The holiday is over and it is time for the professional riders to start their serious training for the 2017 season. After the team building activities at the first team meetings in December, the month of December is traditionally the time for the first real training camps where the first drafts of the season schedules are made and just a few weeks later, the cycling season is in full swing at the Tour Down Under. During the next few weeks, CyclingQuotes prepares you for the coming season in a series of analyses where we take a detailed look at each of the 18 WorldTour teams and what to expect during the next 12 months.
Below we take a look at the Bahrain-Merida team.
Valerio Agnoli (Astana), Yukiya Arashiro (Lampre-Merida), Manuele Boaro (Tinkoff), Grega Bole (CCC), Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek-Segafredo), Borut Bozic (Cofidis), Janez Brajkovic (Unitedheathcare), Ondrej Cink (neo-pro), Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani), Chun Kai Feng (Lampre-Merida), Ivan Garcia Cortina (Klein Constantia), Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Tsgabu Grmay (Lampre-Merida), Heinrich Haussler (IAM), Jon Ander Insausti (Euskadi), Ion Izagirre (Movistar), Javier Moreno (Movistar), Ramunas Navardauskas (Cannondale-Garmin), Antonio Nibali (Nippo-Vini Fantini), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Domen Novak (Adria Mobil), David Per (Adria Mobil), Luka Pibernik (Lamre-Merida), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Kanstantsin Siutou (Dimension Data), Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Meiyin Wang (Hengxiang)
Riders leaving the team
Analysis of the transfer campaign
When he decided to create a professional cycling team two years ago, Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa invited Vincenzo Nibali to Abu Dhabi for an informal talk. Even though the grand tour star was also trying to create his own Italian team, the prince’s plan since that day has been to make Nibali the leader of his new formation. When it became clear that there was no opportunity in his home country, the Giro champion decided to make the brave move to the Middle East and from there, things have evolved.
With Nibali playing a key role from such an early stage, the team is largely built around the Italian. Unlike other new teams which have had more modest and different goals in their first years, the Bahraini squad is aiming for the starsright from the beginning. The goal of the transfer campaign has been to build a team that is able to support Nibali in his quest to defend his Giro title while also securing enough WorldTour points to get a license for the elite division. Every other goal has been less important and even though the team has clearly had an eye on the classics too, it has been subordinate to the larger aim in the three-week races.
However, Nibali can only be partly satisfied with the outcome of the campaign and his support crew will be a far cry from the formidable one he had at Astana. Unlike in past years when his team has been able to rip the race to pieces, Nibali could very well be isolated pretty early. The best climbers among the new signings is Ion Izagirre but he is unlikely to play a support role. Instead, it will be left to the likes of Kanstantsin Siutsou, Giovanni Visconti, Javier Moreno, Janez Brajkovic and Tgabu Grmay to accompany their captain in the mountains. Even though Siutsou has finished in the top 10 in the Giro and has been a strong domestique in the past, that’s a pretty meager outcome of a campaign whose main goal was to provide support for their leader. Visconti is a solid, albeit not pure climber, Brajkovic hasn’t been at his best for years, Moreno has never been among the strongest in the high mountains and Grmay is still work in progress.
The signing of Izagirre has mostly got attention due to the fact that the Basque carries a lot of points. However, there is little doubt that it is a real coup by manager Brent Copeland. Even though he is unlikely to develop into a grand tour contender, at least not in the short term, Izagirre has developed into one of the best one-week stage racers and his presence is almost a guarantee for results in the many races during the spring.
For the one-day races, the team has made another coup. Sonny Colbrelli had a setback in 2015 but in 2016 he proved that he has the potential to become one of the best classics riders. The Italian has already won a lot of races but his Bardiani team has had little chance to show his talent in the big international races. However, his third place in the Amstel Gold Race is a clear indication of how far he can get in the moderately hilly classics where he can benefit from his fast finishing speed. If one adds the signings of Visconti and Enrico Gasparotto who reached his best level at 34 years of age in 2016, the team is well-equipped for every hilly one-day classic.
The final very promising signing in the team is Niccolo Bonifazio. The Italian has a very fragile nature and is pretty inconsistent. However, his impressive performance at the Tour de Romandie where he nearly beat Marcel Kittel in a head-to-head battle, and his stage win in the Tour de Pologne where he got the better of an in-form Fernando Gaviria, is a sign of things to come. The problem will be a lack of support in a team built for the GC but there is little doubt that Bonifazio is one of the most promising sprinters.
What to expect in the classics?
As said, Bahrain-Merida have clearly had their eyes fixed on the grand tours when putting together the roster for their first season and so it is no surprise that the team is likely to play a less prominent role in the one-day races. Nonetheless, the management has shown a keen desire to develop into a classics team too and they have signed riders for both the cobbles and the hillier races.
There is little doubt that the team will play a bigger role in the Ardennes than they will do on the Flemish cobbles. The trio of Enrico Gasparotto, Sonny Colbrelli and Giovanni Visconti will form a potent trio in the hilly one-day races. Gasparotto may be in the final part of his career but no one can deny that his performances reached a whole new level in 2016. He won Amstel Gold Race, did his best Fleche Wallonne in a finale that has always been too steep for him, and if it hadn’t been for the cold conditions, he would probably have been one of the strongest in Liege too. If he can reach the same level in 2016, the team can have a real shot at victory with the Italian in both Amstel and Liege.
Visconti has never developed into the Ardennes specialist than many expected and he is unlikely to win one of the biggest races. However, his fast finishing speed means that he is likely to pick something up along the way in a team where he will have more freedom.
Colbrelli is unlikely to play a role in Fleche and Liege but Amstel Gold Race is tailor-made for the Italian. With Gasparotto and Visconti ready to follow the attacks on the Cauberg and Colbrelli waiting for the sprint, the team is equipped for any scenario in the Dutch classic and will be one of the favourites.
Vincenzo Nibali will have a less intense classics schedule but the Italian may ride in Liege and try to go for another win in Lombardy. This adds serious firepower to the team.
The team is clearly less stacked with talent for the cobbles. Heinrich Haussler will lead the team but the time when he can realistically go for victory in the big races is over. Last year he finished in the top 10 in Roubaix but that result was largely due to the big crash. Top 10 finishes in some of the WorldTour races seem to be the best possible outcome.
It will be more interesting to see what Colbrelli can do in the Flemish races. On paper, they suit him down to the ground but he probably needs a bit more experience to be a real contender. He may show himself in races like Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen though.
For the rest, it will all be about opportunistic riding. Ramunas Navardauskas has the engine to do well in the Flemish races but he always struggles in the fight for positioning. However, he is the kind of rider who can emulate Imanol Erviti and make it into the top 10 in Flanders and Roubaix by joining the early break. If that happens, his fast finish makes him capable of delivering a major surprise. Enrico Gasparotto may also return to the cobbles but after his great 2016 season he is likely to focus fully on the Ardennes.
Finally, Niccolo Bonifazio has been up there in Milan-Sanremo and he has all the skills to finish on the podium in that race. He may also be a contender in some of the easier races on the cobbles where his fast finishing speed could see him claim a big win in Flanders.
In the autumn races, the team have Colbrelli, Bonifazio and Gasparotto. Colbrelli and Bonifazio will form a strong duo in races like Hamburg and Plouay while Gasparotto and Colbrelli will be a lethal combination in Canada. In the harder Italian races, it will be up to Nibali to come away with the goods, most notably in Lombardy. However, everything will depend on whether he does the Giro-Tour or the Giro-Vuelta double.
What to expect in the grand tours?
In the first year, the big goal for Bahrain-Merida will be the Giro d’Italia. The team will go into the race with the defending champion and Vincenzo Nibali has made a defence of his title the big goal. That will be the only focus during those three weeks in May and the team is likely to travel to Sardinia with a team fully dedicated to their captain.
Nibali is one of the most decorated grand tour riders and he is well suited to the course. There is little doubt that the captain is strong enough to win but as already said, his support crew is less impressive. The likes of Kanstantsin Siutsou, Giovanni Visconti, Janez Brajkovic and close friend Valerio Agnoli are likely to form the backbone of the team which makes it evident that he will feel pretty lonely when he is up against what is likely to be formidable teams from Sky and Astana. He may still be good enough to win the race but it will be a much more difficult ride than he has had in the past.
The team will put less of an emphasis on the Tour de France and it is less evident what kind of goals they will have in France. However, they have to come up with something for the sport’s pinnacle event. Nibali has not ruled out that he will do the Giro-Tour double but with three weeks of racing in Italy in his legs, he is more likely to go for stage wins or maybe a top 5 than have a real shot at the podium.
Ion Izagirre may be given the chance to go for GC after his ill-fated attempt at the 2015 Giro but he has openly admitted that he regards himself more of a rider for one-week races. We doubt that he will be a real grand tour contender in the short team.
A big goal for the team will be to win a stage. Sonny Colbrelli is a real winning machine but the race in France doesn’t really suit him. It is unlikely that he will get any room in the Giro and it would probably be better to save him for the Vuelta. Niccolo Bonifazio may be given a shot in the sprints but in a race where the stages are often very flat and the really fast guys are in attendance, it won’t be easy. Nibali seems to be the best chance to come away with a stage win in what could be a very opportunistic Bahrain-Merida team.
The plans for the Vuelta a Espana are totally up in the air. If he opts to skips the Tour, Nibali will obviously be one of the big favourites and if that’s the case, the overall win will be the big goal. There is also a big chance that the team will have more of an eye on a stage win here and this could open the door for Bonifazio and Colbrelli who both have the talent to win on Spanish soil.
What to expect elsewhere?
In addition to the grand tours, the team will have a big focus on the one-week stage races. Ion Izagirre has won in Poland and been on the podium in Romandie, Switzerland and the Basque Country. His great time trialling skills and decent climbing ability mean that he can now realistically aim for victory in Paris-Nice, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Tour de Romandie as all three races tend to have a time trial suited to his skills. While Nibali has his eyes on the Giro, it will be up to Izagirre to make the team visible in the stage races in the spring.
It remains to be seen what kind of calendar the team will have but in recent years Colbrelli has been the most successful rider on the Italian one-day scene. If the team opts to add those races to the calendar, they will win a lot in the former Bardiani rider’s home country. A rider like Grega Bole is also suited to these races but while he can achieve many places of honour, he won’t win a lot.
The team has had less of a focus on the sprints and their fast finishers won’t have much support. Bonifazio has the speed to win in hilly races like Romandie, Pais Vasco and Catalunya but he may not have the team to make it possible. The same goes for Colbrelli while Navardauskas seems to have moved away from sprinting. While the team will never be a player in the big bunch sprints, they could do well in the harder races with a sprint finish if they gather all their fast riders that include the talented neo-pro Ivan Garcia Cortina.
Who’s ready to surprise?
It’s hard to describe Sonny Colbrelli as a rider ready to surprise as he has already won 15 pro races and been on the podium at the Amstel Gold Race. Nonetheless, he has flown a bit under the radar and many are still unaware of his talents. The Italian has a huge potential and in a bigger team with better support, he can win a lot at the WorldTour level. Don’t be surprised if he is on the top step of the podium at the Amstel Gold Race and wins stages in many hard WorldTour races, including the Vuelta.
Most of the team is made up of proven domestiques with lots of experience but the team has also signed a few neo-pros. 2017 is probably a bit too early for the them but it will be a good idea to keep an eye on some of them. David Per won the U23 Tour of Flanders in 2016 and has the potential to become a solid classics rider in the future. The same goes for Ivan Garcia Cortina who was in the top 10 in both the U23 Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and at the World Championships. The Spaniard is also a pretty fast sprinter. Finally, Domen Novak is a promising climber but he is unlikely to be ready to achieve results already in his first year in the team.
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