Italian veteran rider Enrico Gasparotto believes representing a Gulf-based team like Bahrain-Merida, and contesting races like the Dubai and Abu Dhabi Tours will not only raise awareness for cycling in this part of the world, but can also alter common misconceptions surrounding the Middle East.
The recently-concluded Dubai Tour witnessed the Middle East debut of not one, but two, new UCI WorldTeams founded in the Gulf region – Bahrain-Merida and UAE Abu Dhabi.
They are the first two cycling outfits to emerge from this region and join the sport’s UCI WorldTour and while all teams were gunning for victories at the Dubai Tour last week, Bahrain-Merida and UAE Abu Dhabi had the added responsibility of making a strong early impression while competing on what is essentially considered home soil.
“I can say that the first day was a little bit under pressure or stressful, because we know we’re a new team, we know that the first team in the Middle East, that’s important, so all of us wanted to show that we are ready to bring to the Middle East a strong team,” Gasparotto, the 2005 Italian national road race champion, told Sport360 on the sidelines of the Dubai Tour.
Bahrain-Merida was officially launched last month in Manama, with Grand Tour great, Vincenzo Nibali, at the forefront of the Kingdom outfit. Nibali was not present in Dubai and will make his seasonal debut at the February 23-26 Abu Dhabi Tour.
Things did not go so well for Bahrain-Merida in the first two stages in Dubai but their sprinter Sonny Colbrelli made the podium on day three and was in the top-10 in the fifth and final stage.
Interest in cycling is picking up in the Gulf region although the professional races are yet to attract the kind of mass audiences that turn up for similar events in Europe.
“At the moment, there is a lot of interest in cycling here in the Middle East,” explained the 34-year-old Gasparotto.
“It’s good to come here and at the end it’s also a good experience for me and for the European people that try to understand the people of the Middle East. That’s also good.
“Sometimes the press presents to us the Middle East in a different way, so I’m super happy to be here, to be in a Middle East team, to try to share the ideas for a better world and for better cycling.”
While the focus had been on the sprinters at the Dubai Tour due to its mostly flat course, the Abu Dhabi Tour will provide an opportunity for climbers with the third stage up Jebel Hafeet featuring a tricky 11km ascent.
Gasparotto said the goal for Bahrain-Merida in Abu Dhabi would be to help Nibali win the General Classification jersey.
Bahrain may be a new team but considering the calibre of riders they have, they already have big goals for the season.
“When we started with this, we were thinking in which way we can go, the Grand Tours or the sprinters or this or that? But for us we decided that the most important thing is to show the name of Bahrain in Grand Tours,” said Milan Erzen, a Slovenian former cyclist who is one of the key figures behind the team.
“For this reason we invited Vincenzo Nibali to the team, who is one guy who has won all three Grand Tours in the last five years. With him, we can make really good results in these races.”
For UAE Abu Dhabi, the situation is a little bit different. A lot of things were already in place when the team were under the Lampre guise. Abu Dhabi’s Kopaonik Property Investment LLC stepped in to save the outfit after they lost their funding and the result is the first-ever Emirati cycling WorldTeam.
UAE Abu Dhabi’s Middle East inauguration saw their local rider Yousif Mirza finish an impressive 13th overall at the Dubai Tour, while sprinter Sacha Modolo had three top-six finishes in the stages. The riders also featured regularly in the breakaways to give exposure to the new team and their sponsors.
“It is good pressure, to represent the whole country, because it’s interesting to try to give the best possible exposure,” said UAE Abu Dhabi sports director Orlando Maini.
“Okay, the results are important, but our first and main goal is to give an image of a united group, inside and outside the race. If you race, you behave, inside and outside the race as a united group, with good team spirit, you’ll achieve a lot of results. That’s the first main goal which will give satisfaction to the president Mr. Matar (Al Dhaheri) and the partners.”
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