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Edvald Boasson Hagen on a new chapter with MTN-Qhubeka

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Photographs: Bryn Lennon - Getty Images

Edvald Boasson Hagen has previously begun a new chapter in his career at the early-season desert races and finds himself back in the Middle East to compete for the first time in the colours of MTN-Qhubeka.
The Norwegian, four times a Grand Tour stage winner, and winner of the 2009 Gent Wevelgem, began his tenure with Team Sky at the Tours of Qatar and Oman in 2010.
Five years ago, and in only the British team’s fifth race, Boasson Hagen led home a team time trial squad containing Bradley Wiggins to win the opening stage in Qatar, and claimed the second of two stage wins in Oman by beating Fabian Cancellara into second place in the individual time trial.
His latest visit to the Middle East is to open a new chapter in his career with the South African-registered MTN-Qhubeka squad, now headed by general manager Brian Smith after eight years of steady progress from Continental journeymen to Pro Continental front runners; a journey that has already brought a Monument Classic victory for Gerald Ciolek at the 2013 Milano-Sanremo.
There are certain similarities between the two outfits. Team Sky was launched on a tide of hope and ambition: the team that would win clean and which offered the wider sporting public a new narrative from cycling’s tarnished recent past.
MTN-Qhubeka will not lack ambition under Smith, and in the work of cycling charity Qhubeka, which provides bikes for some of Africa’s poorest, its message is of even greater hope. Does Boasson Hagen see the parallel?
“It’s a really good project and nice to be a part of that,” he tells 1. “It’s similar to Sky with high ambitions, but there’s also the [Qhubeka] project beside. It’s nice to be able to lend your name to that and to bring more publicity to Qhubeka.”
Publicity is something MTN-Qhubeka can expect to enjoy this year if Boasson Hagen rediscovers the form of his early career, when he was a significant cog in the winning machine of HTC-Highroad. His achievements give the lie to the more cursory analysis that cycling’s most successful team was little more than a sprint train for Mark Cavendish.
During his time with Bob Stapleton’s squad, Boasson Hagen won Grand Tour time trials and sprints, the cobbled Classic, Gent Wevelgem, week-long stage races and national time trial championships. His formidable talent was seen as a significant acquisition by Team Sky: one, in the opinion of many, they squandered.
Boasson Hagen, however, speaks highly of his tenure at Sky, one which began with seven victories and ended last year with none. There were successes along the way, but the most notable came when his team’s influence was reduced, or removed entirely: three national titles, and a brace of stage wins at the 2011 Tour de France, when Wiggins’ early exit left him free to race.
“I liked it at Sky, but after five years, it’s time to try something different,” he says. This is as close as Boasson Hagen comes to criticism of his former employers. He is a pleasant chap, seemingly easy-going and polite almost to a fault, though unlikely to list interviews among his favourite activities.
He speaks of “getting back” to his form at HTC and the early years with Sky. How will he do it? He identifies gym work as a route to recapturing his explosiveness. “I had a few years where I didn’t do that,” he reflects. “I think its important to be stronger. It’s ok to keep down the weight with muscle.”
What type of rider will he be at MTN-Qhubeka? If the question sounds ludicrous to ask of a such an accomplished professional it is in deference to the breadth of his talent. Five years ago, most observers would have expected Boasson Hagen to have won a Monument Classic by now, a green jersey, and perhaps even a world time trial championship.
“Firstly, I just want to win races this season,” he says. “The goal is always to be good at the Classics. We have an invitation to the Tour and I’ll try to win a stage there. Generally, the goal is to win races again.”
When he mentions the word climbing, it is with a rueful expression, and to identify an area he won’t be focussing on at MTN-Qhuebka. “I climbed ok, but not like a climber,” he says of his past performances in the mountains.
Boasson Hagen is far too polite to say, but he is the exemplar of Sky’s obsession with the Tour, one that makes climbing domestiques of all but the team’s Grand Tour leaders. Geraint Thomas might be taken as another example, though the Welshman at least has the consolation of the team’s backing at the Classics.
Brian Smith has an enviable record in helping teams to punch above their weight, having previously assisted Gerard Vroomen in setting up the Cervelo Test Team and steering the Continental team Endura Racing to victory at the Tour of Britain, capping a season of overachievement among the entire team that should not be diminished by Jonathan Tiernan-Locke’s subsequent doping ban.
Since joining as interim general manager last season, Smith has made a number of intelligent signings, based on a common theme of proven, but stalled talent. Tyler Farrar, Matt Goss, 140, Theo Bos, Matt Brammeier, and Serge Pauwels have all competed for top-tier teams, but Boasson Hagen’s signature is the most significant of all.
He admits to being no more than “one of the bigger names”, and is quick to praise the mix of talent and the spirit in the team, which he compares to HTC. The organisation he believes stands comparison to Sky and adds that with Cervelo bikes the team is well equipped.
No one would be saddened to see Boasson Hagen return to the winner’s circle. In his early career, the Norwegian was living proof that nice guys finished first. A stage win in Oman would be an auspicious start to life with his third team.

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