He is one of just six riders to have won cycling’s coveted Grand Tour triple crown and Vincenzo Nibali insists he chose to join Bahrain Merida Pro Cycling Team because he believes he can win more major titles with the Middle East outfit.
Bahrain Merida made history in November when it became the first Gulf team to be awarded UCI World Tour status for the 2017 season.
Nibali – who joined an elite group containing iconic names such as Jacques Anquetil, Alberto Contador, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx when he won the 2014 Tour de France – has no doubt he can extend his legacy with Bahrain Merida.
“It’s very simple. Bahrain have one World Tour team. The team was formed to do Grand Tour races and it has Grand Tour riders,” Nibali said at the team’s launch, held at team president His Highness Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s office in the Kingdom.
“Not only Grand Tours but we have good young riders. We have many stage riders, time trial riders and sprinters. It’s a great mix of riders.”
The 32-year-old Italian will cement that legacy if he can make it a hat-trick of Giro d’Italia crowns this year after winning his second in 2016, adding that to his maiden Giro title in 2013 as well as his Tour de France and 2010 Vuelta a Espana triumphs.
He will captain the new team and will be joined by 26 other riders.
Definitely a bromance has emerged here between His Highness Sheikh Nasser and @vincenzonibali who first went for a casual bike ride in Bahrain together two years ago and have become friends. And now the Italian heads @bahrain_merida. Here they are pictured with Nibali's fellow Italian rider Valerio Agnoli. #Bros #BahrainMerida #UCI #WorldTour2017 #BikingForBahrain
Despite severing ties with giants Astana after four successful years in the off-season, Nibali revealed the seeds for joining a Bahrain-based World Tour team were actually sewn during a leisurely bike ride with Sheikh Nasser in 2015.
“I came to Dubai in January 2015 (for the Dubai Tour) and came to Bahrain before it and had a ride with Sheikh Nasser,” said Nibali.
“It was a nice afternoon and he’s a big cycling fan. We talked then about a team and now it is a reality. For people here it’s a dream.”
Sheikh Nasser, who is also president of the Bahrain Cycling Association, has high hopes for his new venture.
“We have created a team with the best riders in the world,” he said.
“We have hopes for them. We will conquer a lot of races, we will compete in a lot and we will be there at the front of many races, going as hard as we can.”
After Bahrain finished as the highest Arab nation at the 2016 Olympics in Rio – 48th in the medal table thanks to the gold and silver won by Kenyan-born women Ruth Jebet in the 3,000m steeplechase and Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa in the marathon – His Highness feels the nation is beginning to establish itself as the leading nation in the region.
Our man @matt_the_hack is in #Bahrain for the launch of @bahrain_merida pro #cycling team. The riders, led by 2014 #TourdeFrance champ @vincenzonibali looking hella sharp this morning in their suits and what looks eerily similar to Coach Gordon Bombay's 'Flying V' formation. Choreographer must be a Mighty Ducks fan! #bahraincycling #cyclingbahrain @uci_cycling
He added: “We want to show the world that Bahrain is capable of not just organising small events but capable of competing. We have the Formula One race as a great example. We are the number one Arabic country in the Olympics. We had the highest number of medals at Rio.
“I have no doubt that Bahrain Merida is going to be a success. We are going to be one of the toughest teams around the UCI.”
Bahrain Merida team manager Brent Copeland stated that while victories will be important in the team’s debut campaign, establishing themselves and consistency will be key.
“There’s many goals. Victories are important, it showcases the name and the jersey, but for us the biggest goal is the image,” said the South African former Lampre Merida head.
“We want an organised team, we want everyone to give their best, the staff and the riders. If everyone gives their best victories come as a consequence.
“We don’t want to target one race or another. We start racing in Australia next week and all the way through to October in China. In every race we enter we want our riders to give their best, that’s the main goal.”
He echoed His Highness’ belief that the future is bright for Bahrain.
“We have seen before that Bahrain has been a leader in the Arab sporting world, becoming the first nation to host a Formula One Grand Prix, and now they have made history again by becoming the first GCC nation to gain a World Tour licence,” he added.
“Now we are here we would like to assure everyone that we have put the best possible team together, both in terms of riders and staff. Together we will bring continuity to the team and will strive to be the best.”