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The Giro d’Italia is many things to many people. And each rider and team approaches the historic Italian race differently. Some, like eventual winner Egan Bernal, came to this year’s race eyeing the distinctive maglia rosa, the pink jersey awarded to the overall winner. Others had their eye on the ciclamino jersey or other distinctive jerseys, while others yet were eyeing stage wins.
But once the dust settled from this year’s race, few teams can boast more success than the African-based Qhubeka ASSOS squad, who stormed to no less than three stage wins in a five-day period mid-way through the race.
They won won the highly anticipated “Strade Bianche” stage over the white gravel roads of Tuscany, the sprint stage to Verona as well as the rolling stage through Slovenia to Gorizia. In addition, the team scored their Giro hat trick with a rare diversity of riders, from a neo-pro Mauro Schmid, to Giacomo Nizzolo, one of the world’s most experienced road sprinters to world hour record holder Victor Campanaerts.
“It was amazing, three stage wins in what five days,” team manager Douglas Ryder said when reflecting back on the memorable three-week race. “It was absolutely brilliant.” But Ryder is quick to point out that success only came when the team was forced to reorganize early in the first week after Italian climber Dominico Pozzovivo, a veteran of 15 Giro races, was forced to pull out after crashing.
“We went into the Giro d’Italia with a sort of two-pronged approach with Nizzolo for the stage wins and Pozzovivo for the general classification,” Ryder explained. But even though losing Pozzovivo was a blow, Ryder insists that the team was still prepared for success.
“We really started our preparation for the Giro very early. For example the day that Mauro Schmid won on the Strade Bianche roads, well we had really prepared for that. We reconned the stage already in February because we really were going to look after Pozzovivo on that stage. Both Bert-Jan Lindeman and Mauro Schmid had reconned that stage for the Giro and had ridden the Strade Bianche in March. We already understood what tire pressure was needed, what wheels to use, you name it. As a result, it came as no surprise to me that they were both in the breakaway that day. Sure we reconned that stage to protect Pozzovivo, but we were prepared to change our focus. So really that stage win was prepared in February and it shows the detail and focus we have as a team.”
While the Qhubeka ASSOS team does not have an obvious grand tour winner, they make up for it with a strong team spirit, something that paid high dividends in this year’s Giro.
For Ryder, Schmid’s stunning victory on stage 11 was not only a huge success; it was a real watershed for the rest of the race.
“On the Strade Bianche stage, Lindeman, who is 10 years older than Mauro, just rode flat out on the front to get the gap that day and give Mauro the best opportunity to recover. There was real confidence and belief all day long. Even at the end, Mauro trusted his directors who told him to come out of the last corner first and take the sprint from the front. They said that knowing that would play to his strengths as an Olympic 4-kilometer pursuit rider, and he didn’t question it! And the result is that Mauro Schmid, riding his first grand tour at the age of 21, going for his first-ever victory in his first year in the World Tour, just smashed it! For me, that day was just a perfect example of the full-on commitment, trust and understanding we have developed as a team.
Only two days later it was house-sprinter Nizzolo’s turn to taste victory. Nizzolo, the current Italian and European champion, came to this year’s race with one goal in mind—to finally win a stage in the Giro. But after two near-miss second place efforts, Nizzolo’s opportunities were dwindling as the race moved to the final week in the mountains. But he pulled out one of the biggest wins of his life when he stormed to victory in downtown Verona.
“That day Giacomo put a 56-tooth chainring on his bicycle,” Ryder explained. “The finish into Verona was slightly downhill, but that was what he needed. After 13 days of racing in the Giro, he knew that he wouldn’t have a big jump, but he just told everyone on the team to do their best to give him a really big lead-out with a really big, clear straight line to the finish. And with that gear, he was just unstoppable. And he got his first win in a grand tour.”
Making his way to the podium after the stage victory, Nizzolo could not help but rush over to his fan club who was cheering enthusiastically from behind the barriers after the finish. And as he fell into their outstretched arms, his joy was more than apparent.
The team’s final win came just two days later when world hour record holder Victor Campenaerts raced out of the breakaway to victory on the stage over the southern hills of Slovenia—packed with fans and swamped by spring rains—into the Italian border town of Gorizia.
But while some may have been surprised by the team’s sudden streak of success, Ryder was not because the team has really bonded in the past year.
Of course the team’s current title sponsor Qhubeka—whose mission is the improve lives in Africa through bicycles—has long given members of the team the feeling that they are part of something bigger than just sport. But the team mission was put to even greater tests this past year when partner NTT withdrew their sponsorship at the end of the 2020 season and the team’s entire existence was suddenly thrown into question.
But while the team only locked in its financial commitments—largely with the help of iconic Swiss clothing manufacturer ASSOS—on January 1, the team remained largely intact.
“There is just a massive amount of good will within the team after everything we have been through,” Ryder says. “When we learned that NTT was not continuing with their sponsorship in September, I told everyone that they needed to look for jobs. But when I finally secured sponsorship, still 85 percent of the staff remained. That shows you how devoted everyone is on the team. We have a real clear vision, huge passion and a real sense of purpose that connects with everyone in this team. And it really showed at the end of the year.”
And Ryder is confident that the strong team spirit will bring further success in the upcoming Tour de France. On paper Italy’s Fabio Aru and Colombian Sergio Henao will lead the team in the overall standings, but Ryder is counting just as much on the fighting spirit that the team has fostered to bring even more success. To date the team has already scored five stage wins in the Tour. And if anyone needs to be reminded, this year’s Giro demonstrated that the Qhubeka Assos team still knows how to win big.
Learn more about the team’s impressive Giro d’Italia run in the latest episode of the Race for Change series.