Focus on 2020: EF Education First

Probable Leaders 2020: Alberto Bettiol, Sep Vanmarcke, Hugh Carthy, Rigo Urán, Michael Woods

KONM’s 2020 Watchlist: Magnus Cort, Sergio Higuita, Dani Martinez, Hugh Carthy, Lachlan Morton, Kristoffer Halvorsen, Sep Vanmarcke

Hotness Rating 2020: Toasty

Confession: it took KONM a long time to warm to EF’s shtick. The “alternative calendars”, the tie-dye jerseys, the moody artists and the moustachioed podcasters; it seemed like they were trying just a little too hard to be “disruptive”.

But now, well, KONM is ashamed to admit that we have been successfully Rapha-washed. Even if we’ll never buy a piece of the company’s ludicrously overpriced apparel, we’re guzzling down their sweet sweet EF Kool-Aid and indirectly boosting their #BrandEngagement while we’re at it.

So hit KONM with the EF shtick stick and don’t hold back. Hook us up to a drip flooding all of that wholesome, sponsor-driven we’re-so-different gravel and enduro #content into our veins. Give us Lachlan Morton having a quasi-nervous breakdown in a hedge somewhere in Cumbria; or the dearly departed Taylor Phinney forlornly changing a tube in a ditch in Kansas. KONM will take all of that you’ve got.

Sure, it’s all just a load of slickly executed, quasi-earthy corporate fluff. But, hey, it works for KONM. It really does.

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And here’s the other thing: EF are now a very good team. Among those already on the roster, they have the 2019 Ronde Van Vlaanderen winner, Alberto Bettiol, grand tour nearly man Rigo Urán, classics powerhouse Sep Vanmarcke, 2019 Milano-Torino winner Michael Woods, twice Vuelta stage-winner Simon Clarke, US national road champion Alex Howes, British beanpole Hugh Carthy and Colombian future stars Dani Martinez and Sergio Higuita.

Augmenting those names in 2020 are intriguing acquisitions like three-time grand tour stage-winner Magnus Cort (Astana), oft-neglected ex-Sky/Ineos sprinter Kristoffer Halvorsen, experienced classics-ist Jens Keukeleire (Lotto Soudal), former Jumbo-Visma domestique Neilson Powless and 21-year-old prospect Jonas Rutsch, who impressed with a Kattekoers win in 2019.

Whatever way you look at it, that’s a strong unit. EF’s fortunes were turned around last season after a fairly disastrous 2018 and it looks as if they’ll continue along their upward curve. KONM’s not saying this team will get anywhere near Ineos/Jumbo/Deceuninck levels, but the pink-and-blue boys should have more than enough to edge into the top eight or nine of the UCI team rankings.

Specifically, EF now look a formidable classics and stage-hunting outfit. As already illustrated, they possess riders who’ve been there and done that in grand tours and ones with the potential to follow suit, while the likes of Bettiol and Vanmarcke boast springtime palmarès that would be the envy of most WorldTour riders.

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Bettiol made himself a star with his clever win at the Ronde and will find himself a marked man in 2020. Outside that triumph in Oudenaarde, Bettiol hasn’t really won much else of note so it’ll be worth watching to see if he can pop up with another victory of similar prestige. You might suspect not – but write off the Italian at your peril.

Vanmarcke probably hasn’t yet entered the genuinely top echelon of classics monsters. He turns 32 in July and will need to make big strides in order to get there, but it’s a rare Paris-Roubaix that doesn’t feature big Sep in the top five. He won the Bretagne Classic in September to (probably) keep himself at the top of EF’s classics depth-chart and put a gloss on his season. Hopefully that success augurs well for the man from Kortrijk.

New signing Keukeleire will provide heft to a classics engine also featuring Sebastian Langeveld, young gun Julius van den Berg, Halvorsen and, possibly, Cort. Astana had Cort riding grand tours and stage races in 2019 but most are quick to highlight the Dane’s versatility: will EF send him to Belgium and northern France in March/April to provide serious grunt for Vanmarcke and co.? Likeliness is he’ll have a similar brief at his new team to the one he had chez Vino, but KONM would like to see Cort given a real shot in the lowlands.

As for Halvorsen, who never really got a look-in during his time in Darth Brailsford’s realm, he’ll be one to keep an eye on in the first third of 2020. He was 2nd at Bredene Koksijde last season, 6th at De Panne and has dominated at Handzame in recent years, so this is clearly a rider who knows how to race in Belgium. Sky/Ineos care little for the classics so he was wasted there; surely EF will consider giving him a run at the flatter, more sprinty springtimers like E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. The Norwegian is only 23 and there’s plenty more to come from him.

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On the hillier side of the coin, lanky Lancastrian man-of-few-words Carthy had a breakout year in 2019 and will be hoping for more of the same next season. His solo victory on stage nine of the Tour de Suisse was a joy to behold and a remarkable way to earn a first WorldTour race-win. It’s hard to know what chances EF will give him in the coming months, but KONM would like to believe they’ll trust him with some leadership roles in big races. As one of the team’s stars of last season, he deserves it.

Then there’s the Colombian trio of Urán, Martinez and Higuita. Arguably the latter is the junior partner simply because of his youthful age and the fact he only joined the team in May, but Higuita was superb for EF in the second half of the year. He won stage 18 of the Vuelta and is a prototypical mountain goat with vast scope to get better. It remains to be seen whether or not he can shake veteran Urán out of the default leader’s slot in 2020 but if KONM had to choose one to work for the other, it would be the 32-year-old fetching bottles for the 22-year-old.

No disrespect to Urán, who is a legend of the sport in Colombia and beyond (not to mention a big favourite at KONM Towers) but Higuita is the coming man. Perhaps it’s time for Rigo to acknowledge that he hasn’t won a WorldTour race since 2017 (in mitigation, his 2019 was affected by a broken collarbone) and accept that he may now have to serve others. Maybe he already has, we don’t know for sure.

Martinez missed out on the Tour after an injury sustained in training but laid down a marker at Paris-Nice, winning stage seven ahead of compatriot Miguel Angel Lopez. KONM expects big things from Martinez, although like Higuita he may spend large portions of 2020 looking after Urán.

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Elsewhere, Mitch Docker will be hoping his podcast goes from strength-to-strength (keep up the good work, Mitch, it’s one of the best out there), while we can probably look forward to Morton bikepacking his way around the Hebrides on a tandem (solo); or perhaps Logan Owen attempting a gravel hour-record on a unicycle; or maybe even Clarke fat-biking from Darwin to Perth. Whatever happens, we know it’ll be an interesting year for the Alternative Division at EF.

Prediction: Over 1,000 words and KONM hardly acknowledged the existence of Woods, Tejay Van Garderen, Lawson Craddock et al. Sorry, but it’s just that there’s a lot to keep track of with this team.

All things considered, KONM has no real idea what’s going to happen regarding race-wins, etc., with EF in 2020. And that’s not really a bad thing. They’re one of the more fascinating teams on the scene, so we’re happy to wait and see what they come up with.


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