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Bahrain – Merida to UCI: Keep 18 teams in the WorldTour

The new squad registered in the Middle East is vying with several others for a spot in cycling's top level.

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MILAN (VN) — Bahrain – Merida says it is confident about debuting in the UCI WorldTour next year, but it wants to see cycling’s governing body keep 18 teams at the top level instead of cutting it to 17. The current squads are racing for points before the 2016 season closes while they head into the unknown.

South African Brent Copeland, who managed Lampre – Merida over the last three years, accepted the general manager role this summer on the new Bahraini team from the Persian Gulf. Part of his immediate concern is making sure the team, which will include Vincenzo Nibali from team Astana, holds a 2017 WorldTour license instead of one as a lower-ranked Pro Continental team.

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“The license situation is good,” Copeland said during a quiet moment near his home on Italy’s Lake Como.

“All the registration process is moving forward as we planned. We don’t have definite answers from the UCI, none of the teams do because we are all going through the same process waiting on the license commission.”

If successful, the Bahrain – Merida team would become the first Middle East team in the WorldTour. The team is building with several top riders and preparing its WorldTour application for the UCI.

All teams must make a series of deadlines in their WorldTour applications. Registration files are due October 3 and by early November, the UCI license commission should decide. The teams, including those currently in the WorldTour, must apply.

It becomes trickier with a new elimination and promotion system that the governing body wants to introduce that’s based on WorldTour points. The idea is that the lowest-ranked team would lose its spot to the highest placed Pro Continental team for the next season.

This winter, the sport’s top organizer ASO is putting pressure on the UCI to make a planned reduction in teams from 18 to 17. Currently, IAM Cycling and Dimension Data sit at the bottom of the rankings. With IAM Cycling folding, though, that leaves Dimension Data worrying. The question is, however, does Dimension Data keep its ranking for the evaluation or move to the 16th spot with Tinkoff, currently in second place, also folding. If Dimension Data stays put, there would be a three-way battle with Bahrain – Merida and German team Bora – Hansgrohe, which is asking for a promotion from the Pro Continental division after Peter Sagan joined.

“It’s two different ways of interpreting the rules. At the moment, it doesn’t seem very clear on how the rules for the 17 teams will be applied,” Copeland said.

“Points-wise, we are there with Bora. The problem is that it becomes a race to see who’s going to get enough points to get the 17th spot because one team will be left out.

“Leaving it at 18 teams is the fairest for everyone. No one wants that Dimension Data is put out of the WorldTour just because of this rule. At the same time, no one wants important sponsors like Bora and Bahrain – Merida to be left out. What would it change for cycling if there are 18 instead of 17 teams?”

ASO wants more control on which teams come to its WorldTour-ranked races like Paris-Roubaix, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the Tour de France. In the Tour, for example, ASO would be able to invite five wildcard teams, instead of four, from the Pro Continental ranks if the WorldTour teams were limited to 17. However, one selection would seem obvious if Dimension Data fell into the lower ranks, since the South African information technology company also sponsors ASO’s races.

Copeland spoke confidently, though. He can afford to do so with backing from a group of Bahraini businesses, like the BAPCO Petroleum Company and the world’s second largest bicycle manufacturer, Merida. They are helping Copeland and his group present their application to the UCI.

The group is growing quickly. In addition to announcing contracts for cyclists like Nibali, the team created its service headquarters base near Milan, signed a clothing deal with Sportful, and hired experienced sport directors Gorazd Stangelj (from Astana) and Tristan Hoffman (Tinkoff). Almost everything is in place. Now it just needs a racing license.