The WorldTour is an uncompromising environment, but if there is a challenge greater than breaking into its ranks, it is regaining a place among them when a team decides that the services of a rider are no longer required.
The fourth stage of the Tour Down Under offered variations on the theme, with former Garmin-Sharp employee Steele von Hoff winning the stage for UniSA-Australia, teed-up by team-mate and one-time WorldTour rider, Jack Bobridge.
The Australian pairing fashioned a successful denouement in Mount Barker after Astana leader Luis Leon Sanchez, recently returned to the top tier after a season with Pro Continental outfit Caja Rural, had briefly animated the stage with an attack in the closing kilometres.
Steele Von Hoff snatched the biggest win of his career in the colours of UniSA-Australia after racing with Garmin-Sharp. He will race next season with NFTO, the British UCI Continental squad. pic: Regallo
Von Hoff was rightly pleased with his achievement, but lavished praise upon UniSA team-mate Bobridge. The national team, whose shifting line-up receives an invitation to the Tour Down Under each year, was punching above its weight, von Hoff observed, with two victories and two days in the leader’s jersey.
Bobridge won the opening stage and with it the ochre tunic, but after attempting the Hour Record next month, he will join Continental squad Team Budget Forklifts, having spent the previous three seasons in the WorldTour with Orica-GreenEDGE and Belkin.
The 25-year-old is a rider of significant track pedigree, having been world and Commonwealth individual pursuit champion and a lynch pin of the Australian team pursuit squad. He will be joined at Budget Forklifts by national team colleagues, Glenn O’Shea and Scott Sunderland to prepare for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. It mirrors the set-up at Team Wiggins, where the 2012 Tour de France winner will prepare for Rio in a Continental squad alongside Team GB endurance riders Steven Burke, Owain Doull and Andy Tennant.
Von Hoff, however, is eager to return to the top-tier, vowing to return to the highest level after his victory in Mount Barker and claiming he had missed out in the merger of Garmin and Cannondale. He will spend this season in Britain, racing with the Continental team NFTO and here he will find a precedent: Adam Blythe will race again in the WorldTour this year, for Orica-GreenEDGE, after spending last season in NFTO colours when BMC Racing dispensed with his services. Blythe aided his cause by winning the RideLondon-Surrey Classic, and von Hoff’s WorldTour victory could prove equally valuable.
Sanchez’ story is more complicated. Despite consistently denying alleged links to disgraced doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, the Spaniard parted company with Blanco Pro Cycling (formerly Rabobank). After winning the king of the mountains competition at the Vuelta a Espana last year, however, Astana decided to welcome him among its ranks and install him as leader for the first race of the season: an event he won in 2005 for Liberty Seguros-Würth – Astana’s progenitor.
The cases illustrate the margins that separate the teams competing in cycling’s various tiers; divisions narrowed by budget and professionalism. Little separates the best Pro Continental teams from their WorldTour counterparts, as IAM Cycling’s smooth ascension and Europcar’s last-minute demotion have shown. Greater variance lies in the Continental ranks, but the very best are proven suppliers of talent to the WorldTour. Sean Kelly’s An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles squad, for example, can name Daniel Lloyd, Matt Brammeier, and Andy Fenn among its graduates to cycling’s top tier.
UniSA-Australia can already consider their participation in the seventeenth Tour Down Under an unqualified success. Twenty-one year old Jack Haig, winner last year of the best young rider category, retains a place in the top 10 on GC, though whether he will retain such a lofty position after tomorrow’s queen stage remains to be seen. The classement does not lie. The strongest squads will have their say before the race is run and overall victory is likely to be claimed by a member of the WorldTour’s elite. Smaller victories from the smaller squads have supplied a refreshing sub-text, however. Here’s to the underdog.