Vincenzo Nibali has been linked to a major new professional cycling team that could be created and backed by Prince Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa of the Bahrain royal family.
According to Ciro Scognamiglio in Sunday's edition of Gazzetta dello Sport, Nibali is keen to move his group of riders and staff to a new team for 2017 and the prince of Bahrain is apparently ready to take on Astana, Trek-Segafredo and Lampre-Merida to try to secure Nibali's signature on an eventual contract.
Cyclingnews understands that Bjarne Riis is involved in the creation of the new team. Riis is set to announce a new project with long term backer and former Saxo Bank CEO Lars Seier Christensen in Copenhagen on February 25 but it is unclear if this is the Bahrain-backed team.
Prince Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, 28, is a keen cyclist and triathlete and is the president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee. He was behind the creation of the Bahrain Endurance 13 Team triathlon team in 2015, which includes Caroline Steffen, Jan Frodeno and the USA's Ben Hoffman. The team is managed by former two-time Ironman world champion Chris "Macca" McCormack.
The prince has completed several triathlons in recent years. He announced the creation of the new cycling team via a post on Instagram, which revels an initial 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". He has also posted the same announcement on his official Facebook page on Sunday.
In a text along side the 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."
Cyclingnews understands that the prince, who attend the final stage of the 2015 Tour de France in Paris, is serious about creating a professional team for 2017 and interested in signing Nibali as one of the team's leaders.
Nibali is in the final year of his current contract with the Astana team. His agent, Alex Carera, has reportedly had informal talks with Astana, Trek-Segafredo and Lampre-Merida but the creation of the new Bahrain team will only raise the stakes in contract negotiations that are expected to intensify in the coming few weeks. Nibali is likely to decide his future after this year's Giro d'Italia and then sign a full contract later in the summer, when the UCI transfer window officially opens.
Nibali turned 31 in November but showed he is still competitive and on form for the 2016 season by winning the Tour of Oman and the key mountain stage to Green Mountain. He will target the Giro d'Italia in May and Olympic gold in Rio later in the summer, possibly after riding the Tour de France alongside fellow Italian Fabio Aru.
Carera confirmed to Cyclingnews that he and Nibali would be interested in talking to the management behind the team.
"Vincenzo is the only Grand Tour winner whose contract ends in 2016 and so it's natural that there's a lot if interest in signing him," Carera told Cyclingnews.
"Several teams have been in contact with us and its widely known that Astana are very keen to keep Vincenzo and that the Trek-Segafredo and Lampre-Merida are also interested. We're ready to talk to anyone who has a serious project for a major team in 2017. We would then study the options available to Vincenzo and make a pondered decision.
"The arrival of any new team in cycling is always good news. However, it is too early to say which team Vincenzo will ride for in 2017. Any decision will only be made after the Giro d'Italia and later in the summer."