Vincenzo Nibali was absent when the members of the new Bahrain-Merida team stood up and introduced themselves to one another in Croatia on Monday. After the Abu Dhabi Tour, the Italian had flown to Milan for the presentation of the route for the 100th Giro d'Italia on Tuesday, and only arrived at his new team's introductory camp under the cover of darkness after a lengthy drive across northern Italy and down through Slovenia.
Despite his tardiness, Nibali's status as the figurehead of this new team, put together with the backing of the Bahrain royal family, was abundantly clear. Even the more experienced riders spoke about him with a tone of reverence, while some of the youngsters and neo-pros could scarcely believe they’ll be sharing a jersey with him.
It very much feels like Nibali's team. It was his visit to Bahrain and casual bike ride with Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa over two years ago that set the wheels of this project in motion, and the familiar faces he has brought with him include his agent Alex Carera, coach Paolo Slogno, brother Antonio, and a number of others from Astana, including Valerio Agnoli, a directeur sportif and a press officer.
"I'm really proud of where we are now," Nibali tells Cyclingnews, before ordering Agnoli to fetch a couple of espressos. "To think about two years ago seems like a strange story."
After that first encounter ahead of the 2014 Dubai Tour, Nibali met the Prince again in January 2015 and offered him a yellow jersey from his Tour de France victory the previous July. It was there that the idea of building a team around him was first floated.
"It was like a puzzle," he says. "Every little piece began to fall into place."
The riders and staff find themselves in Croatia as an entity that now resembles an elite cycling team, even if there are plenty of new faces and a curious blend of nationalities, personalities and riding styles.
The bonding process began on Wednesday with a spot of football and basketball, and continued on Thursday with a gentle ride through the Istrian countryside to taste the local cheese, ham, and – away from the camera lenses – grappa.
"It's a completely new squad," says Nibali. "The idea is to build a group and get stronger, and we need to get to know each other, work together, and grow to love each other."
'Some amazing moments, but also some bad ones'
Nibali's move to Bahrain brings the curtain down on a four-year spell at Astana that reaped the greatest successes of his career to date, with two victories at the Giro d'Italia and one at the Tour de France.
Still winning Grand Tours with one of the strongest teams in the peloton, why was it time to move on?
"Firstly because they're creating a really strong project here at Bahrain Merida, and that's a great stimulus for me. I was in the same team for four years and was keen to have a change, to have a new adventure and find new motivation. It's also about the possibility to build something, to build a group around myself.
"In Astana I had some amazing moments, but also there were some bad moments, like in the Vuelta. That was a little piece of the puzzle, but in my mind it added up to the decision to change teams."
Nibali was referring to the moment he was ejected from the 2015 Vuelta after holding onto a team car and being flinged up towards the head of the race. Tensions have surfaced elsewhere, with the team's up-and-coming Grand Tour leader Fabio Aru, and also with the general manager Alexandre Vinokourov, who memorably said Nibali "needs a mechanic because something is broken in his head" as he slumped at the 2015 Tour.
"Vinokourov has always given me a lot of support – the same as the whole team," said Nibali, playing down any hint of acrimony. "He wrote to me just a few days ago in Abu Dhabi, saying thanks Vincenzo for your time at Astana. I'm leaving on good terms. I have a good relationship with the riders and staff. I couldn't have been happier that [Tanel] Kangert won in Abu Dhabi."
'It won’t be like it was at Astana'
Nibali has chosen to go off and build a project with himself at the centre, but he leaves behind an enviable support network that he just might come to miss.
Team Sky's suffocation of recent editions of the Tour is much discussed, but Astana have also been notable for the way they've stamped their authority on big races. The last two editions of the Giro are a case in point – the sky blue jerseys' relentless aggression in 2015 verged on the ridiculous, while the strength of Nibali's domestiques this year played no small part in the dramatic turnaround that saw him clinch his second maglia rosa.
A team assembled from scratch over the course of just one transfer window, it's difficult to see Bahrain-Merida being able to exert quite the same degree of influence.
"It won't be like it was at Astana, maybe," admits Nibali, "but we still have lots of strong riders.
"When we get to the Giro, we'll see how strong the group and the team can be. We'll have to see how it will be. Now maybe you see round here people laughing or joking but when the time comes to race, everyone here is a top professional, and everyone will do their job."
Nibali would have liked Michele Scarponi – who was crucial in twisting the knife on Steven Kruijswijk after the Colle dell'Agnello in May – and it's likely he'll look to attract others next year, when more names come on the market.
"It's still very early days," he says. "Now some riders are thinking, 'what is Bahrain-Merida?' But in one year they will know. And maybe in the future more riders will want to come."
For now, in the stress-free environs of the off-season, Nibali seems more than happy with the group of guys he has around him and the project he has in front of him.
He's the one everyone's looking up to; it's up to him to spread the love.
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