Ondrej Cink: The accidental WorldTour pro

25-year-old finds himself at Bahrain-Merida after mountain bike career derailed

The members of the new Bahrain-Merida gathered in a conference room of a Croatian hotel at the end of last month and, one-by-one, stood up and introduced themselves to their new colleagues. The likes of Joaquim Rodríguez hardly needed an introduction but when a shy-looking lad stood up and said his name was Ondrej Cink, shouts of "who?" went up around the room.

That might have been the reaction for many – save for the mountain bike aficionados – when Bahrain-Merida announced the signing of the Czech 25-year-old a few weeks ago.

Cink has always dreamed of one day competing in the Tour de France, but he never imagined himself taking up road racing this early – much less finding himself pulling on the same jersey as Vincenzo Nibali, one of only six winners of all three Grand Tours.

"I always watch them on TV and now I'm sitting down to dinner with them," he says of his new companions, speaking to Cyclingnews in Croatia. "It's crazy."

It's crazy, indeed, that Cink, who hasn't raced on the road – save for the odd amateur criterium in the Czech Republic – for the best part of eight years, will find himself in a WorldTour peloton when he kicks off his road career at the Tour Down Under in January.

So how did a young cross country mountain biker – a former U23 world champion and elite Worlds bronze medallist last year – who envisaged himself on the fat tyres and trails for a good two or three more years, wind up with a WorldTour contract?

It all came about because of Merida, the bike brand and co-title sponsor of the Bahrain team. They were also the title sponsor of Cink's mountain bike team, Multivan-Merida, but their investment in the Bahrain team forced them to divert their resources away from mountain biking, and the team is set to fold.

"I tried to search for some new contracts, but I didn't get feedback from any other teams. I had some good results this year, but I couldn't get anything," Cink says.

The lack of options wasn't due to a lack of talent. "Ondrej Cink was the clear number two behind Jaroslav Kulhavy and was our future," Czech national coach Viktor Zapletal told Plzensky Denik. "For mountain biking it's a tremendous loss."

Cink expanded on the reason he reached a dead end in mountain biking, painting a bleak picture of the discipline.

"Mountain biking is not interesting now for the sponsors. There is a big problem – there are only six important races – six World Cups – per year. And big problems in terms of TV – there is no TV and for the sponsors it's not interesting. It's bad, because the teams have no money."

With Merida acting as the link, the Multivan team's manager started talking to Bahrain general manager Brent Copeland, explaining he had a rider with a huge aerobic capacity who was posting some impressive data.

Almost by accident, Cink was signing up to a new life in the top tier of the sport.

"It's not normal, going from mountain biking straight to a WorldTour team on the road, he acknowledges. Normally you have to go via a Continental team or something. But I'm going straight up."

He takes encouragement from those who have made the transition before him and enjoyed success on the road, including Cadel Evans, Ryder Hesjedal, and Peter Sagan – three rainbow jerseys, one Tour de France and one Giro d'Italia between them. Nevertheless, that first stage of the Tour Down Under is going to be quite the experience.

"I hope it will be OK," he says tentatively. "I'm a bit nervous about it but after a few races I'm hoping it will get better and better.

"I've trained on the road before, and I did some racing only I was junior, but that was maybe eight years ago. For me it will be very difficult to adapt to the road racing. I know I have to learn everything. It will take time to learn how to move in the group, do the high speeds, and also the tactics – mountain biking it's pretty much just yourself but on the road the team is much more important."

Cink will be thrown in at the deep end at the Tour Down Under, after which he'll probably head to the Tour of Oman, followed by a few small northern European Classics and a chance to put his skills to good use on the dust tracks of Strade Bianche.

The 2017 season is likely to be a steep learning curve but, at 25, Cink has come arrived on the road with time on his side to develop and carve out a successful career. 

"I want to be a climber – I think I can be good on the long climb," he says. "I want to be a rider for the three-week races, the Grand Tours, and my dream is to ride the Tour de France. That is my goal for the future."

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