Members of the new Bahrain – Merida team convene this week in Croatia for its first preseason training camp ahead of its 2017 debut.
Among the team’s 25-rider lineup are two riders keen on a fresh start. Ramunas Navardauskas joins after six seasons with the Slipstream franchise, while veteran Australian Heinrich Haussler slots in after four seasons with the folding IAM Cycling. Both say a new start is just what they need.
“Sometimes change is good,” Navardauskas said. “I am looking forward to try new bikes, new mentality, new everything, new races, and hopefully new results.”
[related title=”More on Bahrain – Merida” align=”left” tag=”Bahrain-Merida”]
“I am very, very motivated, and I am happy to new fresh start,” Haussler said. “It was a good four years with IAM, but now it’s a new motivation, and I really want to get the most out of the next two or three years.”
Each join the startup Bahrain team with room to move. The squad’s central focus will be around supporting grand tour captain Vincenzo Nibali, but the team will also want to have a presence in the one-day classics and one-week stage races in a bid to round out its WorldTour aspirations. That’s where riders like Navardauskas and Haussler will fit in nicely.
Each come from different points of their respective careers. Nicknamed the “Honey Badger,” Navardauskas, 28, has raced his entire pro career with Slipstream, where he won stages in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. The 32-year-old Haussler, meanwhile, has bounced around several teams, and joins Bahrain hoping for one last shot at the northern classics.
“They have a massive GC team, and that was also a reason to go there, so I have a bit of a free role in the classics and one-day racing,” Haussler said. “The offer came from Bahrain, so I thought, maybe give it another one or two or three years in the classics.”
Haussler hasn’t won a race since his Australian national title to open the 2015 season, but he posted solid results in the northern classics this year: seventh in Milano-Sanremo and sixth in Paris-Roubaix. Those results harkened back to earlier in his career when he was runner-up at Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders in 2009.
With the collapse of the IAM team this season, Haussler was expecting to slot into a helper’s role for an established classics star at another WorldTour team. Bahrain came with an offer during GP Plouay in September with a chance to have a few more rumbles across the pavé.
“I wouldn’t say I have unfinished business, but the classics are my passion, and they’re the races I love,” Haussler said. “Once it’s over, it’s over. You can’t turn back time and be 20 years old again. I really want to give it my best shot, so when my career is over, I can say, ‘OK, that was it, I did my best, no regrets.’”
Navardauskas, in contrast, is still waiting for that big ride in the classics. A leaner rider who is better fitted for the Ardennes, the tall, gangling Lithuanian said he’s excited about the first major team swap of his career.
“I really enjoyed my time with [Slipstream], and after six years on the team, it was lovely, and I made many friends, and we became like a family,” he said. “Change sometimes is a little bit scary, but a change brings a new stimulus, too. Where I can be useful to the team, whether that is in the classics or in stage races, we will see, but I want to be ready to help the team and get some results for myself or for my teammates.”
Bahrain has tapped a mix of established, veteran riders and a handful of rising talents to make its entrance into the elite peloton. The team is hopeful to gain a WorldTour license for its debut season and recently lured Joaquim Rodríguez out of retirement, in part to tap his UCI points. He was handed a contract that includes an opportunity to stay with the team for two additional years as part of its technical staff.
Navardauskas and Haussler trek to Croatia this week for the team’s first major meeting.
“I’m really excited about the move. They’re a good group of guys,” Haussler said. “Joining a new team is always good for the motivation.”