The 1982 world champion has been the long-time manager of the Lampre-Merida team but revealed plans for a Chinese WorldTour team in late August, with the TJ Sport business consortium announced as a major sponsor and investor in a project to help develop Chinese cycling. However Saronni claims that serious health problems struck the head of the project Li Zhiqiang, causing major delays and forcing him and sponsor consultant and former Saunier Duval team manager Mauro Gianetti to look for new backing.
The UCI released a list of 17 WorldTour teams on November 25 but Saronni and Gianetti were given extra time to save their team and 2017 WorldTour status. Saronni endured some sleepless nights but managed to secure sponsorship from the UAE and complete the laborious registration process in time for a December deadline. The UCI confirmed that the UAE Abu Dhabi team was the 18th and final team in the 2017/2018 WorldTour on December 20.
"I never had time to think that we wouldn't pull it off, we didn't have the time to think," Saronni admitted to Gazzetta dello Sport, revealing how he and Gianetti managed to save the team.
"At the end of August we announced our collaboration with TJ sport. Unfortunately the president Li Zhiqiang had some serious health problems. He was the centre of the project and so everything was suddenly blocked. The UCI rules don't wait for anyone and there was not enough time to define our plans. It's a pity because it was a good project and I'm sure something important will happen in China soon. The UCI listened to us during a hearing on November 18 and we started all over again from there."
"We managed to secure support from Abu Dhabi thanks to our sponsor consultant Mauro Gianetti. He has a good relationship with Matar Suhail Al Yabhouni Al Dhaheri, the president of a company (Kopaonic) in the UAE that is in the construction and property industry. Matar is passionate about cycling and had been keen to create a team for some time. When the Chinese option disappeared, Gianetti presented a project to Matar at the time of the Abu Dhabi F1 Gran Prix.
"In ten days we defined everything. Perhaps the lack of time actually helped us because we didn't have a chance to think. We knew that we had to grab this chance or everything was over. I want to precise that we were never given extra time by the UCI; we completed our dossier in time for the audit by Ernst&Young and for the UCI Licence Commission."
Flying the flag for the UAE and Abu Dhabi
Saronni confirmed that the team will represent the UAE and Abu Dhabi, further strengthening the sport in the area that also hosts the Dubai Tour, the Abu Dhabi Tour. The Middle East now has two WorldTour teams following the creation of the Bahrain-Merida team, while Italy has none. The UAE Abu Dhabi team's service course and management will be in Italy but the team will be registered in the UAE.
"The team is called UAE Abu Dhabi and is the team of the whole United Arab Emirates. We won't have the name of a sponsor on the jersey but that of a nation that we represent," Saronni explained.
"We've gone from a family team with Lampre to a country team with UAE Abu Dhabi. The jersey will have the colours of the Emirates: white, green and red. Our investors really believe in the step that we're making and it's not a short-term project."
However there will still be a strong Italian core to the team.
"All our technical partners are Italian, stating with the bikes from Ernesto Colnago, that will be equipped with Campagnolo components, Sella Italia saddles, Vittoria tyres and Met helmets. I'm pleased that we'll still important for Italian cycling and have some of the best young Italian riders on our roster such as Ganna, Consonni, Ravasi and Troia," Saronni explained.
Saronni re-signed Rui Costa, Diego Ulissi and Sacha Modolo after the deal with its expected Chinese backers in August. The team also added Ben Swift from Team Sky, Darwin Atapuma from BMC, Andrea Guardini from Astana, Vegard Stake Laengen from IAM Cycling and Marco Marcato from Wanty-Groupe Gobert.
The UAE Abu Dhabi team intends to quickly show itself in 2017 and will send a strong team to Australia for its debut at the Tour Down Under.
"We want a successful start to the season," Saronni said. "We're sending Diego Ulissi, Ben Swift and Rui Costa to the Tour Down Under. We'll also have our best team for the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia."
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