Bahrain-Merida, cycling's new top team from the Middle East, took off with Prince Nasser's help but is so much more according to general manager Brent Copeland. The team will backed by Bahraini group of businesses and the Taiwanese bicycle company Merida.
Copeland, who spoke exclusively with Cycling Weekly last week near Como, confirmed that from sponsors to staff, everything is going in the right direction thanks to the backing.
Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa announced his intentions to create a top cycling team in February. The idea: "To support national vision to inspire sports enthusiasts in Bahrain and the Middle East."
However, a group of Bahraini businesses like Bahrain Petroleum Company, BAPCO, and the world's second largest bicycle manufacturer Merida made it happen. If successful, Bahrain-Merida would become the first professional team from the Middle East in the WorldTour.
"It is just like some of the other teams, where there are a number of sponsors behind it," Copeland said. "It's Bahrain's team: a team backed by a consortium of sponsors and investors who believe in the project."
The South African who bases himself in Como, Italy, managed at Lampre-Merida and MTN-Qhubeka in recent years. When approached by a group from Bahrain, including key player Slovenian Milan Erzen, he could not refuse the offer. Copeland left Lampre-Merida to focus entirely on the new project.
"He's a true sports lover with a strong sense of commitment to sport," Copeland said of Prince Nasser. "He is involved in the triathlon team Bahrain Endurance 13 where he also participates. He also leads and participates in the Royal Equestrian Endurance Team, where he just won the third spot at the FEI World Endurance Championship in Slovakia."
Bahrain and Erzen rounded up a group of sports directors, a trainer, a doctor, and a press officer – the core of the group. After Vincenzo Nibali confirmed he will ride for the team, announcements of new cyclists have been trickling through press releases and the team – which will wear red, blue and gold – is quickly growing.
Copeland smiled when talking about the staff. He said, "Even if we had the biggest budget, I don't think we could've put together a better group. "
The budget could be in the €15 to €18 million ballpark (£12-15m), which would put it midway up the WorldTour team ladder. Already, the team signed Nibali, Amstel Gold Race winner Enrico Gasparotto (from Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Yukiya Arashiro (Lampre-Merida), Manuele Boaro (from Tinkoff), Grega Bole (Nippo-Vini Fantini), Borut Bozic (Cofidis), Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani-CSF), Chun Kai Feng (Lampre-Merida), Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling), Luka Pibernik (Lampre-Merida), Kanstantsin Siutsou (Dimension Data), and Giovanni Visconti (Movistar).
"I can't give exact confidential details [on the budget]," added Copeland. "The lead sponsor is BAPCO, Bahrain Petroleum Company, alongside a number of other companies… All the details will come out in the next few months."
Bahrain-Merida is one of two new teams asking for a licence in the top WorldTour series in 2017. Depending on how the rankings are calculated, existing WorldTour team Dimension Data may also have to fight for a licence. It remains unclear if it will be an issue, if the UCI will limit the series to 17 or allow 18 teams as it did this season.
"For the biggest of the sponsors with a link in cycling, Merida, it's important for them to be in the WorldTour and it's a concern for them," added Copeland. "Merida have been extremely supportive of the [WorldTour] project, having such an important partner such as Merida behind you means a huge amount to us and is a big asset to the team."
There had been talks of a deal to take over Lampre-Merida's WorldTour licence, but that fell through and Lampre will continue with a Chinese sponsor in 2017. It is probably for the best, said Copeland. The team will have to round up its buses and cars, and other infrastructure, but it will be unique.
"It gives us a chance to have a new identity," added Copeland. "Something fresh and new."
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