Copeland defends Bahrain-Merida's recruitment policy

The pound has plummeted in recent months, falling to a 31-year low in the wake of Brexit, but one currency that has gone from strength to strength is the WorldTour point.

As a primary selection criterion for the UCI's Licence Commission, these points have taken on a whole new significance since the UCI declared it would reduce the quota of WorldTour teams from 18 to 17 next year, leaving new applicants Bahrain-Merida and Bora-Hansgrohe in a three-way battle with Dimension Data – this year's lowest-ranked team – over the final two licences.

The recruitment policy of Bahrain-Merida, the new team backed by the Kingdom of Bahrain, has come under scrutiny, the suspicion being that they have sought to bring in points-rich riders in order to get ahead of their rivals. Those riders have all come together for the first time at a camp in Croatia, where team manager Brent Copeland told Cyclingnews that it's "absolutely not the case" that they've been signing riders for their points.

Vincenzo NIbali, the team’s marquee signing who brings 241 points from his Giro d'Italia victory, has been on board from the start of the project, but since the transfer window opened in August the team have brought riders like Ion Izaguirre (ranked 11th with 270 points) and Kanstantin Siutsou (40 points) out of their contracts – a rarity in cycling.

Amstel Gold Race champion Enrico Gasparotto is another rider who brings proffers triple figures (though he doesn't appear on the official rankings as he was riding for a Pro Conti team), but perhaps the most perplexing of all is the signing of Joaquim Rodríguez (211 points), who had seemingly retired from the sport, and now won't even say if he will race or not next season.

"For sure people will look and say 'they've taken riders with points and pulled names out of a hat', but that's absolutely not the case," said Copeland.

"The riders have been carefully selected and there has been a strategy behind that – it hasn't just been pulling names out of a hat like some critics have said.

"Before you look at points you look at who those riders are and build a group around them. People mustn't think we've got all this oil money to buy any rider on the market. The budget is limited, it's healthy, it's a budget you can work well off but it's not a budget like some of the top teams."

Copeland would argue that riders only attain WorldTour points by performing well, and are thus desirable in their own right.

Discussing Izaguirre, who has a string of top results to his name in week-long stage races this year along with a Tour de France stage win, Copeland explained that a secondary leader was needed on top of Nibali, and that the Movistar rider became a target when Louis Meintjes' move from Lampre-Merida broke down.

As for plucking Rodríguez out of retirement – the Spaniard has signed for one year as a rider and two in a mentoring capacity – Copeland explained that, "When I see a rider with such good personality, talent, knowledge in cycling, stop his career and not help cycling again, it's almost sad."

'18 teams is fair for everyone'

As Cyclingnews reported on Wednesday, the UCI is set to swerve the conflict and any potential legal issues by reneging on its decision to cut the WorldTour quota to 17.

It was a reluctant move in the first place – a compromise to appease Tour de France owners ASO, who wanted a promotion/relegation system in the hope of making the sport more marketable.

"It's just fair for everyone," said Copeland of the decision to stick with 18 teams, which renders the WorldTour points palaver pretty much irrelevant.

"Cycling is not the Premier League, I know they'd like to create a Premier League and have some excitement with a relegation system, but at the moment that's not the way it is. The economic situation in the world and in sport, it's just right to keep it at 18 teams. We don't want Dimension Data, a fantastic team like them, to close down because of political situations.

"It's been fairly stressful but it hasn't been our main goal; we've been working putting together the best team possible. It's been difficult convincing people to come on board without the confirmed WorldTour licence, but when you have a rider like Vincenzo Nibali you have huge security."

Bahrain-Merida currently have 25 riders officially on their books, and have recently signed another rider who they are unable to announce for the time being. They are looking for two more riders to hit their target roster size of 28.

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Patrick Fletcher
Deputy Editor

Deputy Editor. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2022 he has been Deputy Editor, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.