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MILAN (VN) — Team Bahrain – Merida is beefing up for its hopeful WorldTour debut next season with star Vincenzo Nibali. Over the past weeks, the team has announced several new riders for its roster, including Enrico Gasparotto on Friday.
Gasparotto won the Amstel Gold Race in 2012 and again this year. He will leave team Wanty – Groupe Gobert this winter after two years.
“I am happy to be a part of a big project,” he said. “I hope to be an important person to grow up the project in the next years.”
The project took root thanks to Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa and his love for cycling. He invited Nibali over to his Middle East island in the Persian Gulf in February 2015 and the two rode together. From there, the team began to take shape.
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Slovenian Erzen Milan, Nasser’s right-hand man who originally looked after the prince’s horse stables, began making contacts with those he knew from the cycling world.
Nibali’s contract with Astana, which already has grand tour star Fabio Aru, is expiring at the end of this year. The Nibali/Bahrain rumor surfaced in February, but was not confirmed until after the Tour de France.
“I was immediately fascinated by the idea of a strong project plan built around me,” Nibali said. “It has a clear vision and is to be carried out by some of the best professionals in the sport.”
South African Brent Copeland left team Lampre – Merida to manage Bahrain. Along with Copeland, the Taiwanese bike manufacturer made the switch too. That was the big coup that prince Nasser needed, since he did not want to pour too much of his own fortune into the team in its first year.
Merida said it wants success at the “highest level of professional cycling.”
With Merida and Copeland, prince Nasser had a strong footing in cycling and a good reason for cyclists to believe in, and join, his team.
Officially, the squad now counts 11 cyclists: Nibali, Gasparotto, Manuele Boaro (from Tinkoff), Grega Bole (Nippo – Vini Fantini), Borut Bozic (Cofidis), Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani – CSF), Chun Kai Feng (Lampre – Merida), Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling), Luka Pibernik (Lampre – Merida), Kanstantsin Siutsou (Dimension Data), and Giovanni Visconti (Movistar).
The budget should be around 15-18 million euros ($17-20 million). Those on the inside said the weight of the team could be concentrated on the spring classics with Visconti, Gasparotto, and Haussler, and on the Giro with Nibali.
Nibali won the Giro for a second time in May. He has a better chance of winning the Italian grand tour in 2017 than the Tour de France, with likely rivals Chris Froome (Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) also in the mix.
The Bahrain team has hired coach Paolo Slongo, Nibali’s close confidant, along with a doctor, a masseur, and a press officer. It brought in sport directors Gorazd Stangelj from Astana and Tristan Hoffman from Tinkoff.
The team will be based in Italy, but the goal is to become the Middle East’s first WorldTour team. The UCI has limited spots as it is trimming the number of top-level teams from 18 to 17 for 2017, but Bahrain – Merida should make it if the UCI’s license commission goes on points alone. Nibali’s and Gasparotto’s points will help, and over the next weeks, more riders will be announced as the team fills out 25-30 roster spots.
Riders rumored to join include Sergio Henao (Sky), Alan Marangoni (Cannondale – Drapac), Simone Antonini (Verva – ActiveJet), Matteo Tosatto (Tinkoff), and Nibali’s younger brother Antonio (Nippo – Vini Fantini).