Giuseppe Saronni has revealed further details of the project behind the first ever Chinese WorldTour team, answering many of the questions that Cyclingnews raised when the deal was first announced. Saronni confirmed that he will manage the team and so will not have any links with the nascent Bahrain Merida team lead by Vincenzo Nibali.
In a long interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, Saronni explained that his management company CGS Cycling will run the team but the arrival of Chinese funding and a major Chinese title sponsor means the team will be the first ever Chinese WorldTour team in the peloton as it helps develop cycling in the country, and Chinese athletes for the 2020 Olympic in Japan and beyond.
The riders under contract with this year's Lampre-Merida team, including Sacha Modolo and South Africa's Louis Meintjes, will in theory all be part of the new-look Chinese team and not move across to the Bahrain Merida team. Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi, who already signed new contracts for 2017, will also have leadership roles, ensuring the team has a place in the top 16 teams in the UCI rankings and so has no problems obtaining WorldTour status for 2017. The Italian Colpack Continental team is also part of the project as a feeder team and will help develop the best young Chinese riders.
Colnago bikes, Champion System clothing
Gazzetta dello Sport reports that the team will use Colnago bikes thanks to Saronni's very close and long-standing relationship with the Italian band. Lampre will remain as second sponsor, with Hong Kong based Champion System set to produce the team's racing clothing after playing a key part in the deal between the Chinese holding company Tj Sport and Saronni.
"The team is my new challenge for my sixties…" Saronni said, who turns 59 on September 22, 38 years after winning the world road race title in Goodwood, England with a late attack that saw him surge past Greg LeMond to take the rainbow jersey.
"Unfortunately, it was inevitable that one day there wouldn't be an Italian team in the WorldTour. I've been saying it for the last five years. There just aren't [enough] Italian companies willing to invest the money needed, for lots of reasons. For that reason, we've got to be smart at using resources from elsewhere to help Italian cycling. That's what we plan to do."
However, the team will be Chinese and will also have to help develop and promote every aspect of cycling in China, as Team Sky has done in Britain.
"The government decides everything and in our case it's the Ministry of Sport," Saronni explained. "We haven't had direct contact but via TJ sport – a fund created to find resources for the project. In 20 days they've gathered 120 million Euro and amongst the brands involved are (online retailer) Alibaba, (clothing brand) J-one, Wanda Sport (the owners of Ironman triathlon series and Infront the sports media giant interested in professional cycling). There's a fight to become the team's title sponsor.
"China wants to develop every aspect of cycling. They've got to invest in social programmes and the team is only the top of a vast programme that has a price objective: Get Chinese people cycling again. In China there are cars everywhere but also pollution, obesity is a growing problem.
"We've been linked to China for a decade and we signed the first Chinese rider and our clothing is already from Champion System. We're a trusted partner and Mauro Gianetti has excellent relations there. When the government launched its programme, they asked us to get involved. They want us to help develop their riders and coaches, some will train with us to learn more and we'll go to China to teach them. In a few years we hope to have a Chinese rider who can do show something at the Tour de France. With this project they want to show the world that 'were coming too and that there's a Chinese WorldTour team.'"
"The licence will be Chinese because the sponsor will be Chinese. But we haven't sold the team to them, even if that could be a possibility in the future. The team structure will remain the same and I'll be the manager. By keeping the same management company, we're certain to be in the top 16 in the ranking and so have a WorldTour licence. We'll keep all the contracts with the riders that have already been signed."
No regrets about being part of the Bahrain-Merida project
The Lampre-Merida team has often struggled to compete at WorldTour level in recent years but the arrival of Chinese funding has regenerated the team and boosted Saronni's profile. He will now be an important player in the new-look WorldTour thanks to the wealth and strategic importance of the Chinese team.
The confirmation of the Chinese project seems to have wiped away Saronni's disappointment that he was first involved but then excluded from the Bahrain Merida project. It has been suggested that Nibali was not happy to have Saronni in a management role in the team.
"I looked at the building for the service course and I found a bus but after Merida came on board as the bike sponsor and an important economical partner, things changed," Saronni explained.
"Lets say I lost any power to decide things and was considered a problem. I lost a bike sponsor, a good manager like Brent Copeland but I'm Saronni and I wont accept compromises at 60. I still get on well with everyone but I'm now following my own path, happy to have found this opportunity with the Chinese. I've only one regret: that I never managed to speak to Nibali."