Abu Dhabi backer saves Ben Swift's TJ Sport/Lampre team

Last-minute deal should see the finalisation of the WorldTour's 18th team

Photo: Graham Watson

An Abu Dhabi backer has saved Ben Swift's TJ Sport/Lampre team, say those close to the last-minute deal.

The backer will take over the title sponsorship ahead of the 2017 season instead China's TJ Sport.

The UCI announcement that the team is in the top 2017 WorldTour series should come tomorrow – music to the ears of General Manager Giuseppe Saronni and star cyclists like Ben Swift and Louis Meintjes. The team had until today, December 15, to turn in its documents.

Four or five people with close ties to Saronni's team, this year called Lampre-Merida, confirmed the deal.

The UCI gave Saronni extra time to allow for the deal to happen. When its licence commission named 17 of the 18 possible teams, including Team Sky and Dimension Data with Mark Cavendish, on November 25, it wrote a footnote saying that it was still reviewing TJ Sport's application.

China's first WorldTour team TJ Sport had stalled on the start line. Head of the investment group Li Zhiqiang, reportedly fell sick and some are saying it is cancer of the pancreas.

Zhiqiang and Saronni presented the project in September in China. The backing that Saronni said he had now appears to be non-existent given his quick turn from the Far East to the Middle East.

Saronni already had been speaking to a backer one year ago in the United Arab Emirates. The Abu Dhabi person or company remains nameless.

The backer reportedly wanted a team when news came this summer of a WorldTour team, with Vincenzo Nibali, starting from nearby Middle Eastern island Bahrain.

The Arab line quickly opened again when Saronni’s Chinese promise broke. Now, the Middle East may not only have its first WorldTour team, but two teams in the top tier in 2017.

It remains uncertain if Saronni will license the team in Switzerland, where the management company is headquartered, in the U.A.E., or at home in Italy.

The U.A.E. news is welcomed regardless of where the team is licensed. Around 60 employees risk being dismissed over the Christmas holidays if Saronni had failed to pull the Abu Dhabi rabbit out of his hat.

There's still time...

Swift, who left Team Sky after seven years for a chance to lead in more races, and Louis Meintjes, eighth overall in the Tour de France, could have found new homes.

Other cyclists and staff members may not have been so luckily given the start of the 2017 season is one month away.

"The team funds need to be regulated better," Meintjes's agent Robert Hunter said in the latest issue of Cycling Weekly magazine.

"I'm all for helping them getting the team up and running, but if it is not controlled and riders end up on the street.

“I understand and feel bad for the person who is in the hospital, but if he was the only person who can sign off of the documents in a company then there's something wrong with the company.

“That situation of one person is not ideal.”

Saronni and sponsor liaison Mauro Gianetti have yet to comment. They did not respond when called recently for interviews related to the 2017 team.

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