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Road Racing

What’s the story behind NextHash, Team Qhubeka’s mysterious new sponsor?

A strange tale of cryptocurrency, more offices than employees, and more questions than answers.

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The Tour de France team presentation in Brittany on Thursday had a few surprises. Breakdancing French kids. A one-off jersey for Alpecin-Fenix. A one-off jersey for Bahrain Victorious that was promptly destroyed and then sold as an NFT.

But perhaps the most surprising and intriguing thing to occur was the arrival of a new sponsor for the team that was – until Thursday – known as Qhubeka Assos. The team is now called Qhubeka-NextHash, with the South African charity staying on but the Swiss kit manufacturer subbing out for a mysterious cryptocurrency trading company.

So who or what is NextHash? Where did they come from? What are their hopes for the sponsorship, and how did they end up signing a five-year deal with the perennially precarious South African team? 

The good news: We’ve got some answers. The bad: We’ve got a lot more questions. 

Let’s dive in. 

A confusing company in a confusing industry

Blockchain technologies and cryptocurrency are a major growth area in the finance industry. Using distinct currency – Bitcoin most prominently, although there are others – it’s at once a parallel to a currency exchange and the share market. The currencies are not regulated by a reserve bank but minted by corporations, existing not in the real world but on computer servers, with their intrinsic value defined by what people are willing to buy and sell them for. 

Cryptocurrency traders and insiders see it as the future of trade. Many others see it as an environmentally wasteful way to swap imaginary money back and forth. When you add the adjacent artwork market that is non-fungible tokens into the mix – you may remember that term from Colnago’s NFT bike, or Bahrain Victorious’s NFT jersey – you get plenty of people shaking their physical fists at the digital cloud, wondering what was wrong with things being tangible.  

This is the space that NextHash exists in; a difficult-to-understand company playing where things are seldom easy to understand. 

Above and beyond, though, there’s a level of opacity to the company’s sponsorship of the Qhubeka-NextHash team that raised some eyebrows on Thursday. Even though there’s a bloody big bike race happening, diverting attention away, those eyebrows are yet to fully retreat. 

Simon Clarke in the move on stage 2 of the 2021 Tour de France.

Normally when a sponsor inks a contract, there’s a bit of a fuss from all parties involved: announcements of how this will advance the team and the sponsor to mutual success, how there’s an alignment of values, all the ways that the name on the jersey will become synonymous with the fluttering excitement that a new generation of cyclists will feel when the peloton whooshes across their television screens. This is blasted across social media channels with vast organic and paid reach, searing the company’s brand name into the consciousness of the cycling audience. 

NextHash hasn’t posted anything at all.

The company has less than 100 Facebook followers, and around 300 LinkedIn followers. On Twitter it’s not even entirely clear which corporation we’re actually dealing with. Is it NextHash Group (five Twitter followers)? NextHash Inc (one Twitter follower)? This other NextHash Group (15 Twitter followers, no posts since 2018)? NexInter Digital (531 followers)? 

Eventually, after a bit of cross-referencing, an onlooker might – might – figure out that it’s the last one, although the account hasn’t posted since January 2020. 

The last Tweet from NextHash’s official Twitter account references the company CEO, Daniele Mensi. So, in a bid to figure out more, maybe you go to his account (137 followers), look at his tweets & replies, and see that he’s left the company. Then things get weird(er).

A cycling fan has asked if he has any insight into NextHash. “I have nothing to share, I’ve just left because [I’m] in extreme disagreement from all standpoints,” Mensi answers. “They’re just crooks. Don’t spend any further time chasing anything, worthless.”

It continues:

What about the team? 

So if NextHash isn’t saying anything about its five-year sponsorship of a cycling team, which presumably runs into the millions of dollars, what does the team have to say? 

A press release issued immediately before the team presentation offered the following information:

The multi-year agreement shows an alignment of our respective core values; for NextHash it is about people, relationships and reputation and for Team Qhubeka we are about people, purpose and performance.

NextHash is a global entity comprised of several units that combine the traditional financial industry with brand new digital class assets, by harnessing the power of blockchain technology.

NextHash aim to make the digital, crypto and financial world accessible to all perfectly aligns with our team’s mission to provide a platform and an opportunity to those in need everywhere.

The current rapid evolution of the digital financial industry is extremely exciting. As a team that has always embraced the power & potential of technology, we are delighted to begin this journey with NextHash. Together we look forward to creating a market place for cycling in the digital medium based on shared value. 

– Team Qhubeka-NextHash sponsor announcement

Douglas Ryder, the cycling team principal, talks of how the partnership will “offer our fan community new experiences” and “help us innovate and develop new and interactive approaches to engage with our fans.”

Mensi’s replacement as NextHash CEO – and the company’s founder, as it turns out – is a Slovenian, Ana Bencic. She makes an appearance in the press release, offering that:

Team Qhubeka NextHash has at its heart a social purpose that chimes perfectly with our own business. Using technology to enable communities is central to our mission at NextHash – we believe in making the digital, crypto and financial world accessible to all, across geographic and social boundaries

NextHash will work hand in hand with Team Qhubeka to socially and environmentally responsibly bring our products and services to a huge new audience through this amazing global sport and team.”

That seems to hit all the right notes. Then again, so did Manuela Fundación – and look where that ended up. 

Questions and answers

For the past few days, with some invaluable help from CyclingTips VeloClub members, I’ve been trying to understand both the NextHash business, and its sponsorship of Team Qhubeka. 

I’ve approached both Mensi – the old CEO – and Bencic  – the current one, and company founder – for comment, but did not get a response. 

The team almost folded at the end of 2020, before finding a lifeline from Qhubeka and Assos.

I asked Team Qhubeka specific questions about the origins of the NextHash partnership and terms thereof, and was referred back to the original press release, excerpts of which are reproduced above but you can read in full here.

Fair enough: Team Qhubeka has walked a tightrope over the years to attract and retain sponsors, and a five-year deal – no matter how mysterious – might secure its future. No use destabilising things.

I did, however, get an email address for the company’s head of external relations, to whom I sent a number of questions including: 

– When did NextHash first become interested in sponsoring a cycling team, and how long has this particular partnership been in the works? 

– What opportunities does NextHash see coming from this sponsorship, and how would you measure its success? 

– There seems to be a surprisingly limited amount of information or social media history with regards to NextHash (~300 followers on LinkedIn, <100 on Facebook, ~500 on Twitter). This strikes me as unusual, given what is presumably a millions of dollar-commitment over the five year term of the sponsorship. Is there a following for the brand that I’m missing on other channels, or has it just emerged out of relative obscurity? 

NextHash’s representative, Matjaz Ivanuza, responded with the following quotes:

  • “We are interested in all sports all our life so we got the opportunity for sponsoring a cycling team as this team has the same philosophy as we do”
  • “We would like to bring and present to African continent closer blockchain technology and everything related to this new technology”
  • “We are fully aware that not all Africa citizen have access to a bank account but most of them have modern phones with which they can pay and purchase goods”
  • “Regarding our channels, our main intention was not to build all-around online marketing but now we will start to build up also this area as we would like to present our business clients our presence in different sports.”

Unpacking the web

In early 2020, company founder Ana Bencic was at a cryptocurrency conference in Dubai and gave an improptu interview with CNBC Arabia. She described NextHash’s business model as a “digital asset platform” which had worked towards being fully compliant in a number of different markets. It is, she said, “what the markets actually need.”

That’s a brief synopsis, but the full story of what NextHash is and what it does is a bit more complicated.

One arm of the company’s offering is a trading platform, NexInter Exchange, built on another company’s software, ChainUp – a platform that offers shared transaction liquidity, potentially giving NexInter the appearance of bustling trade but in reality displaying the transactions of more than 300 exchanges just like NexInter.

The company also offers a token – confusingly stylised within the same paragraph as both the ‘NextInter Token’ and the ‘NexInter Token’ – which allows individuals to “purchase security tokens under the same conditions as professional investors and secure the current and future benefits of being among the first to join.”

The company website lists 12 offices across three continents, although nothing in Africa. It appears likely that these are physical entities in name only – registered in a country at a lawyer or accountant’s office, but holding no presence beyond a signature or two on a piece of paper.

One of NextHash’s two listed London premises is in a co-working space; the other is a small accounting firm on a suburban street nestled between an art gallery specialising in Iranian art and a backpacker hostel. 

It appears that the company founder and majority shareholder Ana Bencic is herself based in London, and has had mixed success in other start-ups. According to Slovenian website – with credit to Kate Wagner writing for Cyclingnews for digging it up – 10 of the 11 companies of which Bencic is listed as a “founder, director or procurator have blocked or closed current accounts.” 

NextHash and Bencic were in the news after the company reportedly defaulted on a £2.5 million (US$3.5 million / AU$4.6 million) angel investment in British firm SkillsMatter, with the SkillsMatter founders later saying its eventual insolvency was a direct outcome of NextHash’s failure to come through with the promised funds. 

Lack of solvency appears to be an ongoing concern for NextHash. As of last year, NextHash Tech Limited accounts listed £4.9 million (US$6.8 million / AU$9 million) in liabilities, net assets of -£3.1 million (US$-4.3 million / AU$-5.7 million), a net worth of -£4 million (US$-5.5 million / AU$-7.3 million) and a cash balance of £40 (US$55 / AU$73). 

A lot can change in business over a year, though, and NextHash is making (some of) the right noises. But, again, a five-year title sponsorship of a WorldTour cycling team presumably runs to millions of dollars, and it’s difficult to see a path to the necessary financial stability on the basis of the above figures.

One possibility is that NextHash is sponsoring the team not in cold hard currency but value-in-kind NexInter Tokens – which seems a slightly dicey proposition in that the tokens only have any value if the market perceives them as having value, which sponsorship of Team Qhubeka could help bolster. In somewhat fewer words I asked that question of NextHash, and did not receive a response. 

Question marks and a bigger problem

Team Qhubeka is one of the more precarious teams in a sport that has a precarious relationship with sponsorship, occasionally leading to sub-optimal partnerships. Of the teams Qhubeka-NextHash is rubbing shoulders with this Tour de France, four are title-sponsored by countries with questionable human rights records.

As if to underscore this, in the same week as the announcement of NextHash’s arrival in the peloton, BikeExchange inked a deal with an arm of the Saudi Arabian government, citing – you guessed it – “mutual respect and alignment of values”. Saudi Arabia loves a bit of sportswashing, but is one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, infamously tortured and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and stands accused of war crimes in Yemen where its actions have caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. 

On the continuum of war criminals to windowframe manufacturers, NextHash is in itself fairly innocuous.

It’s a little company with more offices than employees in a bleeding-edge industry that has big ambitions to take cryptocurrency to Africa. But there are question marks – so many question marks – and if the sponsorship falls over, it will be dozens of cyclists and team staff left picking up the pieces.

So what’s the story behind NextHash? I don’t know. Do you? More to the point, does Team Qhubeka?

Thanks to Tom Lynch for assistance with this article.

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