FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali says that had Italian backers showed “courage” then he could have based his new team at home; instead his new outfit is from Bahrain.
The Sicilian, winner of all three grand tours, pitched the idea of a new mega-team to sponsors such as pasta giant Barilla, but Bahrain came calling instead.
Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa invited Nibali to his island in the Persian Gulf, and now, with the WorldTour license granted Friday, they have a team.
“The idea of creating a new group was my wish, there have been many rumors but few concrete facts,” Nibali told Tutto Bici.
“In Italy, we explored options, tried to send messages but no one really came forward. The best route forward was this [Bahrain].
“In our country no one has had the courage to bet on a WorldTour team, it is a difficult time for the economy and many companies even if they fit, as Barilla [Paolo Barilla is a big fan], are unwilling to make a investment of this type, also for marketing reasons.”
Italy’s crisis and lack of courage means it will be without a top team next season for the first time in modern cycling history. Liquigas/Cannondale pulled out in 2014 and Lampre – Merida took up a Chinese sponsor with a Chinese WorldTour license expected.
The best Italian teams race in the second division: Bardiani – CSF, Androni Giocattoli, Wilier – Southeast, and Nippo – Vini Fantini.
The UCI already had a top teams from Central Asia like Astana and Katusha, but never one from the Middle East. Bahrain, smaller than Rhode Island, sits in the Persian Gulf and ranks in the top-20 of the world’s richest nations.
“One day, two years ago. I received an invitation to spend some days in Bahrain, before the Dubai Tour, with Prince of Bahrain Hamad bin Nasser. He’s a triathlete/cycling fan who wanted to meet me and ride with me,” Nibali explained.
“It did not cost anything being away from home for a few days more and I had never receive such a proposal, therefore I considered it important to respond yes. From that meeting, the team was born.”
Former Lampre bicycle supplier and sponsor, Taiwan’s Merida signed to provide bikes and help fund Nibali’s project. His agent Alex Carera left the agency business to his brother and nephew to operate the team. Brent Copeland, formerly with Lampre, will guide the team into its debut season.
The road to 2017 was not always smooth. Bahrain’s bid for a cycling team with the country’s past political problems, including the 2011 anti-government protests, raised concerns. After the UCI announced that it had received a WorldTour license Friday, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) sent out a protest letter.
It wrote, “When sports start allowing rights-abusing states to adopt and name their teams, then they lose the right to claim that ‘sport transcends’ politics.” Its UCI letter “refers to allegations of torture, and the abuse and sanctioning of athletes which occurred under Prince Nasser’s watch as a senior sports authorities official.”
The group is wrong, says Bahrain. “Any allegations from certain groups are entirely false,” The prince’s executive office told VeloNews this summer. “They emanate from an ill-targeted attempt to ventilate damaging allegations against Sheikh Nasser as part of a wider political campaign against the Kingdom of Bahrain.”
Nibali will debut in the team’s colors in January with the new Tour de San Juan, in Argentina. He will race the Abu Dhabi Tour before returning to Italy for the Tirreno-Adriatico and a build-up to the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia.
He said, “It will be the main objective of the season.”