At first glance, it may appear Steele von Hoff’s career on the European professional cycling circuit is over. But that is a misimpression the 30-year-old is keen to clarify.
“It is not really coming home,” von Hoff says of his 2018 return to Bennelong SwissWellness, the Australian UCI Continental team where he launched his career. “The team has a big European program in the plan. I will be based in Europe for five or so months.”
Von Hoff left the domestic racing scene in 2012, joining feeder team Chipotle–First Solar Development before signing as a stagiaire with World Tour outfit Garmin–Sharp. The Victorian had a moderately successful tenure there but was among the riders left without a contract when Garmin–Sharp merged with Cannondale at the end of 2014.
He was forced to drop back to a UCI Continental team before again stepping up a level in 2016.
“The first year with OnePro Cycling was at Professional Continental level and that was fantastic,” von Hoff explains as he prepares to race the historic Jayco Herald Sun Tour. “I was racing against the best in the world at the big races, and that is where I wanted to be.”
Watch daily highlights of the Herald Sun Tour at 1630 - 1730 AEDT from Wednesday 31 January on SBS and On Demand at Cycling Central.
LIVE: watch the final stage live on SBS Viceland and streaming at Cycling Central from 1300 - 1600 AEDT, Sunday 4 February.
“Last year they stepped down to Continental level and the race program was not tailored to Europe,” he continues.
“I enjoyed racing the criterium series in England, the fans were incredible – they were by the side of the road rain, hail or shine.
“But I thought it was time to hunt a suitable race program, so I have joined Bennelong SwissWellness – racing in Europe doing the style of races I want to do.”
The opportunity arose thanks to von Hoff’s strong relationship with Bennelong manager Andrew Christie-Johnston.
“I was in Launceston for the Stan Siejka criterium, and he gave me the opportunity to come back on board,” the sprinter explains. “I could not be happier.
“I know it is an environment that I thrive in, because I am with such good people. Happy riders get results, and it is already showing.”
Von Hoff finished second at the 2018 Road Nationals criterium, and third at Race Melbourne.
Bennelong SwissWellness is the most consistent performing team on the domestic National Road Series. Founded in 2000, the Tasmanian outfit has supplied the series winner on innumerable occasions and regularly seals the overall team classification.
Bennelong is also responsible for developing many of Australia’s World Tour riders, including Richie Porte, Nathan Haas, Patrick Bevin and Ben O’Connor. Just what are they doing right?
“Everything,” laughs von Hoff. “When I left this team I realised Andrew had done a bad thing, by being so good to us. All of a sudden there are little imperfections in the way that teams are run – that was my experience when I went to World Tour level.”
Von Hoff stresses he is not suggesting his World Tour switch was a “step down”, just “different”. He continues: “Andrew is very good with his riders and the culture is fantastic. It is more than a team, it’s a friendship group.
“It is an environment that wins races because everyone is willing to do all they can to help their team-mates.”
Following the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, Bennelong SwissWellness will head to Asia for a number of races before a lengthy stint in Europe. “My schedule will depend on where Andrew decides to put me in,” von Hoff says.
“He is very fair with the selection process. He gives every rider a chance, and the riders training hard get picked. If you don’t put in the kilometres, you won’t get selected.”
Von Hoff hopes a strong year on the European circuit could see him earn another deal with a UCI Professional Continental or World Tour team. Or, Bennelong SwissWellness may continue its ascent.
“In the medium-term I would like to get a role with a European team,” he admits. “But the best-case scenario would be if Bennelong went pro conti, we go to Europe and kick butt against World Tour teams whenever we race them.
“That would be the dream scenario. I want to be racing in Europe at the top level. If that does not happen, I am really happy on Andrew’s team.”
Whatever happens, von Hoff knows he has a fall-back option: returning to his former career as a welder, something he did during an extended off-season.
“The 2017 British season finished in September and I normally start my build-up in December, so I had two months free,” von Hoff explains. “For the first time in seven years I went back to work. I had a blast and learnt the craft again.”
Von Hoff was an immediately recognisable figure upon returning to his old workplace.
“My old colleagues followed my cycling career,” he explains. “Until recently – when they repainted the tea room – they had newspaper clippings of my results on the wall. It was really weird – all the new employees knew who I was when I returned, because my face had been plastered all over the wall!”
Von Hoff might have endured a challenging professional career, but the Victorian’s ever-present smile gives away no hint of bitterness, indicating he'll be content post-retirement.
“I enjoy tinkering and making things – I am a hands-on person,” he muses. “When the legs do not want to go round any more, and if I cannot do something in the cycling industry to help support others, then I will enjoy going back to the tools.”