FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — The prince behind Bahrain-Merida, the first WorldTour team registered in the Middle East, has confirmed the squad will continue beyond 2019 and its original three-year plan.
General manager Brent Copeland explained that Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa pulled him aside to confirm the continuation of the team sponsored by the island state in the Persian Gulf that features Vincenzo Nibali on its roster.
“He’s always made it clear that he’s been pleased with the team, the response it’s had, the way the team is promoting the sport, well-being and healthy lifestyles,” Copeland told VeloNews.
“He didn’t say it, but I think it’s been a bigger surprise than what he expected. He had always made it clear that he wants to continue beyond 2019, but then to hear it at the annual gathering was something else.”
At the gathering in the royal complex over the weekend, Nasser presented the 2018 team along with Taiwanese co-sponsor Merida one year after its debut.
Nibali led the squad through 2017 with the Stelvio stage win and third place overall in the Giro d’Italia. He won a stage and finished second in the Vuelta a España, which may actually become a victory depending on Chris Froome’s ongoing anti-doping case.
“We started with a three-year project in mind, but we will continue to support the team beyond 2019,” Nasser told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“The impact of this experience on our country has been excellent. I’m not talking just about results, but a change in lifestyle for the population. Now we have people cycling and participating in sport in general. And Bahrain is much more known in the world.
“In this country, there are many young cyclists. I’m faithful that not so far from now, you’ll see one of them wearing our team jersey.”
Copeland has traveled back and forth several times from Milan to Bahrain’s capital of Manama to meet with team officials. At the annual gathering, he stopped to take note of the impact after the first year.
“It’s definitely true that the team had an impact in Bahrain,” continued Copeland. “Cycling’s on the rise in Bahrain, the PowerUp magazine got into organizing events now. Half-marathons, kids sporting events, the cycle ride last Friday, all kinds of different events. Obviously, the impact of Nasser’s team is impressive.
“What I noticed on the Friday ride was the young riders, more 15-year-olds and in that age range riding compared to the fan turnout one year ago.
“What Nasser found in the first years was that people would talk about Bahrain and the Formula One race, the first one in the Middle East, then in the triathlon team and race, now it’s the half-Ironman and our WorldTour team.”
Longer-term planning is taking root with the rich island state, a quarter of the size of Rhode Island, giving its backing. Copeland said that contracts now can easily be signed with new riders wanting multi-year deals. Before, the future beyond 2019 was unclear.
“We have Nibali at least through 2020, once we understand his plans, we will work around that,” Copeland added.
“To have that initial three-year project is fantastic, we are in our second year, and once the season starts, you start thinking about the next year. Riders want to sign on multiple-year contracts, and to have that security helps us bring on riders.”
After his third in the Giro and second in the Vuelta, Nibali will return to the Tour de France this summer to try to add to his 2014 title.
“Our goal for this year,” said Nasser, “is to get Nibali to step up on the podium of the Tour de France.”