It's late November but Qhubeka Assos' directeur sportif Lars Michaelsen has spent the majority of the off-season fielding calls from riders and agents as the South African team attempt to build a last-minute roster on a reduced budget.
According to the Dane, around 100 riders have been in contact regarding possible contracts after it was confirmed last week that Swiss clothing brand Assos would step in and bankroll the team's budget for next year. Douglas Ryder's team were facing closure when title sponsor NTT announced that it would be stepping back from its commitments at the end of the year.
Most of Ryder's high-profile riders were picked off by rival teams, with Michael Valgren, Ben O'Connor, and Ben King all switching squads, but Michaelsen has been tasked with finding bargains and riders with points to prove. The team have been heavily linked with Fabio Aru, with Cyclingnews reporting last week that the Italian is close to agreeing to terms.
"We’re busy constructing a team in all senses. Every day we’re ticking off some boxes but you never really finish a project like this because it’s always a moving process," Michaelsen told Cyclingnews on Monday morning.
"The last few weeks have been busy, though. A lot of agents have been contacting me and Douglas. I have a list of around 100 names that want to be part of this team. We’re trying to make the right composition and making sure that we have enough depth in the team and that we have enough for three Grand Tours with experienced riders.
"At the same time, we want to be competitive in the other domains, whether that’s the cobbled classics or the Ardennes. Of course, a big part for the Grand Tours is having a sprinter who we know can perform. It’s all limited by the time we’re in at this point in the season and by the budget – that’s not the same, not nearly the same as it has been."
Michaelsen has been vetting riders and confirmed that the team were "more than halfway" through building their roster for next season. Jay Thomson, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, and Nic Dlamini are all set to stay after being offered contract extensions, while the team are also in discussions with EF Pro Cycling rider Simon Clarke.
Giacomo Nizzolo, the team’s best sprinter in 2020, was the first rider to re-sign, confirmed on November 23, and Max Walscheid, Domenico Pozzovivo, Andreas Stokbro, Michael Gogl, Dylan Sunderland, and Victor Campenaerts have all been given new deals until the end of 2022. Carlos Barbero has been given a one-year extension. The team are still looking for riders, as they attempt to maintain a squad of around 27-28 riders for next season.
"We’re not taking every agent’s word as given and we’re doing our own research," Michaelsen said. "With the network that I and my crew have, we try and find additional information on the rider in question so that we have a broader analysis."
One high-profile rider on the market is Mark Cavendish, with the veteran sprinter set to leave Bahrain McLaren after his contract was not renewed. It’s unclear if Cavendish wants to race on into 2021 but when asked about the 30-time Tour de France stage winner possibly returning to the team, Michaelsen would only say: "I can’t comment on that one. I can’t comment."
The Dane did, however, add that he and the team were looking at signing English riders. Michaelsen's remit appears to have greatly increased since the departure of Bjarne Riis, who left the team by mutual consent just ahead of the Assos announcement. Riis had joined the team at the start of the year with the promise of securing sponsorship, but the 1996 Tour de France winner was never able to turn a letter of intent from backers into real money.
According to Michaelsen, the arrival of Riis caused an element of tension, with Riis taking credit for work that Michaelsen and his staff had done in the background before Riis' arrival.
"There have been some decisions where I was in between. I respected that because of the potential investors from Bjarne's side to bring in money. But of course, it meant that I had to take two steps back and give more space to the ones that were supposed to be part-owners of the company. That was all tied up with a letter of intent but at the end of the day they're not the owners of the team," Michaelsen said.
"Now that the decision has been made that he’s not continuing, I felt that it was time for me to tell my version of the story. There was the idea that it was all down to Bjarne Riis that the team from January had the same number of wins before lockdown that they’d had in the last two years. Of course, at the time I wasn’t happy with that being said but I didn’t say anything. Inside the team, people knew that someone couldn’t come in during January and then take the credit for the wins."
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