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Announcing that he will spearhead the new Bahrain Merida team, 2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali has confirmed a long-rumoured move to the aspiring WorldTour setup.
“I was immediately fascinated by the idea of a strong project plan built around me,” he said in a team announcement. “I have believed in the team from day one, because it has a clear vision and is to be carried out by some of the best professionals in the sport.
“This trust and confidence in me made me take the final decision for this new exciting adventure of my career. I can’t wait to meet their expectations at the most important races in the world wearing the jersey of Bahrain Merida.”
The project has been a controversial one due to the involvement of Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of the country’s ruler. He has faced allegations that he has directly and indirectly been involved in torture. Human rights groups have called on the UCI not to give the team a licence, and have also directly approached cycling sponsors and asked them not to be involved.
However speaking to CyclingTips at the Tour de France, UCI President Brian Cookson indicated that the governing body would assess the team like any other.
“If some government, some sponsor is free to do business in the rest of the world, it is difficult for sport to hold that person, that business, that government to a higher standard.
“Until someone is proven guilty of some crime or some offence which stops them taking part in international life, then there is very little that a sports body can do about it.”
He said that the UCI could find itself in hot water if it turned down the team because of such allegations.
“Let’s be realistic about this” he said. “If we try and act above and beyond the law we will be taken to whatever appropriate court and if we have acted above and beyond the law we will lose.”
Nibali is the first rider to be confirmed for the team. He is one of only six riders to win all three Grand Tours, having won the Tour in 2014, the Vuelta a España in 2010 and the Giro d’Italia in 2013 and again this year.
Others announcements will be made in the coming weeks, with some riders expected to move across from the current Lampre-Merida squad.
The team is expected to apply for a WorldTour licence for 2017 onwards.