot and see what works,” he said.

The Vuelta is the only Grand Tour on Ackermann’s programme, largely because of the sprint opportunities in presents in its opening phase. “This year, the Vuelta is maybe the best option for the sprinters, because we start in the Netherlands where there are already two chances, and then more chances in Spain,” he said. “For me, it’s really important to come back and have fun in cycling, because last year was a really hard year for me.”

For sprinters, of course, fun in cycling is contingent almost exclusively on victories. New team, same reality. 

“The head is the biggest thing in sprinting, because as a sprinter, you can also win some races without shape,” Ackermann said. 

“For the sprinter, it’s really important to win a race early in the season, then you get in the flow and get some victories.”

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