MILAN (VN) — Italy’s last remaining top cycling team is turning Chinese. Lampre – Merida will receive the majority of its sponsorship from China for 2017, license itself there, and will apply to become the country’s first WorldTour team.
The link to Italy, one of cycling’s heartlands, remains with manager Giuseppe Saronni, riders such as Diego Ulissi, and likely new bike sponsor Colnago. Saronni, after returning from China to sign the agreement with China’s 292nd richest person Li Zhiqiang, explained the details to La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“It was inevitable that there wouldn’t be an Italian WorldTour team,” Saronni told the paper. “I’ve been saying this for four or five years. There are 1,000 reasons, but the companies aren’t there or don’t have the money to invest in cycling. So, we have to be smart to keep Italian cycling going with outside resources.”
Saronni went to the Far East. He already had links with Chinese cyclists and clothing sponsor Champion System. He needed money and China needed cycling.
“They have to invest in a social program, and the cycling team is only the latest of their initiatives. The goal is clear: to get the Chinese back on their bikes,” Saronni said. “Wherever you go there, you find a mass of cars. They have to address the problem of pollution, obesity that’s on the rise, and dreadful traffic. They are studying a project of 1,000 miles of bike lanes.
“The government decides everything there, and in our case the sports ministry. We don’t have a deal directly with a sponsor but with the TJ Sport society, which is a specifically created fund to bring in money.”
Li Zhiqiang is managing the fund, which has money coming in from clothing store J-One and Wanda Sport, the latter of which is already entering cycling with Infront Sports & Media and wanted to buy RCS Sport’s Giro d’Italia and other races last winter.
Saronni is calling his 2017 team TJ – Lampre for now, but it will likely take on a different name with long-time Italian sponsor Lampre, a prefabricated metal company, still in the second sponsor spot.
With an existing license and a spot in the top 16 of the WorldTour rankings, Saronni said he’ll have a WorldTour license for next season. Riders with existing contracts, such as South African Louis Meintjes, who was eighth in the Tour de France, and Italian Sacha Modolo, will remain on the team. Ulissi re-signed and so did 2013 world champion Rui Costa.
The UCI wants to trim the number of WorldTour teams from 18 to 17 for 2017, which could cause a struggle for some. Squads like IAM Cycling and Tinkoff will close, but two others, Bahrain and Bora – Argon 18, want to enter the WorldTour. In theory, one of those two teams or an existing WorldTour team will be sent to the Pro Continental ranks. The UCI’s license commission will decide over the next two months.
Saronni plans to be in the WorldTour with China. He said he’ll take his team there for races and training, and with TJ – Lampre and feeder team Colpack, he will develop Chinese cyclists.