FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali begins a new era Monday in Argentina with the team created from a chance bike ride in the Middle East.
The Italian winner of all three grand tours, including the 2016 Giro d’Italia, heads the Bahrain – Merida team with backing from the Bahraini royal family. It is cycling’s first WorldTour team from the Middle East, and it all began after Nibali visited the tiny Persian Gulf island ahead of the 2015 Dubai Tour.
“When you’re with him, you can see that he is a great man,” Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa said when VeloNews visited Bahrain.
“Every champion should be like Nibali because he is very humble of his achievements. He offers help when you ask. He is straightforward.”
Nibali raced for teams Liquigas/Cannondale and Astana, He won the Vuelta a España in 2010, the Tour de France in 2014, and the Giro d’Italia twice, in 2013 and in 2016.
The Bahrain squad debuted last week in the Santos Tour Down Under, but Nibali begins his season Monday at the Tour de San Juan in the team’s red, blue, and gold colors.
The team essentially took root in February 2015. Nibali’s agent Alex Carera is friends with Milan Erzen, a former Slovenian professional cyclist who helped the prince with his horse stables. The prince’s horses use thin-air oxygen tents for training that Erzen designed.
With the prince’s new passion for cycling, Erzen asked Carera if Nibali would make the short trip to Bahrain ahead of the Dubai Tour. As the prince prepared to train one day, he was surprised when he looked up to see Erzen arrive with Nibali.
“I’ve worked my way up in endurance horse races. I’m the bronze medalist in the world championships. Horses are my passion, my No. 1 passion,” said the prince.
“In time, I realized that I needed a sport that required 100 percent effort. Sometimes when I’m beaten by another rider it could be that he’s not better me but that his horse is better. That made me consider cycling.”
Prince Nasser has competed in Ironman triathlons around the world, but riding for four hours with a grand tour star was different.
“It was my first ride without an iPod. Between asking questions and getting my breath back, it was a struggle, but Nibali explained everything about cycling. It was an incredible ride.”
Erzen and Nasser had been talking about a team. At that point, the idea of a Bahraini team took off.
“Milan said, ‘If this is what you really want, then we need to work seriously.’ Exactly one year ago, last January, we said, ‘OK, let’s go, let’s do it.’ We looked for sponsors and made everything secure.”
Erzen made calls to those he knew in Slovenia. Carera decided to leave his agency to his brother and join the team. They contacted Vladimir Miholjevic to be a sport director. Through his connections in Croatia from organizing the national tour, they made more hires.
Nibali, the team’s star, was the first rider signing the team announced. For its debut season, the team now has 27 cyclists, mostly a mix of Italians, Slovenians, and Croatians.
Money comes from Bahrain, through the prince’s connections with the local companies, and from Taiwanese bike manufacturer Merida. The budget is around $18.5 million for 2017, which should be a modest enough amount to support the team’s goal of winning the Giro with Nibali.
“Some countries pay a lot of money for a couple of seconds on television for a pop-up advertisement, but we don’t want these 10 or 30 seconds. We want five or six hours every day, and cycling gives us this opportunity,” Nasser explained.
“My dream is to have another star, or stars, in the team. I think team Sky is one of the best teams because they have all the stars. Chris Froome is one of the legends in this game. I said we know Nibali and he’s a legend, let’s start with him now.”
The prince and the team fought a host of criticisms that suggested they should not have a racing license based on allegations of torture during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
The team, which has an initial backing of three years, is now one of 18 WorldTour teams for the 2017 season. It is the first top team from the Middle East, a region which celebrated its second outfit when Abu Dhabi took over Lampre’s sponsorship.