INSIDE STORY: Bahrain Merida’s journey of dreams

Matt Jones 31/01/2017
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The new kid on the cycling block.

There are many great stories behind the origins of teams in sport. German football giants Bayern Munich began life in February 1900 after footballers broke away from gymnastics club MTV 1879 when they were told they would not be allowed to join the German Football Association.

NHL team the Anaheim Ducks were founded as recently as 1993 by Walt Disney following the success of the hit ice hockey film, ‘The Mighty Ducks’, a year earlier.

Professional cycling team Bahrain Merida’s own story began when Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa went for a leisurely afternoon bike ride with Vincenzo Nibali two years ago.

With one of Bahrain’s most influential and prominent individuals getting together with one of cycling’s most successful and talented stars, something big was always bound to happen.

Although they might not have known it then, the two were heading down the route of forging the Middle East’s very first professional cycling team. Nibali was invited over to the Kingdom by Sheikh Nasser as he was preparing to compete in the 2015 Dubai Tour – the fourth edition of which will feature Bahrain Merida when the race gets underway today (Tuesday).

His Highness, himself a decorated athlete who has competed in Ironman races and won equestrian individual endurance silver at the 2006 Asian Games, was keen to pick the brain of a man at the top of his sport.

“This team was an idea first of all,” said Sheikh Nasser at the team’s official launch in Bahrain last month “I called and invited him (Nibali) over because I knew he was in the region. I wanted to question him about the cycling world, the sport and how do they go and endure a 21-day tour of high intensity, competition and effort on a daily basis. I told Vincenzo ‘you guys must be crazy’. He said people who do Ironman are crazy. So we’re both a bit crazy.”

Even crazier than these two most unlikely of friends is that less than two years after that initial bike ride, Bahrain Merida were granted WorldTour status by the sport’s governing body, the UCI, last November.

Nibali joined an elite club of just six when he claimed Tour de France glory three years ago. He became the winner of the sport’s Grand Tour triple crown – Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana. Only Jacques Anquetil, Alberto Contador, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx had achieved such a feat previously.

Despite leaving Astana in the summer after four glorious years, Nibali is relishing his role as Bahrain Merida’s leader. “I feel like the chief, I have a responsibility,” said the 32-year-old Italian.

“I feel very proud to be a part of the team and captain of this new team. It is being built from the ground up and I can choose my own team-mates too, which is important. It is not a move to a new team, it is a team based around me.

“It was in February two years ago before the Dubai Tour when I had an invitation from Bahrain to come for an afternoon ride, so I came. After we started to talk and this idea started to grow.”

The team, minus Nibali, lined up along with 17 others for the season-opening Tour Down Under earlier this month, but it had been a long and painful road to get there. Selling a completely new project to sponsors, buying vehicles, equipment, acquiring staff and riders, as well as handling the application process with the UCI.

Surely a tougher task than tackling the Alto de l’Angliru stage at the Vuelta A Espana – regarded by many riders as the toughest Grand Tour climb of them all.

Not for team manager Brent Copeland, though, who has seriously developed the project since he came on board around eight months ago.

The former Lampre-Merida manager has assembled a team of 27 riders, spanning 11 different nations, which in addition to trainers, doctors and technical staff, amounts to a total team of 71 people. It might sound like a relatively small number, but Copeland had to sell the idea of Bahrain Merida to each one of them.

“The hardest part was to explain to the riders and staff that there actually is a project,” said the South African. “If you’re working on a project that’s already been running for a couple of years, you can touch the jersey, see the vehicles, progress from the previous seasons.

“We were selling a project via PowerPoint and paper. A lot of people had doubts about us, but everyone came through and it started becoming a reality and everyone thought ‘wow, this is looking good’. It makes it even more special.”

Although he wasn’t privvy to Nibali and Sheikh Nasser’s bike ride on day one, the bulk of the work has been done during his time in charge.

“From July/August is when most of it has come together,” added Copeland, who worked previously with Lampre as directeur sportif from 1999-2009 as well as with MTN Qhubeka, now Team Dimension Data, in 2013.

“You can start plotting your project beforehand and who you want to put in the team. You put down a base of what you want, but you can’t legally start talking with riders until the beginning of August.

“Then the negotiations start with the riders and their agentsand that can take time. But no satisfaction comes without a lot of work and the satisfaction and emotion to be here is huge.”

Joining the team in this bold journey are co-main sponsors Merida, a globally-recognised brand only second in terms of bikes manufactured per year to Giant.

Originally renowned as manufacturers of and champions in mountain biking, Merida entered road cycing when it joined up with Lampre and the WorldTour in 2013.

Following Lampre-Merida’s demise at the end of last season, Merida Europe CEO Wolfgang Renner felt it was time to move on.

“We had a chance to step into Bahrain, a very short time and a lot of work, but for us the reason why we are stepping into this team is because we have to go forward,” said Renner.

Another man moving on is former Movistar rider, Spaniard Ion Izaguirre. The Basque-born rider, 27, has cycling in his blood. His father Jose Ramon was a professional, while his older brother Gorka joined him at Movistar when Ion was signed in 2014.

And Izaguirre believes, by the end of 2017, he and his new team-mates will have become a family.

“We are meeting in training camps, but I am sure at the end of this year we will be a family, that is important,” he said.

“It’s a new project, a different project. Everything is new and it’s an ambition from me. I decided to change and the managers spoke to me and said they believe in me to be a leader in one-week tours. I’d be happy to stay with this team, this family, and we are going to see what we can do.”

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Dubai Tour: The peloton's six finest cyclists

Sport360 staff 31/01/2017
The six stars to watch out for.

Who are you most looking forward to seeing in Dubai?

We've rounded up the top cyclists to keep a close eye on.

The first stage begins on Tuesday, with the climax to the race ending on Saturday at the city walk.

If you're watching the stages this week, get in touch on Instagram - message us with #Sport360. You can also share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.
Juan Jose Lobato (ESP) Team: LottoNL-Jumbo Age: 28 Rider type: Classics rider/sprinter The Spaniard sprung a surprise last year when he conquered the 17 per cent climb up Hatta Dam to win stage three of the Dubai Tour. He dedicated the win to his son who was born just three months earlier. After spending the last three seasons with Movistar, Lobato signed a new two-year deal with Dutch outfit LottoNLJumbo and will be making his debut for the team in Dubai. Elia Viviani (ITA) Team: Sky Age: 27 Rider type: Sprinter The reigning Olympic omnium champion has enjoyed lots of success in the UAE having won two stages at the 2015 Abu Dhabi Tour, and two stages in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Dubai Tour. Will be a contender in the sprints once again this year with four of the five stages being flat. Started his season at the Vuelta de San Juan, where he came second in the opening two stages.

Ummmm ... 🤔Thinking about @dubaitourofficial @teamsky @oakley @oakleybike

A photo posted by Elia Viviani (@eliaviviani) on

Mark Cavendish (GBR) Team: Dimension Data Age: 31 Rider type: Sprinter Another rider who has done well in – not just the Emirates, but the Gulf region in general. The superstar sprinter won the leader’s jersey at the Dubai Tour in 2015, took two stages at last October’s Abu Dhabi Tour and also claimed the overal victory at two editions of the Tour of Qatar. Spends a lot of time in the UAE and will definitely be a major contender this week.

Pretty splendid view!!!!

A photo posted by Mark Cavendish (@markcavendish) on

Marcel Kittel (GER) Team: Quick-Step Floors Age: 28 Rider type: Sprinter The German is the defending champion in Dubai this week having won it last year on his debut race with Quick-Step Floors. Won the team time trial at the World Championships in Doha last year. Kittel is expected to have some big battles with Cavendish in the sprints in Dubai, although it is still early in the season and he might still be finding his racing legs.
John Degenkolb (GER) Team: Trek-Segafredo Age: 28 Rider type: Classics rider/sprinter His famous victory atop Hatta Dam here in 2015 remains a standout highlight in the Dubai Tour’s short history. Degenkolb pushed his limits to take the stage victory before he collapsed on the ground. Following a difficult 2016 that started with a tragic crash suffered during training with Giant-Alpecin, Degenkolb is ready to go with a new team – Trek-Segrafredo – this season.
Yousif Mirza (UAE) Team: UAE-Abu Dhabi Age: 28 Rider type: All-rounder The UAE’s top rider will be making his debut for the newly-formed WorldTeam UAE-Abu Dhabi, the nation’s first cycling outfit at this level in the sport. The UAE national champion was the first Emirati rider to qualify for the Olympic Games road race last year, but tough conditions and an early crash led to him abandoning the contest in Rio. Share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

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INTERVIEW: John Degenkolb - Regaining the old magic in a new team

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Heaven from Hell: John Degenkolb celebrates his 2015 win at Paris Roubaix.

One moment can change everything for an athlete and John Degenkolb knows this better than most.

This time last year, the cyclist was an established force at Team Giant-Alpecin and eager to build on a career-best 2015 season which had begun with second place in the general classification at the Dubai Tour.

With power coursing through him during the spring classics, the sprinter had surged his way to epic triumphs at both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix – becoming the first German in 119 years to conquer the ‘Hell of the North’.

It was not wishful thinking to believe the kilometres put into his legs during the preparatory period in Spain could propel him towards a maiden-stage victory at that year’s Tour de France or build on the points classification already won at the 2014 Vuelta a Espana.

An errant driver was then to derail these ambitions. Degenkolb was one of six Giant riders hit by a car which careered into oncoming traffic on January 23.

Cuts were suffered to his thigh, forearm and lips, while he also came close to losing his left index finger – a career-threatening development.

Another charge at the races he had just dominated was impossible. Simply to take part in 2016’s edition of the Tour – his sport’s premier event – was a huge achievement after he had only returned at Rund um den Finanzplatz in Frankfurt on May 1.

Fast forward to this month and the 28-year-old now heads into the fourth edition of the Dubai Tour on Tuesday with both new employers in Trek-Segafredo and fresh questions posed about whether the high points of two years ago can be repeated.

Highs and Lows

  • 22 March, 2015: Milan-San Remo glory Degenkolb edged defending champion Alexander Kristoff of Denmark in a bunch sprint to claim the greatest win of his career, up to that point.
  • 12 April, 2015: Paris-Roubaix success The successes kept on stacking up during the spring. Degenkolb’s sprinting power was key on the final stretch as he became only the second-ever German winner.
  • 23 January, 2016: Shock training crash Big things were expected in 2016 for Degenkolb, but he was struck by a car during training. His momentum-sapping injuries meant he missed the spring classics.

“Of course, the accident was in the beginning of the season – it was a big setback,” Degenkolb tells Sport360.

“But, my biggest memories of it were the time when I fought my way back. I had a great comeback riding the Tour de France [highlighted by coming fourth in the mass sprints both on stage 14 and 16] and also winning races afterwards again – it was great to see and also motivating for the future.”

Treatment blocks in Valencia and Hamburg got him back on the road, although the injury to his hand has provided a nuisance during the high-octane sprinting environment whereby every advantage – or disadvantage – counts.

After such a harrowing incident, is it a bigger mental or physical challenge to come back in winning condition?

“It was both,” Degenkolb replies.

“Both parts are crucial to be successful in cycling. “If you have the physical ability, you also have to be mentally strong.”

Degenkolb isn’t the only new face at a Trek team that has been reshaped following the retirement of legendary Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, with two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador the other headline arrival. The pair will carry the hopes of the outfit this term.

The German will gun for sprint success and his iconic colleague will aim for general classification glory. They have been warming up together in Spain for the last month, although Contador will not take part in Dubai and has not been confirmed for next month’s Abu Dhabi Tour.

What have Degenkolb’s first impressions been of his illustrious – and controversial – team-mate?

He says: “We had a couple of rides together. He is a very professional rider, which inspires the whole team. It gave all of us the right spirit and motivation to push your limits. it was great to have him in the training camp.

“In general, I think the team is going really well. It is a team with the right balance. “We have some fun, but also we can be professional riders.”

Doubts have grown about 34-yearold Contador’s enduring prowess after an underwhelming 2016. The Spaniard withdrew while down in 20th place before the ninth stage of the Tour and finished more than four minutes behind winner Nairo Quintana in fourth at the Vuelta.

Despite these setbacks, Degenkolb had no doubts about his colleague’s retained ability to challenge for cycling’s elite prizes.

He says: “I think he [Contador] is very motivated and still hungry to be successful. I don’t doubt to see him even winning the Tour and being really successful there.”

A promising run in Dubai will lay the foundations for another shot at the spring classics and Grand Tours. Further motivation is found in the fact 2017’s Tour begins on home soil in Dusseldorf, on July 1.

“I wouldn’t call it a massive target, but it is a big thing,” Degenkolb states. “I’m really looking forward to starting the Tour in my home country – it is on my bucket list. “[But] For me, the Tour is still very far away. Right now, I am only focusing on the spring classics, of course.”

The Dubai Tour evokes vivid memories for Degenkolb. He produced one of the race’s iconic moments in 2015, collapsing exhausted after straining his way to victory up Hatta Dam’s sharp climb.

“It was kind of painful,” he jokes. “That is the biggest memory I have of that. The nicest thing would be to repeat that and to have a good performance there again. I have a great team to support me.”

A fresh start and new colleagues means this week represents a trip into the unknown against fellow sprint kings Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel. No matter how it goes, a rider who has been through so much is refusing to countenance any definite conclusions being drawn.

He says: “Of course, the main goal is just to kick off the season and get in the kilometres. But winning a stage is always nice, especially in the beginning of the season.

“Then, you gain the confidence for the next races. But if not, I think we should not be disappointed – plenty of races are to come.”

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