Three stage victories in just five days at the 2021 Giro d’Italia proved to be the most successful in our team’s history. We take a look back at an incredible week for the team with further insights from those involved, who all played their part in putting their hands up for our purpose.
In late 2020 it looked likely that the dream to exist at cycling’s highest level – the UCI WorldTour – for what is now Team Qhubeka ASSOS, could well be over. Without a major sponsor, hopes of survival looked slim with riders and staff encouraged to take up offers from elsewhere.
Fast-forward just over six months and Africa’s only UCI-registered WorldTour team, stunned all in winning three stages in just five days at the 2021 Giro d’Italia. In so doing, the team finished the race with the second most stage victories of any team, just one victory behind the Ineos Grenadiers; who also won the race overall.
The team’s survival into 2021 alone had been miraculous but this particular run of success gripped those in the sport and beyond, and once again shone the spotlight on the team’s continued messaging of its purpose to truly reach a global audience.
The spirit of Ubuntu – I am because we are – was showcased for the world to see.
Team Qhubeka ASSOS’ most successful Giro d’Italia in its history was not only down to its three stage wins but also featured two second-place stage finishes for Giacomo Nizzolo, two superb top-10 time trial performances from Max Walscheid, countless eye-catching breakaway efforts from Victor Campenaerts, a brilliant time trial from Domenico Pozzovivo who, as the team’s general classification hope, was sadly forced to withdraw due to injury after six stages and the hugely impressive supporting roles played by Bert-Jan Lindeman, Lukasz Wisniowski and Kilian Frankiny.
For Mauro Schmid, Giacomo Nizzolo and Victor Campenaerts their respective wins were a first at a Grand Tour. Each rider carried a completely unique story into the race, and with the support of their team they were able to deliver on a lifelong dream. As importantly, each of these successes spoke to exactly the value system that forms the foundation of Team Qhubeka ASSOS.
Mauro Schmid at just 21 years of age, was only informed of his selection for the Giro d’Italia a fortnight ahead of the start, after impressing in his debut season. In 2020 he rode for the Leopard Continental Team and with the “baby” Giro cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, had all but given up a chance of finding a WorldTour spot in 2021. Less than year later he was a Grand Tour stage winner.
11 times Giacomo Nizzolo finished second on a stage at the Giro d’Italia. Two of those came in the earlier stages of this year’s race. It looked like once again he was destined to head home empty-handed with just one final opportunity in Verona on a fast, flat boulevard finish. In a stage not necessarily suited to him, the reigning European and Italian champion – finally – delivered a popular victory.
While for Victor Campenaerts, who for a long period was seen as one of the world’s best time trialists, 2021 brought the realisation that he needed to “reinvent” himself as a rider. In doing so he rode races he’d never ridden before, developed his race-craft to become a leading member of the team and then meticulously planned his own chance to achieve a life-long dream on stage 15.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Mauro Schmid: Winner of Stage 11 – Montalcino
For me it was the goal to be in the breakaway because I already race Strade Bianche this year and really liked the race, so for that reason I was ready from the start. I did a good warm-up on the rollers and luckily we got away pretty quickly and I was really happy to have Bert-Jan (Lindeman) there, he was a huge support.
I’m not sure how many people know but Bert-Jan had actually done the specific recon of this stage with Pozzo after Tirreno-Adriatico so he could tell exactly where to be at every corner, in every sector on the course. From the profile alone it was difficult to tell which sector could be a tough one, or which wouldn’t have an effect, but he knew exactly where I needed to be in front and this helped me a lot.
Then in the first two hours, on the flat, he definitely pulled a lot to ensure that we had a big gap over the peloton. This was very important for me as I could relax a bit as it meant that when we got closer to the finish I could focus on just beating the other guys in the break. He also did a very hard pull on the second sector, which in my opinion was the hardest one, but still far from the finish. This was crucial to see who could be strong, and he was able to create some pressure on the other guys.
In the final downhill, after the climb, I was fairly certain that nobody would come from behind us, so I sat on Covi’s wheel and waited for the upcoming sprint. I knew the final, more or less, but when you’re in the race sometimes it’s difficult to remember all the finer details. This is where the Sports Director (Aart Vierhouten in this instance) comes into his own and for me I was sure that my sprint was not bad. I knew that Covi had a good sprint too so I was planning to approach the final turn in second place; but Aart then told me to take the corner in front as it wasn’t that far to the line.
Why? Because it was uphill, it was important – perhaps it also would have worked if I’d taken it second – but I’ll never find out! As I went around the corner I thought that I needed to launch the sprint then as you had the advantage of the bike length which he needs to overtake you and I didn’t want to give him that. I launched my sprint with 200m to go, it was uphill and quite long but I knew that.
In the end it was hard to describe the feeling – I didn’t plan it at a marker on the course – I just felt when I needed to go. I wasn’t going full but quite hard and then I saw he came up and nearly overtake me; but I still had something left in the tank with 100m to go I shifted one gear up and pulled away.
He knew then that he couldn’t come back and it was a huge relief for me, you feel like you’ve won with 50m to go, and it’s a strange feeling as you just need to ride to the line.
It was a big shock (crossing the line). In the moment I didn’t realise what I’d just done because you’re so focused. You obviously race the whole race to win but when it eventually happens it’s a strange feeling.
Even one hour later I didn’t realised what I’d achieved in my first Grand Tour, it was amazing, and I needed some time for it to sink in so that I could realise what I had done. As Gabrielie Missaglia had said before the race “this race could change our lives”, and in that moment my life was changed forever.
Giacomo Nizzolo: Winner of Stage 13 – Verona
In the last couple of metres I was thinking that somebody else was going to pass me on the line – again – but it didn’t happen and I realised that finally I got a victory. As everyone had seen in the previous sprints the team was working really well and we’d just missed out twice, this time we put a good plan in place and executed it.
Crossing the line was an explosion of emotions and I’m still enjoying that moment right now. I really hope the next time that it won’t take 11 second -places for it to happen again!
The people around me felt that moment a lot. What I was able to give them as a sensation from this result – it was crazy and just nice, super-emotional.
Verona was the last chance for the sprinters but it was not actually my favourite chance as it wasn’t very technical finish but everything went well. I was calm at the right moments, waiting for the right opportunity and I just had good legs on the day. Even if it wasn’t my favourite finish line – now it certainly is!
Victor Campenaerts: Winner of Stage 15 – Gorizia
Finally, a Grand Tour stage winner! I’ve been hunting for this for a long time, it was really one of my life goals and I’m just so thrilled to have achieved it like this, and with this team.
Already at the first rest day it was quite clear that if I wanted to win a stage that this would be my day; the parcours (race route) suited me perfectly. Things were just going incredibly well with the team from that rest day.
The day after Mauro wins the Strade stage, which was an incredible personal effort but also that of the team to get all the equipment ready for the Strade stage which was not easy, then two days later we managed to pull it off in the sprint with Giacomo and we’d been trying so hard – twice second – we messed it up twice.
It was an incredible feeling to get this incredible team victory with him, a sprint is always incredible, it has to come from the team as it’s almost impossible to do on your own at the highest level, and this day for me personally was very important.
I started out by talking with Max and saying well maybe we can do it together. We were chatting at the dinner table, everyone was excited and we were joking to have all the rollers ready at the start, for a flat start, while all the other teams were a lot more relaxed. I think that this was more or less the basis of the success of that day: a real belief as we prepared for the day as a team, and really going for it. It was great.
We did it exactly like we planned. We took off right from the start, all out, and then there was a crash. Of course we were frustrated as we were already away in the break, we wanted the race to go on as we’d put so much effort in. But soon it was quite clear it was a very dramatic crash with quite a lot of riders involved – almost every team had a rider down – we had Mauro in there. We were standing around for quite a long time and we just said that we stay right behind the bumper of the car because as soon as we lose the spot we lose our advantage. So in this chaos at that time there was a lot of talking in the radio, nobody really knew what was going on but we defended our position and we did exactly the same thing again.
It’s never happened to me in a road race before that in the team meeting it’s said: “today is a day for Victor” and Missa in the meeting really said “guys, we are all super-focused, we all want to be in the breakaway, we want to be represented with the most possible riders,” we had 50% of the team in the breakaway; but he also highlighted that if we’re in the breakaway that I am the man to finish the job.
It added a bit of pressure but I was ready for it and the guys showed me so much confidence. They just asked me what to do and they did it perfectly. Also, the moment that I did the right attack I also had Max in the radio that said and felt it, he was the one that gave me the instruction: “this is when you need to go”.
There was a 5km section that we planned my final attack and the ultimate point of that was actually chosen by Max, and then together with Wizzy they did a great job of slowing the pace behind me because it was clear the two riders I was away with, those were riders I could manage myself against against.
As a time trialist focusing on road racing you think about yourself winning stages from a solo effort but I also did a lot of effort in improving my sprint, working on being more explosive. To then win eventually in a sprint I think is even more emotional as you have to fight right until the last moment.
Sports Director – Gabriele Missaglia
This Giro for us has just been amazing. Before the start of the race my goal was to try and win a stage and a top-10 in the GC but after the crash for Pozzo we changed our strategy.
As a result won three incredible stages with this incredible team; because this is really a special, special organisation. Our spirit is Ubuntu – I am because we are – and I am happy. I am really proud of the team, the staff and everyone.
We cried (in the car) after Victor’s victory because this guy is very special. It was the same, just incredibly happy when Mauro won, I wanted him 100% in this race because I believe in him.
And for Giacomo, I was so emotional. I know just how much he wanted a victory after 11 second-places, and to be with him as an Italian director in our home race – this was a moment I will remember forever.
Team Principal – Douglas Ryder
I was speechless after watching Victor’s win. You could see from the start that the commitment from the team, wanting to go into the breakaway and knowing that it was one of the last stages that we have in this race.
For us to play to our strengths, to race for the stages that we prepared for and focused on then for it to come together the way it did was absolutely brilliant.
Three stage wins, three different riders with different qualities but with the same focus, passion and commitment from the whole team was amazing. Rarely does this happen in our sport where you have this run of success, especially in cycling where there are 180 guys going for the win on stages.
When you think there are 23 teams racing for 21 stages all trying to win and for us to win 3 stages, be second on two others, it’s just special.
Why? I think it’s our greater purpose; humanity is suffering and for us to have this greater purpose with Qhubeka – mobilising kids on bicycles and the happiness that we see when these bicycles are distributed so they can have hope and opportunity, that’s what’s given the team hope and connected us.
Ubuntu – we speak about it often and it’s printed on the back of our jersey – we cannot exist in isolation but only together resonates so deeply with our riders and it’s definitely shown during the Giro d’Italia.
It was an amazing, amazing Giro.
— Jean Smyth to teamqhubeka.com