The news from China of an agreement between the owners of the Lampre-Merida cycling team and TJ Sport Consultation confirms that the first-ever Chinese WorldTour team is set to be established for 2017. The team will have investment from China combined with the know-how and experience of the CGS Cycling company that manages the current Lampre-Merida team.
Details concerning the agreement are scarce, with information in an official statement vague and the consequences of the agreement still to be fully understood. One thing is certain: the arrival of the Chinese investment means there will not be an Italian team in the 2017 WorldTour.
The Chinese team's title sponsor has yet to be revealed but is expected to come from China as the country looks to invest in and programme the long term development of Chinese riders, the Chinese cycling industry and even cycling as a means of transport in China. After Team Sky was created to boost cycling in Great Britain and Katusha was created to nurture Russian riders, China has put plans in place to boost its presence in the sport at the highest level.
There are conflicting reports on who will be on the Chinese team's 2017 roster, the name of the team's bike sponsor and other sponsors. Merida has already been confirmed as a key partner of the new Bahrain team. Colnago and Fuji have been linked to the Chinese team as possible bike sponsor but none have confirmed their arrival. The bike sponsor is likely to emerge during next week's Eurobike show in Germany. It seems that the team clothing will be produced by the Hong kong-based Champion System brand that has been involved in the deal between CGS Cycling and TJ Sport Consultation.
The Lampre team has been backed for many years by the Galbusera family that own the Lampre company. Their laminated metal business did not need the visibility offered by the team but the family bankrolled the team for their passion for cycling, often attending the biggest races on the calendar. Their involvement in professional cycling and the team has still to be confirmed. They could stay as a sponsor or step down to Continental level. However, it seems certain the iconic blue-fuchsia colours will disappear from the professional peloton.
How a major Chinese team affects the current peloton
The arrival of a major professional Chinese team in 2017 will have a domino effect in the current peloton, helping some riders secure better contracts but hitting other teams' plans and ambitions for 2017.
There were initial reports that TJ Sport Consultation had bought the CGS Cycling and so the Lampre-Merida team. However, Cyclingnews understands the current management company of the Lampre-Merida team will continue to manage to the new Chinese team due to contractual needs for continuity. All the rider contracts with CGS Cycling for 2017 are expected to be valid, facilitating the team as it works to secure a place in the WorldTour.
Mauro Gianetti has been named as the coordinator of the project, with Giuseppe Saronni expected to work as manager of the professional team. Former manager Brent Copeland has moved to the new Bahrain Merida team and ended his ties with the Lampre squad.
During the presentation of the agreement in China, the UCI WorldTour official logo was often on show but the agreement with CGS Cycling, Saronni and Gianetti does not automatically put the team in the 2017 WorldTour. The drawn out UCI reform process and the agreement with Tour de France organiser ASO on the structure of the new WorldTour means there will be just 17 WorldTour places in 2017, with the number likely to fall to just 16 in 2018.
The arrival of the Chinese investment means there are likely to be 18 teams chasing the 17 places up for grabs in 2017. The Tinkoff and IAM Cycling teams are set to fold at the end of this season, but Bora, with the arrival of news sponsor Hansgrohe and Peter Sagan as team leader, are expected to push for a place in the WorldTour, as will the new Bahrain Merida team. The fight for the 17 places means that one of the new teams or one of the current low ranked WorldTour teams could miss out on a WorldTour spot.
The UCI has not revealed details of the selection process, but Cyclingnews understands the best-ranked 16 teams at the end of the 2016 season will be given precedence as long as they meet certain ethical and economical standards. The other teams will fight for the remaining place for 2017 or have to accept a Professional Continental licence and hope to secure wildcard invitations to the Tour de France and other major races.
The team ranking is calculated on the best five-ranked riders on each team's roster. A total of around 500 points is expected to secure a team a place in the top 16 of the WorldTour team ranking. Dimension Data is currently ranked 18th with 250 points, with Cannondale-Drapac 16th with 306 points. Rider points will be vital for places in the 2017 WorldTour and perhaps explain why the Saronni moved quickly to secure Diego Ulissi's services for another two years before flying to China to sign the deal with TJ Sport Consultation. The Tuscan is currently 17th in the UCI world ranking and will go a long way to secure the Chinese team a place in the WorldTour.
Bahrain Merida forced to look elsewhere
The deal between Saronni/Gianetti/CGS Cycling and the TJ Sport Consultation is a blow to the teams hoping to sign riders from the current Lampre team.
If the team had struggled to secure sufficient WorldTour sponsorship and instead registered for Professional Continental status, riders would have had to break their contracts with CGS Cycling and move elsewhere. The Bahrain Merida team had apparently been hoping to pick up a number of the Lampre-Merida riders, including South Africa's Louis Meintjes, Matej Mohoric and several Italians. They will remain under contract now and may only move if they resolve their contract with CGS Cycling.
As a consequence, Bahrain-Merida may have to consider other options and other riders as it looks to complete its roster for 2017 and fight for its own place in the WorldTour. The team has so far confirmed the arrival of team leader Vincenzo Nibali, Giovanni Visconti, Manuele Boaro, Borut Božič and Kanstantin Siutsou. Twenty other riders will be needed for a full WorldTour roster.