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Final-hour deal with ASSOS saves Africa’s WorldTour team

Officials confirm team will remain in WorldTour despite departure of several high-profile riders.

Africa’s top pro team will ride on following the late-hour arrival of new sponsor ASSOS for 2021 and beyond.

Team officials confirmed Friday that Swiss cycling apparel company ASSOS will join longtime partner Qhubeka to rebrand the team and keep it in the international peloton. Team officials confirmed to VeloNews the squad — to be called Team Qhubeka ASSOS  will remain at the UCI WorldTour level in 2021.

The team, which raced as MTN, Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka, and most recently NTT Pro Cycling, was teetering on the edge of collapse following the departure of title sponsor NTT at the end of the 2020 season.

Team principal Douglas Ryder pulled the team back from the brink after securing the commitment of ASSOS to join African charity Qhubeka as title sponsors.

“I am really happy to have gained the support of some incredible people and partners including ASSOS of Switzerland who have stepped in to be a headline sponsor,” Ryder said Friday. “To be able to recreate the team as Team Qhubeka ASSOS talks to exactly what we continue to strive for, and that is to be a purpose-led, high-performance racing team. The last few weeks have been incredible seeing all the comments from fans in terms of how this team has connected with them in different ways.”

The announcement comes following a high-profile rupture between Ryder and ex-pro Bjarne Riis, who joined the team in early 2020 as sport manager with the promise of buying out part of the team’s license. After that deal did not materialize, Riis abruptly left the team earlier in November.

The coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on Riis’s plans, and mounting budget shortfalls forced the team to reduce salaries for riders and staffers. The departure of NTT seemed to be the nail in the coffin for the team that Ryder founded in 2008.

As Ryder continued to pursue sponsor leads to try to save the team, several marquee names on the team decided not to wait as the weeks rolled past. Michael Valgren (EF Pro Cycling), American rider Ben King (Rally Cycling), Roman Kreuziger (Gazprom-Rusvelo), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Total Direct Energie), and Louis Meintjes (Circus-Wanty Goubert) are among 12 riders who have signed for new teams in 2021.

Team officials said roster details will be forthcoming. With scores of pros still looking for jobs, however, management should not have too hard of a time assembling a full squad by retaining NTT riders and signing on free agents. Current riders such as Giacomo Nizzolo, Domenico Pozzovivo, and Victor Campenaerts will likely continue.

Ryder said the new backers will help keep the team’s African presence and unique philosophy active in the international peloton.

“I look forward to welcoming new partners to Team Qhubeka ASSOS as we plan and prepare for a new season in 2021 in a world that has been so heavily impacted by the pandemic. The bicycle continues to be a tool to change the lives of so many people for commuting, for sport, for health, for freedom and access. Our team has always been about much more than victories, but we do love to win.”

ASSOS CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall, a former CEO and president of USA Cycling, was a key figure during negotiations. Officials from the high-end apparel group founded in 1976 said the brand will use the sponsorship to push its product research and development.

“Team Qhubeka ASSOS is not a traditional sponsorship but will be operated as the lighthouse of the Assos worksteam,” said Roche Maier, ASSOS board member and chief of the ASSOS creative design center. “Our team will be used and abused to push boundaries of product development and stress tests to yet another level. We thank Douglas for the opportunity.”

The Qhubeka charity also remains as a major partner, and it’s helped distribute more than 30 000 bicycles to Qhubeka programs in South Africa.