FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Bahrain-Merida, the WorldTour’s first Middle Eastern team, will try to win its first Tour de France next month. It announced on Wednesday that Vincenzo Nibali will lead the team with a strong support roster. At the same time, the squad is beefing up for the 2019 season with Wout Van Aert, Rohan Dennis, and others appearing on its radar.
Nibali will have support from Domenico Pozzovivo, Gorka Izagirre, Ion Izagirre, Franco Pellizotti, Heinrich Haussler, Sonny Colbrelli, and Kristjan Koren. The Sicilian and 2014 Tour de France winner will face rivals including Chris Froome (Sky), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).
“I’m very happy to go back to the Tour,” Nibali said. “I liked the route right from the start and the charm of the Grand Boucle is indisputable. I’m going to France with a lot of serenity and with the knowledge that I have done everything possible to achieve the best result.
“The team that will be with me in France is one of the strongest ever. We will be competitive on all kinds of routes: from the climbs to the time trial. I am convinced that we will entertain our fans and the millions of cycling fans who will follow the Tour.”
Nibali took control of the 2014 Tour with a stage win in Sheffield and a dominating ride over the wet and muddy Roubaix cobbles. In the mountains, he climbed with the legs that previously won the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España.
Aside from the mountains, the 2018 Tour route features two things that Nibali will like: a minimal amount of time trial kilometers and 21.7km of cobbles in the ninth stage to Roubaix. Nibali promised the new Bahraini team over the 2016-2017 winter that he would race the Tour again in 2018. First, he wanted to compete in the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia, where he placed third behind Tom Dumoulin and Nairo Quintana.
The Tour “is not all about the results, it’s important to make for three weeks of a great sporting spectacle for all to enjoy,” general manager Brent Copeland said.
“Thanks to our fantastic partners and professional, hard-working staff, we have been able to cover every aspect of the race preparation in order to get to the start of the race in the best condition without denying anything, not only the physical condition of the athletes but also the organization of the team in order to create the great image which we have proudly created in the past few years.”
With Franco Pellizotti likely to retire this season and with a desire to build the team’s classics squad, Copeland is already shopping around for 2019.
“We definitely want to strengthen the classics team, that’s why we are talking to Wout Van Aert and were talking to Greg Van Avermaet. We’d like to cover that area were we lacked,” Copeland told VeloNews.
“We’d like to bring in a young GC rider, but what young GC riders are out there at the moment? We could also use another strong climbing helper. Pellizotti will probably stop, so we need a strong climber next to Vincenzo.”
With BMC Racing still searching for a replacement sponsor, classics star Greg Van Avermaet and the team’s other riders are on the market. Van Avermaet, however, is asking for a large sum of money, which is part of the reason Copeland has made an offer to 23-year-old Belgian Wout Van Aert.
The three-time cyclocross world champion debuted in the big road classics in 2018, placing third in Strade Bianche, ninth in the Tour of Flanders, and 13th in Paris-Roubaix. He still has one year left with Veranda’s Willems-Crelan, but he is considering switching teams.
“He has a contract through 2019 so it’s complicated,” Copeland added. “I’m not saying it’s impossible for 2019, though.”
Copeland would not confirm it, but Bahrain-Merida is said to have signed Australian Rohan Dennis. Dennis wore the pink jersey and won the long time trial stage in the 2018 Giro d’Italia.
“We are in our third year. Prince Nasser is happy,” said Copeland of the team he helped create with Nibali and the prince of the small island state of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
“We won around 15 or 16 times this year, the results are good. We are happy with the number, but we want to win more WorldTour races. In the future, we also want to make the team more solid for those kind of races and we are building for that.”