Vincenzo Nibali carefully hid behind the UCI rule stopping riders talking about their future teams until the transfer window officially opens on August 1, but Cyclingnews understands the Giro d'Italia winner will ride for the nascent Bahrain Cycling Team in 2017 after playing a key role in the creation of the new WorldTour team.
Nibali and his agents Alex and Jonny Carera met with Darkan Mangeldiev, the head of the Astana team project and the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation after the Giro d'Italia ended in Turin on Sunday. However, it seems this was more to celebrate yet another Grand Tour victory for Astana and agree that Nibali will ride the Tour de France as vital preparation for the Rio Olympic road race, rather than target overall victory. Nibali is ready to ride in support of Fabio Aru at the Tour de France in exchange for the Sardinian's support at the Olympics and an amicable goodbye.
Astana manager Alexander Vinokourov told Cyclingnews he was still hopeful that Nibali could decide to stay at Astana, but it seems that not even a substantial increase in Astana's offer will stop Nibali from opting to move on and becoming the absolute team leader at the Bahrain Cycling Team.
Nibali's relationship with Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa began back in February 2015 when he and Alex Carera were invited to Bahrain by the prince before riding the Dubai Tour. Nibali and the prince rode together, and the prince also attended the final stage of the Tour de France in Paris. He is a keen triathlete and has completed several Ironman events, and represented Bahrain internationally. He created the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, signing some of the biggest names in the sport including Caroline Steffen, Terenzo Bozzone, Brent McMahon and Ben Hoffman.
The Prince decided to start a team for 2017 and has hired Milan Erzen to create it, after the former Slovenian rider, coach and Adria Mobil team manager reportedly helped create some state of the art stables for his race horses. Erzen has already approached a number of riders and agents as he works to build the team around Nibali.
Alex Carera and Nibali are also using their influence to help create the team. Carera is the biggest rider agent in Italy and is using his network of contacts in the sport to help secure rider and technical sponsors. Carera will not give up his work as an agent to manage the team but will have a key role. It seems that Bjarne Riis and former Liquigas manager Roberto Amadio held talks about being the team manager, but Cyclingnews understands that formal role will be officially held by Vladimir Miholjevic, who raced for Liquigas for several seasons and had Carera as his agent.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Bahrain Cycling Team will not immediately become one of the sports super teams. Bahrain will provide around eight or nine million Euro with the rest coming from either a second sponsor or via technical sponsors, who are keen to be associated with Nibali. The lack of a huge budget has slowed the creation of the team in recent months, but Nibali's victory at the Giro d'Italia and the Prince's confirmation of the creation team has given a final green light for the registration with the UCI as a WorldTour team. With both the IAM Cycling and Tinkoff teams set to close at the end of the season, there should be no problem for the Bahrain Cycling Team to secure a place in the WorldTour. The team will be registered in Bahrain but be based bear Bergamo.
Bianchi, Argon 18 and Merida in fight to supply bikes
Cyclingnews understands that several bike brands are currently fighting to be the official bike sponsor of the team. Specialized is focusing on its relationship with Peter Sagan, and so it seems that Argon 18, Bianchi and Merida are all hoping to be part of the Bahrain project. Cyclingnews understands Argon 18 –who could leave the Bora team after 2016, is best placed after out-bidding their rivals. The Canadian brand already sponsors several riders in the Bahrain triathlon team, including Terenzo Bozzone and also sponsors the SkyDive Dubai team in the Gulf.
Lampre-Merida is trying to lure Alberto Contador, and so Merida could face the difficult choice of going with the ageing Spaniard or Nibali and up its bid to be part of the Bahrain Cycling Team.
Whichever bike brand supplies it, the Bahrain Cycling Team will also have to stump up between two and three million Euro for the privilege. The team needs to boost its budget to pay Nibali's contract –estimated to be close to three million Euro a year and complete its roster. He is also expected to bring his significant entourage with him from Astana, including teammates Alessandro Vanotti and Valerio Agnoli, personal soigneur Michele Pallini, coach Paolo Slongo, press officer Geoffrey Pizzorni and experienced directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli.
The huge number of riders on the market for 2017 and Carera's role as a major agent will no doubt facilitate the process of completing the WorldTour roster, but the Bahrain Cycling team will probably not have the budget to build a strong Classics squad or sign another Grand Tour contender.
Riders linked to the team include Daniele Bennati and his Tinkoff teammate Rafal Majka, Italian sprinter Sonny Colbrelli and even Nicolas Roche. Diego Ulissi could also be a target if he does not stay with Lampre-Merida. Several riders seemed happy to help Nibali win the Giro d'Italia, sparking suggestions that the recruitment campaign is well underway.
According to Gazzetta dello Sport, the team could make a formal presentation of its plans and goals during a rest day at Tour de France in July. However, riders can only be confirmed when the UCI transfer window opens on August 1.
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