Road

Will Nibali abandon Astana for new Middle Eastern team?

A Bahraini team is quietly taking shape, and the squad is reportedly targeting Vincenzo Nibali and a spot in the WorldTour.

MILAN (VN) — A new team from the Middle East island nation of Bahrain is quietly taking shape with eyes on Vincenzo Nibali and the UCI WorldTour. In these days, Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa is reportedly sorting out sponsors and the team’s management.

The prince announced in February he is starting a top-level team via his Instagram account:

Its real!!! I would like to officially announce the birth of Bahrain cycling team. Our main effort is to introduce the cycling sport, encourage and support young athletes, to maintain a healthy life style in our region, and to compete with the best teams in the world. احب اعلن عن انشاء فريق البحرين للدراجات الهوائيه. مهمتنا الرئيسيه هي نشر الوعي و تعريف منطقتنا عن هذه الرياضه و تهيئة و دعم الابطال الصغار للمستقبل و نشر الثقافه لسلك نمط الحياه الصحيه و ايضاً منافسة اكبر الفرق العالميه لرفع اسم مملكة البحرين عالياً.

A photo posted by nasser13hamad (@nasser13hamad) on Feb 17, 2016 at 10:11pm PST

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Prince Nasser had been linked with Bjarne Riis’s new team and with team Tinkoff, but it appears he will begin a team from scratch and apply for a WorldTour license for 2017. One or possibly two spots will be open, with Oleg Tinkov folding his Tinkoff team and IAM Cycling’s future uncertain.

If it happens, the UCI would have its first WorldTour team from the Middle East after seeing the region host top-level events like the Tour of Qatar and the Abu Dhabi Tour. To make it possible, Slovenian Erzen Milan has been reaching out to cycling agents and companies.

Milan raced for several years and opened a development center in Slovenia. Prince Nasser reportedly was impressed and asked Milan to come to his island in the Persian Gulf to construct state-of-the-art stables for his million-dollar race horses. Now, Milan is focused on million-dollar cyclists.

Nibali has won all three grand tours, including the 2014 Tour de France. He is taking aim at winning his second Giro d’Italia title next month. Nibali’s contract is up at the end of this season and he could earn around $4 million a year for his next contract. Initial reports linked him to Trek – Segafredo, but general manager Luca Guercilena said Nibali decided to ride for Bahrain. The only other option would be for Nibali to renew his contract with Astana.

“Due to the elections in Kazakhstan, [Astana general manager] Alexandre Vinokourov has been busy,” Nibali’s agent Alex Carera told VeloNews. “We are going to discus a contract renewal option with him when he returns.”

The team could ride Specialized, which would sweeten the deal for Nibali because he has used the American bikes since he joined Astana in 2013. Canyon could be another option for the prince’s new venture.

Nibali’s group would also likely make the jump, including teammates Alessandro Vanotti and Valerio Agnoli, masseur Michele Pallini, and trainer Paolo Slongo. Giuseppe Martinelli could switch from being team manager at Astana to Bahrain.

Carera could become the team’s operations manager or general manager, but he would not comment on those reports. If that is the case, he would need to leave the agency business to his brother Johnny. If so, Peter Sagan would likely not join the Bahraini team as he is under the Careras’ rival agent Giovanni Lombardi.

Any Nibali news will not be official until August 1, when cyclists may freely announce their new contracts. What is certain for now is that Prince Nasser is planning to put Bahrain on the cycling map.