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Australian sprinter Steele Von Hoff has spoken of his frustration with having to drop down from the WorldTour, saying that he was left waiting for a long time before finding out he would not be retained by Garmin-Sharp and ultimately had to settle for a Continental ride.
However the 26 year old national criterium champion has said he is determined to seize opportunities with his new NFTO team and to try to follow the example set by Adam Blythe, who returned to the top level after a successful period with that squad.
Von Hoff has been with the Garmin-Sharp/Slipstream structure since 2012. He started his period there as part of the Chipotle-First Solar Development team and then became a stagiaire with the WorldTour squad. That translated into a fully fledged pro contract in 2013 and he competed for two years at that level.
With his contract up for renewal, Von Hoff said that he found himself in limbo in relation to receiving word about an extension.
“November came around and team camp was just on the horizon. I was still wondering if I was going or not,” he told CyclingTips.
The team is managed by former pro Jonathan Vaughters, but Von Hoff said that he only saw him twice in the past three years. As has been the case before with other riders from the team, he said that he had difficulty in getting a clear answer as to whether or not he would be kept.
“Andrew McQuaid [Von Hoff’s agent – ed.] sent a final email to Vaughters saying ‘Steele – yes or no.’ he explained. “JV had been playing me for the last few months, saying ‘yeah, we want him…it depends on Viviani and where he goes.’
“But then in August we knew he was going to Sky. JV still said that he needed another sponsor to have some more money. At the end of the day I just don’t think he wanted me but kept me within his reach, just in case.
“I put all my eggs in that basket this year by working for the team and not my own results.”
The scenario echoes that described by another Garmin-Sharp rider Phil Gaimon, who also found out very late that he wouldn’t be kept on board.
Under Article 9 of the CPA/AIGCP joint agreement, a clear regulation states that riders must be advised by a precise point in time whether or not they will be retained.
The wording is precise, unambiguous. “Before September 30 prior to the end of the contract, if the contract has not already been renewed, each party shall inform the other in writing of their intentions as regards any renewal of the contract. A copy of this document shall be sent to CPA [the riders’ association – ed.].
Asked if this was observed and followed, Von Hoff indicates that it wasn’t, although he said he was personally unaware of where the regulation was laid out.
“That’s meant to be the rule, but you tell me if you can find that in the UCI rulebook,” he said, clearly not having seen the UCI/AIGCP joint agreement. “I’ve looked and I just don’t see it. I think it’s the rumour, but I don’t think it’s actually down on paper. [note – it can be found here]
“I think it depends on which organisation you’re in. I think it’s a rule in Holland, but not in America. I don’t think there’s anything I can do. I was just a victim of the game.”
However the wording of the agreement doesn’t limit it to certain geographical regions.
Putting the delay in notifying riders to one side, one difficulty facing the team was the semi-merger between the Garmin-Sharp setup and the Cannondale organisation. The title sponsor and several riders moved across to the setup after the latter squad learned it would stop.
Von Hoff accepts that this made things more difficult in terms of available places. “A lot of riders who were cut from Garmin wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for the merger,” he said. “I think eight riders needed to be cut because of this.
“Out of a team of 28, eight is substantial. It’s just an unfortunate year and you need to do what you can to get back up for the next year.”
Stepping back to move forward:
Many riders and agents had hoped that Fernando Alonso’s planned FACT team would follow through on its stated ambition of having a squad up and running for 2015. The Formula One driver and those working with him gave repeated reassurances that the project would go ahead, giving riders cause for optimism. However that ultimately didn’t happen and this further constricted the market.
Von Hoff and McQuaid were forced to look elsewhere and ultimately had to settle for a smaller Continental squad.
“I was able to secure a contract with NFTO and it’ll give me an opportunity to get back up into the World Tour,” said Von Hoff. “They’re supportive of me still living in Girona and supportive of helping me get back up to the World Tour again, just like they did with Adam Blythe.
“I just want to replicate the good year I had in 2011 and try and win again. I need to get back into that routine of winning to get myself back into the top ranks. NFTO are fully supportive and are basing a team around me to try to get me some victories so I can step back up.”
The British-based squad will compete in far fewer international events than Garmin-Sharp, but Von Hoff’s protected status on the team will enable him to have greater personal opportunity. He will do the British criterium series but also get the chance to ride some races in Europe, some of which he has done in the past.
He’ll also likely ride the Tour of Britain, the Tour of Yorkshire and the Surrey Cycling Classic. The latter was won this season by Blythe, a result which enabled him to secure his Orica GreenEdge rider for 2015.
Von Hoff is clear of what his strengths are and how he should fit in. “I like being a sprinter,” he said. “Not a sprinter like Greipel and Cavendish though, but more like Matthews, Bouhanni…the guys who can get over a tough climb and sprint from a select bunch.
“Well, maybe not like Matthews,” he added, “because I can’t get up a cat two climb and still beat Cadel!”
Still, the point is clear. He took third on stage one of the Santos Tour Down Under this season and was also third on a stage of the Bayern Rundfahrt. Past results include victory in the 2013 Japan Cup criterium race and podium finishes on stages of the Tours of Poland and Britain. He likely would have achieved more had he not sacrificed chances helping other Garmin-Sharp riders.
At 26 years of age, he’s got further room for improvement and could continue to get quicker for another couple of seasons yet.
Because of that, he’s young enough to have a year at a lower level and to still have plenty of time on his side. He is determined to use the NFTO opportunity to show what he can do, and then to return to the top ranks of the sport.
“I love the opportunity to banging bars against the big names like Greipel, Cavendish and Kittel,” he said. “It was a really good feeling to sprint against them. Not even beating them, but just sprinting against them and catching up to them and knowing that I was within reach of being competitive.
“I went well at a few of the races I did. I podiumed against Greipel a couple times, and once against Cavendish – those were good memories.”
So too some of the events he did in the past. “For the atmosphere, my favourite race is the Tour Down Under. There is the hometown crowd cheering you on, and it’s also really laid back.
“For the racing, my favourite is the Japan Cup,” he said, referring to the racing weekend where he won the related criterium in 2013. “The atmosphere is fantastic, the circuit makes it quite a nice race, and the opening criterium the day before his just humongous. Japan has been good to me.”
Whether or not NFTO gets the chance to ride the Asian event in 2015, Von Hoff plans to return there in the future. If things go to plan, he’ll use the coming season to clock up wins, build up confidence and to prove to himself and others than he fully warrants a WorldTour berth once again.
If that happens, he won’t have to endure any delays in finding a team for 2016.