Clara Koppenburg, formerly of Équipe Paule Ka, will join Rally Cycling for 2021, completing the team’s signings on both men’s and women’s rosters.
Koppenburg brings with her a wealth of experience and climbing talent. She joins the team last minute after her 2020 outfit came to an abrupt end in October, taking the women’s team up to 11 riders. With the completion of the women’s roster comes news of an intra-team transfer too, as Andrew Bajadali moves over from the men’s program to join Joanne Kiesanowski in the women’s team car.
“I’m super excited and motivated to join Rally Cycling,” said Koppenburg. “I just can’t wait to become part of the team. And I hope, I really really hope, that it will happen sooner rather than later.”
In the first few months of his new role with the women’s team, Andrew Bajadali has been instrumental in bringing in new riders like Koppenburg.
“Clara brings a world-class level of experience to our European ambitions which will open the door for many more opportunities, especially climbing-heavy races. Her results and ability speak for themselves, this combined with her outgoing positive personality and leadership qualities will make her a natural fit in an already fantastic lineup in 2021.”
“We are very fortunate to have Clara join Rally Cycling next season and are excited to see the impact she will make for the team.”
A dream come true
Hailing from Lörrach, Germany, on the edge of the Black Forest and very close to the border with Switzerland, Koppenburg has a natural climbing ability that lends itself nicely to riding for the general classification.
“I really like stage races because I can feel myself getting better day by day. Just at the border of the Black Forest is where all the climbs are just starting and having Switzerland really close means I can also train there for the mountains. The longer and steeper the climb, the better it is.”
Coming into her seventh season as a pro, Koppenburg has loads of experience at the top level in Europe and her GC talent shows in her results. In 2017, she won a bronze medal in the World Championships TTT with Cervélo-Bigla Pro Cycling, and then in 2019, she won a stage and the overall title at Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, returning in 2020 to take second on GC behind Anna van der Breggen (Boels – Dolmans). Another big result was at the 2019 Amgen Tour of California, where Koppenburg finished fourth on the Mount Baldy stage, which propelled her into fourth overall.
“I think the Tour of California was my favourite race ever. The atmosphere in America is just so different. Of course, there are lots of spectators if you go to Holland or Belgium, but they are different in America. A huge army of people running behind you or throwing cookies at you, and racing there is a little more friendly and familiar.”
Koppenburg has already experienced American hospitality.
“It was a totally different experience because we always stay in hotels, but in California, everyone was so open and welcome, we got invited to people’s houses, visiting families. Everyone wanted to speak to you and get to know you. And sign-in at the race was like a big party. It was special.”
Until a couple of months ago, Koppenburg’s future was secure at Équipe Paule Ka. Earlier in the pandemic, the team was one of the many that struggled to continue, but they landed a new sponsor and things were looking good. Then, just days ahead of the Tour of Flanders, the team announced it would be forced to close.
“We’d struggled already earlier in the year when the coronavirus was really bad, but we got a new sponsor. We were really optimistic and when we started racing again we got some super great results. I absolutely loved my team, we were such a good group and the girls were just so great, then suddenly we heard in the middle of October that the new sponsor dropped out too. We were really sad and frustrated, it was a shock.”
After the shock of mid-October, there was no time to wait and the 25-year-old had a tough few weeks trying to find a new team. It was late in the season, making the search even more difficult, so when Andrew Bajadali called to deliver the news, time stood still.
“When Andrew called me, it was the longest minute I’ve ever experienced! He told me he’d talked to the big boss and about the budget – and I was just standing there shaking – and then he said, ‘Yeah, we want to sign you’. And oh my god, I totally freaked out. I was so so happy.”
For Koppenburg, joining Rally Cycling is more than just a lifeline at the end of a tough season.
“To be honest, I’ve always told my closest friends and my parents that I really want to join an American team. I’ve always really liked Rally Cycling from the outside, so I’m totally happy and I’m not angry at all at my old team. It worked out in the end.”
Looking forward to 2021, as well as aiming for Olympic selection, Koppenburg is keen to return to Valencia with Rally Cycling. She and Bajadali have also talked about the Colorado Classic, a race she’s always wanted to do and which suits her ability. But more than almost anything else, Koppenburg can’t wait to get to know her new teammates and live up to the spot that was opened just for her.
“It’s very special,” she said. “I’ll try to be a perfect number 11.”
Bajadali steps up
With a number of years as a men’s team director under his belt, Andrew Bajadali is moving to the women’s squad where he’ll be combining a managerial role with his own experience at the races.
“The move across is multi-faceted. It was presented to me by our performance manager, Jonas Carney, in mid-summer. After learning the ropes the last three or four years with the men’s team, mostly as a second director on stage races, it seemed like a fresh start. I cut my teeth in United States racing so I know our domestic scene like the back of my hand. So working at the races I know with a small tight-knit group really appealed to me.”
Building and maintaining the best possible team spirit has been top of Rally Cycling’s priorities since the team’s conception. Bajadali explains what that looks like in practice.
“The philosophy and culture of the team is a huge deal. We really take our time and not only look at results performance-wise but how personalities are going to affect the outcome and the team dynamic. I’ve spent hours and hours on the phone researching and developing the women’s roster with Jonas this off-season. That’s normal on any team but we like to have multiple conversations with the riders themselves to get to know them before we pull the trigger on hiring. That’s really the hallmark of why the team has lasted so long and why people enjoy riding for Rally Cycling.”
As for objectives, Bajadali’s build on the team’s recent achievements as well as showing off the American sponsor in front of a home crowd.
“My goals are really just to carry on what the team has established. We’re hitting the ground in European events, maybe not the highest level yet, but we can continue seeking out wins and podiums in mid-level UCI races. I would really like us to hit the domestic scene in the United States again, full bore.”
Andrew Bajadali is joining forces with Joanne Kiesanowski, with whom he’ll share team directing duties throughout the season.
“We had not worked together before, but we’ve had multiple conversations and I already enjoy working with her. We share the same values and everything, so I think we’re going to complement each other very well. She sees things I don’t because she has actually raced in the women’s peloton and I raced in the men’s, so I think having those two perspectives combined will be a winning situation.”
Both Clara Koppenburg’s boundless enthusiasm and Andrew Bajadali’s experience add to an already thriving Rally Cycling women’s team. 2021 is shaping up to be a monumental year.
2021 women’s roster
Leigh Ann Ganzar