UAE and Bahrain to make WorldTour series debut
Abu Dhabi - A Middle Eastern flavour has been added to the top level of international cycling in 2017 with two teams from the region joining the prestigious WorldTour series.
Squads based in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain will compete at the sport’s foremost events while raising the profile of the countries abroad and the appeal of cycling at home.
The UAE-Abu Dhabi Professional Cycle Team, unveiled this month by Emirati businessman Matar Suhail al-Yabhouni, who is the team’s chairman, was formed after Chinese company TJ Sport withdrew its sponsorship arrangement with the Italian outfit formerly known as Lampre-Merida. Backing from Abu Dhabi led to the team securing a WorldTour licence, a new name with the goal of “galvanising, elevating and promoting cycling” in the emirates, said Yabhouni.
Alongside the UAE team will be the Bahrain-Merida team, a fellow WorldTour first-timer. The team counts top cyclists such as Italian Vincenzo Nibali, winner of the 2014 Tour de France and 2013 Giro d’Italia, among its ranks.
Eighteen teams kicked off the 2017 WorldTour on January 17th with the 5-day Tour Down Under in Australia. That is to be followed by the Dubai Tour starting January 31st, and the Tour of Oman in mid- February. The season’s two biggest races are the Giro d’Italia in May and the Tour de France in July.
“We are excited to announce UAE Abu Dhabi, UCI WorldTour cycling team,” said Yabhouni. “We are proud to be entering a long-term partnership with one of the world’s longest-standing and most successful sports. The creation of the team will continue to galvanise, elevate and promote cycling in Abu Dhabi and the UAE.”
Mauro Gianetti, a former professional rider and manager, provided strategic advice to the company on its entry into professional cycling, which is thought to have cost $32 million.
“The idea was there right from the beginning of the Abu Dhabi Tour in 2015,” Yabhouni said at the launch. “It’s my own initiative to give something back to my country.”
UAE Abu Dhabi will be managed by former racing cyclist Giuseppe Saronni, who said: “We are called UAE Abu Dhabi, the nation’s team. We are proud. For the first time we don’t have a sponsor’s name on the jersey but the name of a nation.
“We went from a family team to a national team. Our investors believe in this project and it’s not just going to be a short term one.”
Saronni’s team had been sponsored by Italian steel company Lampre since its formation in the early 1990s.
Other team members include South African Louis Meintjes, eighth overall in the 2016 Tour de France; former world champion Rui Costa; British sprinter Ben Swift and UAE champion and Olympian Yousif Mirza.
“I’m honoured and thank Matar Yabhouni for selecting me to be part of this exciting new team,” Mirza said.
Until the UAE adopted the TJ Sport-Lampre project in the 11th hour in December, the Bahrain-Merida team was set to be the first top-level team from the Middle East to debut in the WorldTour series.
Italian rider Franco Pellizotti spoke of his enthusiasm in joining the team. “I am really happy for more than one reason,” he said in a statement. “I will race another season and above all with Bahrain- Merida pro cycling team, I return to the WorldTour, which means riding with top cyclists in the world…
“What makes me even more excited is the idea to be part of a new team, to share the enthusiasm of a new beginning with my co-riders and to feel everyone’s desire to achieve something good together.”
The Abu Dhabi cyclists will race on bikes made by the Italian company Colnago.
Bahraini Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who was instrumental in starting the team, recently posted a photograph on his Instagram account of him with one of the Bahrain-Merida team bikes from Taiwan’s Merida, one of the world’s largest bicycle manufacturers.
“We are extremely proud to be joining an exceptional group of cycling professionals and enthusiasts in our pursuit of further reach to the sport of cycling in our region,” he said in an accompanying message. “The Bahrain Merida Pro Cycling Team will also showcase the Kingdom of Bahrain on the global stage, by showcasing the Kingdom as a premier destination for both business and tourism, as well as supporting the growth of cycling within our part of the world.”