INSIDE STORY: Bahrain Merida’s journey of dreams

Matt Jones - Editor 09:53 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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