Your New Favorite Team: UAE Abu Dhabi

It used to be called Lampre – Merida, then it was TJ Sport. UAE Abu Dhabi has some work to do if it wants to appeal to fans.

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Welcome to the VeloNews 2017 WorldTour fan guide. It’s tough to be a cycling fan. Riders jump around more than a loose cassette. Teams change kits like Sven Nys swaps bikes in a muddy ’cross race. So, here’s a guide to your new favorite team. Don’t like these guys? Stay tuned for more previews.

Your team: The team formerly known as TJ Sport, formerly known as Lampre – Merida, but now, finally (we think!) known as UAE Abu Dhabi.

Your team’s fan base: Abu Dhabi Tour fans (see above); confused soccer fans who thought this was a Premier League team; Garfield the cat (note: NOT Nermal the cat); Italian cycling fans who are too core for Astana or Bahrain.

Your team’s star: If we strictly go off of results, the team’s star looks to be Diego Ulissi, but just writing this sentence makes me feel like I need to take a shower. Ulissi knows how to get “up” for the Giro d’Italia, and has won multiple stages at the Italian race over the years. He won two Giro stages in 2016 and three other smaller races. He is known for having the best worst sprint at the end of uber-long grand tour stages, like the Giro’s 227km stage 10 slog to Asolo. But his true reputation is as the rider who failed an anti-doping test in the 2014 Giro after winning two stages, and then had a long, drawn-out battle with WADA, UCI, MPCC, and probably a few other alphabet soup cycling bodies for about nine months.That was arguably as excruciating as 2015 Giro’s 264km stage 7 to Fiuggi, which Ulissi also won.

Ulissi got dinged after he tested positive for Salbutamol, which every kid with Asthma knows is the active ingredient in the plastic inhaler you give the school nurse at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, Ulissi had twice the allowable limit of Salbutamol in his system, which leads us to believe that perhaps he accidentally inhaled the entire inhaler, instead of simply sucking down two or three quick puffs. Rookie asthma move.

For the sake of prospective UAE Abu Dhabi fans, let’s hope that the team’s true stars turn out to be Colombian Darwin Atapuma or South African Louis Meintjes. Atapuma, 28, was ninth in the 2016 Giro. He has one of the most fun names in pro cycling, because he pronounces it “Darween,” and his BMC teammates simply called him “Puma,” which is a badass and original cycling nickname. Meintjes, 24, was eighth in the Tour later that season and also 10th in the 2015 Vuelta. We love watching him hang tough on those climbs.

Best-case scenario: Will Atapuma or Meintjes win a grand tour in 2017? I mean, if Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, and Nairo Quintana all get hit by a meteorite, it might happen. For UAE, a podium GC finish in the Giro, or probably more realistically, the Vuelta, would be a big achievement for both riders. We’re hoping for that.

Otherwise, it looks like slim pickings for this team, which consists mostly of Italian riders who are slightly too good to settle for a Pro Continental ride with Androni or Bardiani. Ulissi will win one Giro stage, probably stage 18, which is 244km (ouch!). Sacha Modolo, twice a winner at the 2015 Giro, takes a grand tour stage sprint, but it’ll be the Vuelta, since the Giro seems to attract even more sprint stars these days.

After starting the season in super-ugly kits (maybe something like the Footon – Servetto jersey of yore?), the team reintroduces the classic pink and purple look for the Giro. Nostalgic Italian fans go wild. We do too. That Lampre pink/purple color scheme really grew on us over the years.

Photo: Tim De Waele |
Photo: Tim De Waele |

Worst-case scenario: Ulissi gets busted for doping … Again. Atapuma gets steamrolled by a stacked Giro field, with everyone gunning for the 100th maglia rosa. Meintjes can’t pick up where he left off at the Tour, and he’s especially disadvantaged by the route’s comparatively fewer big mountain stages and uphill finishes. Rui Costa keeps doing Rui Costa stuff — near-misses in big races, like he did at Liège – Bastogne – Liège and stage 9 of the 2016 Tour. The team’s UAE backers are embarrassed to lose to regional rival Bahrain – Merida. The team folds at the end of 2017. The team starts the season with ugly kits, and lacks the funding for a redesign for the Tour.

Likability rating: 4/10. UAE Abu Dhabi takes a big hit in this department thanks to Ulissi. It also gets dinged for having a lot of really obscure guys that are hard to root for because, well, who are they? Manuele Mori? Simone Consonni? Simone Petilli? Are these guys extras from “The Godfather?” We will cheer for Atapuma and Meintjes, both of whom are likable as up-and-comers. And Ben Swift has an awesome last name for a cyclist, or any sort of athlete really.