The day before Bjarne Riis and his business partner Lars Seier Christensen confirm their return to cycling, more details of the Bahrain Cycling Team project have emerged in Denmark and Italy, with reports that both Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan are being targeted as team leaders for the new WorldTour team backed by Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
Riis has been linked to the project with Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet suggesting that he will become team manager. However, Cyclingnews understands that two other team managers currently in the sport are also under consideration for the role of team manager and could see the Bahrain Cycling Team buy out and take over an existing team in the peloton.
One source told Cyclingnews that rumours of a Bahrain-backed team have been circulating for over a year, with at least half a dozen team managers trying to secure the support of Bahrain for their team. Riis perhaps feels he is in pole position to secure the role of team manager and so return to professional cycling but a formal agreement may still have to be finalised.
If this is the case then the Riis-Christensen press conference planned for Thursday may not reveal further details of the Bahrain Cycling Team project but instead could focus on plans to create some kind of exclusive cycling club and events project that helps support the economics of a professional cycling team.
In his blog, Christensen said the project would be “a broader project in order to create a stronger economic foundation than those that are normally associated with a cycling team,” adding, “yes, there will be partners involved, but we cannot necessarily disclose who they are at this time. But the interest has been substantial and we are grateful for that.”
Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet has suggested that the new Bahrain team could eventually team-up with Riis and buy the Tinkoff team’s licence to facilitate the creation of the new team and so secure the services of Sagan, who is under contract with Tinkoff until the end of 2017. The paper suggests that the new team could ride Specialized bikes as part of a deal to secure Sagan as a team leader.
Christensen has said in a blog post that he and Riis have not bought back the team Riis owned until he sold it to Oleg Tinkov for a reported €6 million in November 2013. Both The Tinkoff team and Specialized would not comment on a possible agreement with the Bahrain representatives when contacted by Cyclingnews.
Tinkov has made it clear his team is for sale but Cyclingnews understands Tinkov is more likely to simply close down the team if he fails to find a suitable buyer. He may also refuse to sell it to anyone involved with Riis.
Christensen is no longer CEO at Saxo Bank but he still owns 26 per cent of the investment bank he created and Ekstra Bladet suggests that Saxo Bank could return as a sponsor and may have already agreed to an €11 million, three-year sponsorship deal. Saxo Bank refused to comment on this possibility. Any sponsorship could perhaps come via one of Christensen’s other business interests. Since leaving Saxo Bank, he has created a series of other sectors, including restaurants, the tech sector, art, fashion and wine.
More details of Riis’ and Christensen’s plans will emerge during the press conference on Thursday at the exclusive Hotel d’Angleterre in central Copenhagen.
Nibali’s ride with the prince of Bahrain
In Italy, Gazzetta dello Sport reiterated the news that Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain plans to create a professional cycling team, with Nibali one of the team’s targets for a role of team leader for the Grand Tours. It has also been suggested that a local Continental team will also be created to boost Bahrain cycling and act as a role model to promote healthy living in the country. Obesity and diabetes are major health concerns in the Persian Gulf area.
Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa announced the creation of the new cycling team via a post on Instagram last weekend, revealing an initial team logo and intentions to compete at the highest level in professional cycling. Using the name of nasser13hamad, the Prince posted a logo of the Bahrain Cycling Team and the words "Coming Soon".
In a text alongside the Bahrain Cycling Team logo he wrote: "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."
Gazzetta dello Sport revealed that Nibali met with Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa in February 2015 before travelling to nearby Dubai to ride the Dubai Tour. Nibali and the prince rode together for 80km in Bahrain and Nibali gave him a yellow jersey from his 2014 Tour de France victory.
The prince posted the photo of him training with Nibali on Instagram in 2015.
The Astana, Trek-Segaredo and Lampre-Merida teams have all confirmed they are interested in signing Nibali for 2017 but it seems the Bahrain project is more appealing because Nibali would have carte blanche to create his squad and group of staff in the new team and bring several riders and staff with him from the Astana team.
Nibali’s agent Alex Carera confirmed the meeting to Cyclingnews but reiterated that any decision about Nibali’s future will only be made after he targets the Giro d’Italia with UCI rules only allowing the formal signing on contracts much later in the summer.