McLaren and Bahrain-Merida have announced an exciting joint venture from the start of the 2019 road season with the overall aim of becoming the most successful team in professional cycling. The deal has been in the making for roughly a year with shared interests from the owners of both companies. The news will be officially announced on Wednesday at the Bahrain-Merida training camp in Croatia, with the McLaren logo on the team kit. Merida will stay as the secondary sponsor of the team, but McLaren's experience in Formula 1 will be relied upon to improve the team in some specific areas.
At an event at McLaren's Woking base in early December, the company's Chief Marketing Officer John Allert – a long time cycling fan who grew up just a stone's throw away from Willunga Hill in Adelaide – announced the plans in front of a small gathering of journalists. Bahrain-Merida's general manager Brent Copeland was alongside Allert and added that the joint venture had the potential to revolutionise the sport.
"This is great for cycling and maybe the most exciting thing that's happened in cycling for the last decade," Copeland said.
"McLaren can help us out in so many areas. More and more topics come out as we talk about it. It's exciting for us, and it is for cycling in general. Their experience is unlimited."
The news means an obvious jump in the team's overall budget, but the primary focus in 2019 will be for McLaren to gain experience in working with a WorldTour team on a long-term strategy. The company already know their work with Specialized but have already had time with both Rohan Dennis and Vincenzo Nibali in their technology centre and wind tunnel in Woking. Neither Copeland nor Allert would discuss the team's new budget or McLaren's share of the investment, but the plan at this stage is for both parties to work with Merida in 2019 in the hope that the bike supplier remains with them once their current contract expires at the end of next season. It's possible that McLaren could become a title sponsor in the future, alongside Bahrain.
"What Bahrain-Merida have been able to achieve off a standing start in two years is phenomenally inspiring," said Allert.
"Although this is a new sport to us, it's very complimentary in terms of the shaping of the narrative, of man and machine and the pursuit of achievement through the aggregation of numerous different factors. We still believe that there's performance value to be had, and despite the fact that the team has been fantastic out of the blocks, both they and we feel that there's room for improvement in development."
McLaren boasts many state-of-the-art businesses, but this venture will utilize their applied technologies sector. In theory, this will give the WorldTour team access to any of the 600-strong staff and help them close the gap to the ruling elite in the WorldTour rankings. This year the squad finished seventh – not a bad achievement given that Vincenzo Nibali was wiped out at the Tour de France – but the aim is for McLaren's injection of knowledge to push the team towards greatness at the Tour de France, where Team Sky have dominated in recent years.
"We're going to look at a number of areas, from mindset, recovery, aerodynamics, athlete management, and the relationship between man and machine," Allert said as he gave an overview of what his colleagues would describe as a more holistic approach.
"This is more than just a financial or brand commitment, but first thing first, we need to build an understanding that can lead to potential improvements, and in many ways, this is an innovation as much as it is a cycling race. Most of the other teams at the top have had a big head start on us, so we have to work doubly hard to make sure that we're living up to our ambition."
McLaren will have a say in rider recruitment going forward, although they and Copeland both emphasised that the team would not sign British riders just for the sake of it, and that talent would be recruited on merit and rider data. The team were linked heavily to Mark Cavendish in the late summer, and despite both the rider and Allert being friends, an agreement wasn't reached, and the rider eventually chose to remain at Dimension Data.
"We're about bringing performance to the team," Allert said.
"Our brand implicitly will be part of the team and on the jersey. We're not trying to hide the brand. The team name though is something we'll think about later in 2019, and any decision on that would be determined on the performance of the team. In terms of performance, we'll be leaving no stone unturned, in any area such as human performance, technical development, and data science or commercial and marketing activities."
While the team and McLaren certainly have lofty ambitions of becoming the most successful team in the sport, there are no slogans, such as Team Sky's achieved aim of winning the Tour in the first five years of their existence.
"We're less inclined to put quantifiable statements out into the market, but our ambition has to be to win Grand Tour events. That's clear in our cycling ambitions, but we don't have a singular focus on beating one particular team or rider. In order to win the Tour, you need to beat everyone. To beat everyone you need to do things better than them," Allert said.
"Our goal is to become the best, otherwise why are you in it? It's part of why you put all the sacrifices in. That's part of the enthusiasm, to become the best. That doesn't mean they're going to come in and wave a wand and make it right. It's going to be humble, and they're going to learn about cycling. They're going to try and close that gap and try and become the best team in the world. It's not going to happen in one year, but we can move in that direction."
According to Allert, McLaren have also carried out thorough due diligence, especially so after Bahrain-Merida's Kanstantsin Siutsou tested positive for EPO earlier in the year and was subsequently fired. Formula 1 is no stranger to controversy, McLaren were themselves wrapped up in espionage in the 2007 Spygate story that lead to a hugely significant fine for the company. Cycling has its issues, but Allert was confident that the sport's governing body and Bahrain-Merida were doing everything above board.
"We spent a lot of time this year around doing due diligence and the nature of the opportunity," he said. "Nothing is ever 100 per cent sure, but we sought and received assurances from the UCI as to what the sport is doing. The reaction from both the Bahrain-Merida team and the UCI to anything that's happened throughout the season has underscored the commitment that both those parties have. That was reassuring to us as part of our due diligence."
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