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Nibali contract talks ‘on hold’ in wake of blockbuster McLaren deal

Negotiations with Nibali on hold while team finalize details with new partner, who return to cycling following previous involvement with Team Sky and Specialized.

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The blockbuster deal to add the McLaren Group as an ongoing partner with Bahrain-Merida put contract extension talks on hold with Italian superstar Vincenzo Nibali.

Team officials said that negotiations to keep Nibali in a Bahrain-Merida jersey beyond 2019 have been shelved temporarily while the details of the arrival of its high-profile new partner McLaren are finalized.

“The negotiations have been put on hold with the McLaren deal,” said general manager Brent Copeland. “With the new partnership coming on board, we preferred to wait.”

Copeland underscored there is mutual interest from both sides to extend Nibali’s contract, but said the expansive talks with the McLaren Group — which joins as a permanent, long-term partner in a 50-percent joint venture announced earlier this month — meant contract negotiations were put on ice until the deal was complete.

The Bahrain-Merida team was founded in 2017, with Nibali at the gravitational center of the squad. Nibali’s natural first choice would be to stay with the team that was founded in part based on his close relationship with Bahrain’s Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa dating back to 2015.

Nibali’s current contract ends in 2019, and the Italian superstar has indicated that he’d like to race at least through 2021. Copeland said negotiations should resume in January after the holiday season.

“We are in talks with Vincenzo and we’d love him to stay on board,” Copeland said in a telephone interview. “He wants to stay. It’s a team that was formed around him and it would be nice for him to end his career here.”

Copeland said the McLaren deal is a “game-changer,” but said the impact will be felt less so financially than with the knowledge and experience the UK-based global brand can bring to cycling. Insiders at Bahrain-Merida are energized by the arrival of the McLaren Group and its renowned expertise across technology, sports science, and marketing that it can bring the team.

“It’s a game-changer simply from the fact they are partners in the company, not just a title sponsor,” Copeland said. “To have such an important brand to become partners gives a completely different aspect to running of the team. It’s not just about a sponsorship or visibility, this is a partnership first.”

McLaren, which also owns the famous Formula 1 racing team, is no stranger to cycling. Its partnership with Bahrain-Merida marks its return to the peloton following earlier involvement with Team Sky as well as with Specialized.

No financial details of the McLaren deal were revealed and the team will remain branded as Bahrain-Merida in 2019. The announcement of McLaren’s arrival was overshadowed when it came on the same day that Sky confirmed it was ending its backing of Team Sky at the conclusion of next season.

The arrival of the McLaren Group — in which Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund holds a majority stake — coupled with confirmation this summer of additional financial backing from Bahrain’s crown prince fortifies the team’s future well beyond 2019.

As negotiations with Nibali are poised to resume, the Italian superstar has revealed an attempt at the Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double will be at the center of his 2019 racing calendar. Nibali will debut at the new UAE Tour in February and defend his title at Milano-Sanremo in March before ramping up for the Giro in May.