As late as December, when DSM presented their roster for the 2021 season, Hirschi appeared central to their plans, but on January 5, the German-registered squad announced that they had terminated his contract with immediate effect.
Marcel Kittel, Warren Barguil, Tom Dumoulin, and Michael Matthews had all left Iwan Spekenbrink’s squad ahead of the expiration of their contracts expressly to join other teams, but no explanation was given for the sudden departure of Hirschi.
The Flèche Wallonne and Tour de France stage winner didn’t stay on the market for long, of course, with UAE Team Emirates confirming his arrival just four days later. Speaking to reporters on a video call from his new team’s training camp in Dubai on Monday, Hirschi declined to elaborate on why he left DSM.
"I cannot say much because we have this settlement agreement, but at the end the chance was there. The opportunity was there that I could leave," Hirschi said. "Now I’m here, and I’m really happy that it’s worked out. Now I will focus on the future. For me, at the end, it’s now perfect."
UAE Team Emirates manager Mauro Gianetti explained last week that he had moved quickly to sign Hirschi after learning of his availability in late December, reaching an agreement with his agent Fabian Cancellara before New Year’s Eve.
It is most unusual for a rider of such standing to swap teams so close to the new season, but Hirschi maintained that the transfer was less problematic ahead of a campaign whose start has already been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. His DSM squad, for instance, had not gathered for their usual December training camp.
"It all came quite late, but I was really happy that it worked out," Hirschi said. "I think in this situation of corona, it was still ok because we didn’t start with any training camp, we didn’t have our new bikes. I think in a different season it would have been more complicated. But in a year like this, when everything starts late anyway, it was no problem to make the change so late.
"Now I’m here, at the first training camp. I’ve got the new bike, I’ve met my teammates and now I finally start working for next year.”
Although Gianetti claimed a deal was done in December, Hirschi was still a late arrival at the UAE Team Emirates training camp in Dubai. That meant that he was not among the 59 riders and staff who received the Chinese Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine, which had undergone trials in the UAE in the latter part of 2020.
"I will see in the future if I have a chance to get it, but for the moment I don’t have it," said Hirschi, who is mindful that the 2021 calendar could be redrawn on the hoof due to the ongoing pandemic.
"There’s a big chance that the season will start late, or that a lot of races will be cancelled until a lot of countries have the vaccine. For now, I’m just preparing normally, and I hope the season will start but a lot of races are in doubt."
Ardennes, Tour de France, Olympics
Hirschi packed a lot into a short space of time during the condensed 2020 season, where an all-action display at the Tour was followed in quick succession by bronze at the Imola Worlds and victory at Flèche Wallonne. Were it not for Julian Alaphilippe’s deviation in the sprint at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he might even have finished his second professional season with a Monument victory.
The 2021 racing calendar should be spread more evenly across the year, but the 22-year-old’s schedule seems just as unrelenting, beginning with the UAE Tour and then Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico ahead of Milan-San Remo. The Tour of the Basque Country will then serve as final preparation for the Ardennes Classics, the centrepiece of Hirschi’s Spring.
After returning to action at the Tour de Suisse, Hirschi plans to ride the Tour de France in support of Tadej Pogačar, while also working towards the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. Later in the year, the World Championships and Il Lombardia are targets, with the European Championships also a possibility. The change of team, Hirschi explained, has not changed his main objectives.
"The big goals – the Ardennes Classics and the Olympics – will stay the same," said Hirschi, who added that he hadn’t yet considered whether he will need to leave the Tour early in order to quarantine ahead of the road race in Tokyo.
"It’s hard to say because we don’t know yet how the rules will be, so I actually haven’t thought about it too much. We’ll have to see one month before the Tour what the plan will be. It’s not worth putting energy into it now."
Hirschi enjoyed freedom to expend energy almost as he pleased as part of a young Sunweb team at his debut Tour last September, but he knows that he will have to channel his efforts in support of the defending champion Pogačar in 2021. The two are contemporaries and competed against one another through the junior and under-23 ranks.
"We fought a lot for the win together. There were some battles between us, but he was always a little bit more of a GC rider and I was more of a one-day rider," said Hirschi, who downplayed the idea that he might eventually test himself over three weeks.
"I need more time and more Grand Tours in my legs to make the change, but I don’t want to push on it. I prefer to focus on where I’m good now."
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