FLORENCE, Italy (VN) – The new 2017 year will see a dramatic Middle Eastern shift. The region debuts in the top WorldTour series with not one, but two teams: Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali, this year’s Giro d’Italia victor, heads the new Bahrain-Merida team with money coming from the small island in the Persian Gulf. It was set to be the first, and only, top-level team from the Middle East until the U.A.E., across the gulf to the east, adopted the TJ Sport-Lampre project in the 11th hour last week.
Out of the 18 WorldTour teams, the U.S. counts three, and Belgium and Germany each have two. Italy, once a top player – and without Lampre – has no team for 2017.
“We are called UAE Abu Dhabi, the nation’s team,” general manager Giuseppe Saronni told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “We are proud. For the first time we don’t have a sponsor’s name on the jersey, but the name of a nation.
“We went from a family team to a national team. Our investors believe in this project, and it’s not just going to be a short term one.”
Saronni’s team roster includes South African Louis Meintjes, eighth overall in the Tour de France, former world champion Rui Costa and Brit Ben Swift.
The team’s heart remains Italian after 20-plus years as Lampre. The cyclists will race on Colnago bicycles mounted with Campagnolo group sets.
The U.A.E.’s white, green, red and black will color the team’s jersey. The team will be officially presented it in Abu Dhabi January 4, days before Nibali and his team-mates gather for an official presentation in Bahrain.
The capital city Abu Dhabi provides its name and financial backing. Matar Suhail al Yabhouni al Dhaheri, president of a real estate group in the Arab state jumped in when Saronni failed to secure his Chinese backer.
“A couple of years ago, our sponsor contact, Mauro Gianetti, had become friends with Matar,” Saronni said. “Matar has a true passion for cycling. He and Gianetti saw each other often and spoke about a cycling project.
“[Gianetti] went to see the last Moto GP on November 27, when he presented Matar our project. In 10 days we decided everything. Maybe the time constraint helped because there wasn’t even time to think. Either you took the opportunity or everything failed.”
The opportunity allows for the Middle East to establish a WorldTour stronghold. Though the region lacks top-level cyclists, it has races and teams. Already for years, tours ran through Qatar and Oman, and more recently, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. After two editions, the UCI granted WorldTour status for the Abu Dhabi Tour.
The stronghold came partly thanks to the world championships held in October this year in Doha, Qatar.
The only black spot is this week’s news that the Tour of Qatar folded after 15 years.