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Nibali: ‘The Bahrain team isn’t just my team’

Vincenzo Nibali gears up to start the new year with a new team, and insists he's just one of several talents on the roster

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FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali is the biggest star cyclist this week at Bahrain – Merida’s pre-season team gathering in Croatia, but he insists it “isn’t just my team.”

The 25-man squad will form the Middle-East’s first top-level team when it debuts in 2017. The Italian Tour de France winner and reigning Giro d’Italia champion, along with agent Alex Carera, helped make the team come true.

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“The time in Croatia serves to know everyone,” Nibali told VeloNews. “The team is there, the name, but we still build everything for 2017.

“The Bahrain team isn’t just my team. The calendar is so big, so you can’t just say it’s my team, you need one rider here or there. We have many riders with their own goals.

“The team has goals at the international level, they signed me to lead Bahrain – Merida in the big stage races.”

The team also convinced Joaquím Rodríguez to make a U-turn and cancel retirement plans. Rodríguez could help lead in the Ardennes Classics and give Nibali additional firepower in the Giro or Tour. Afterwards, the 37-year-old Spaniard will transition from rider to mentor.

Nibali may need to brush up on his Spanish because the team also welcomed Ion Izagirre, who left his Movistar contract early. The 27-year-old won a stage in the Tour, placed second in the Tour de Suisse, third in the Tour de Romandie, and fifth in Paris-Nice this year.

“There are no longer just Italian teams. Like in team Astana, it wasn’t just a Kazakh team,” Nibali added. “Liquigas, OK, that was true Italian team. There was a big feeling among us, we’d grown up together and that team was there with the ProTour took off. Now it’s the WorldTour, truly a global setup with teams from around the world.”

The team will not include any Bahraini cyclists, but it could visit the small Persian Gulf island during the 2017 season to promote the sport.

“In the future we will be hosting events for our pro cyclists and continuing with regular events to encourage amateurs to take part in all types of sports, not just cycling,” Bahrain’s prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa told VeloNews.

“It is a personal passion of mine to provide opportunities for the people of Bahrain to pursue different sports at different levels — be that running, football, swimming, or cycling.”

A group of Bahraini businesses like Bahrain Petroleum Company, BAPCO, and the world’s second largest bicycle manufacturer Merida made the team a reality. One hurdle remains: a license.

The UCI license committee is expected to hand out 18 WorldTour licenses for 2017 after threatening to cut the top league to 17. Bahrain with Rodríguez has the most points out of candidate teams Bora – Hansgrohe and Dimension Data, but uncertainty remains.

“It’s an important team and we have quality riders, so for [the] license we should be OK,” Nibali continued. “The license is important, but it’s not like it’s our ambition to win the WorldTour ranking.

“It’s a beautiful team, from the Middle East. It’s a new world and it continues to develop. Right now, maybe at races in Qatar and Abu Dhabi you don’t see many fans, but you see people online following via websites and social media, or TV. The races reach around the world.”