Next season will see several big changes in the UCI WorldTour, with Tinkoff and IAM Cycling folding, Dimension Data possibly dropping down to Pro Continental status, and several other teams eyeing the vacant spots.
One of these teams, almost certain to take a place in the 2017 WorldTour, is Bahrain-Merida. The formation of the team has been decried by some, with rights groups, journalists, and fans questioning how an accused human rights abuser in Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa would be permitted to run a team in accordance with the UCI’s Code of Ethics.
On the sporting side, the team looks to be a very interesting prospect. Vincenzo Nibali, one of a handful of men to win all three Grand Tours, is the centerpiece of the new team, but over the past month there have been announcements about a slew of other signings, with seven Italians among the 14 announced.
Heinrich Haussler (from IAM), Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani-CSF), Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Niccolò Bonifazio (Trek-Segafredo) and Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) are some of the standout signings, with doubtless more notable riders still set to be announced.
Visconti and Gasparotto raced last week at the Tour of Britain, and spoke with CyclingTips about motivated them to join the new team in 2017.
Visconti, given a free role in Britain, was active during the week. He cropped up in a number of breakaways, but ultimately had an unsuccessful race. He said as much on the morning of the final time trial in London.
“Bah, it was really a not-so-good race. But for the next goals it has been a very good week,” he said, finding the positives after a fruitless week in Britain. “I will end the season with Movistar at Lombardia, but now I will race the European Championships and the other classics in Italy. I hope to win a race.”
Gasparotto, riding for Belgian Pro Continental team Wanty, was less visible in Britain, something he attributes to illness. “It’s a really well-organised race for sure, but I didn’t enjoy it so much because I was sick the last three days,” he said. “I had stomach problems and a fever, so I suffered too much, but it’s a nice race.”
The future teammates had contrasting fortunes in 2016. For 33-year-old Visconti there was just one win, at Klasika Primavera, a small Basque semi-classic held in April. His standout result at the WorldTour level, where he hasn’t taken a win since a stage of the 2013 Giro d’Italia, was probably an eighth place at the Amstel Gold Race.
“Here [at Movistar] in five years I forgot a little bit how to win,” Visconti said. “In my career I won around 25-30 races, and now it’s a little more difficult for me because when you work for the team, when you have teammates like Nairo [Quintana], like Alejandro [Valverde], it’s not so simple.”
For Gasparotto, a year older than Visconti, it was one of the best years of his career. A repeat of his 2012 win in the Amstel Gold Race came as something of a surprise, while he also took second in Brabantse Pijl and fifth at La Flèche Wallonne.
“The first part of the season was really super, I cannot say anything different about Amstel, Brabantse Pijl and Flèche,” he said. “The second part was a bit unlucky with the collarbone that was broken in the Tour de Wallonie and being sick now.”
The duo’s reasons for signing on the dotted line for Bahrain-Merida also differ. Salary was obviously a factor, even if that was left unsaid.
A return to winning ways is also a motivating factor, with Visconti calling the move a “refresh” after enduring something of a stagnation at Movistar.
“I would have liked to stay with Movistar, because it’s a good team and good family for me,” said Visconti. “After five years here it’s not so simple to leave, but I have a new opportunity. The [Bahrain-Merida] team want me to work for Nibali, but also give me possibilities to race in the classics, so I like it.”
For Gasparotto, who rode for Astana for five seasons, from 2010 to 2014, a two-year deal with Bahrain means he could well end his career at the WorldTour level. He’ll be 36 when his contract comes up for renewal.
“I can go back to the WorldTour and I’m really happy about this,” said Gasparotto, who hails from Friuli in Italy’s far east. “It’s a good project that I want to be a part of, and I want to help it grow year-by-year. There is a good possibility [to ride Grand Tours again], for sure I’m going to do one. And yes I will get to do those big races again. I miss a little bit the races like GP Montreal, GP Quebec, that kind of race, so yes I’m happy to be back in the WorldTour.
“I’m the same rider and nothing has changed in terms of goals. My dream is Liège-Bastogne-Liège, so I will work to achieve that,” he added.
Regardless of which names are added to the Bahrain-Merida squad over the coming months it will be interesting to follow the progress of these two Italians, both seemingly in the autumn of their careers.
When speaking about their new team, both Visconti and Gasparotto appeared to be full of hope. With time running out to realise their dreams, could Bahrain-Merida be just what they need? Time will tell.