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Offseason Capsule: Team Bahrain-Merida

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When Chris started calling these guys Bah-Meh, it was hilarious.  Was it also prescient?

Monumental stuff in year one
Corbis via Getty Images

Season one for the World-Tour newbies, and they came in with a squad led by cycling royalty in Vincenzo Nibali. As you might expect, there were fallow periods, but the shark delivered some big results to keep things respectable.

What we said last year

They didn’t get a full preview, but we covered them plenty in covering transfer news, since they were a team exclusively of transferred riders. They basically launched themselves with Izaguirre, Colbrelli, and Nibali and some fillers.

What we got in 2017

Let’s start with the good stuff. Vincenzo Nibali was thought by many, me included, to be on the downslope of his career. Maybe so, but it proved to be a pretty gentle decline, not the sort of alpine hair-raiser he enjoys hurtling down. He’d finish the year 6th on the FSA-DS rankings, having picked up third in the Giro, second in the Vuelta, and a win in Lombardia for a wildly successful season. Oh, and depending on how things play out with Froome, he might just get his Vuelta upgraded, giving him a 5th career GT win. You might think this would please him. Not so.

Nibali’s stellar year netted him four wins, which made up a third of the team’s victories. Sonny Colbrelli picked up a further three in a year in which he stepped up to the World Tour for the first time. He continued to be a one-day specialist who performed nicely in Italy’s autumn season, winning the Coppa Bernocchi and backing it up with seconds in Beghelli and Sabatini, as well as 10th in Quebec (which isn’t in Italy, but fits the mould). His spring had been impressive, too. He picked things off with a win in Paris-Nice and also won Brabantse-Pijl, and was 9th in Amstel. More surprisingly to this writer, he was 7th in E3 and 10th in Flanders. Cobble-brelli; who knew?

The third rider of whom big things could have been expected was Ion Izaguirre. He did not entirely deliver, but the blame for this falls mainly on German weather; he’d been in decent form through the spring, with a podium in the Basque Country and top 10 in Paris Nice and Liege, but suffered a season-ending lumbar fracture in the Dusseldorf time-trial that opened the Tour. A real shame for a rider with a first chance to lead a GT squad, and we all hope he bounces back to his best in 2018. The rest of the squad had a quiet season, though Giovanni Visconti won Emilia.

FSA-DS Ranking 2017

14th – Four away from the basement, and (based on my crude “percentage scored by top five riders” measure, in which they hit 94%) the most unbalanced squad in the peloton. That fits my reading of their season. Nineteen of their twenty-seven riders scored 20 or fewer points.

Top Highlights

1. The twelfth and final win of the season was easily the most prestigious, with Vincenzo Nibali taking Il Lombardia for the second time. He came in well ahead of Alaphillipe and had time to celebrate a big win.

2. Nibali again, and he won the team’s first Grand Tour stage in his home race, taking the gruelling stage 16 and moving himself back onto the podium.

Nibbles won this sprint. Canny.
Corbis via Getty Images

3. I could go with Nibali and the Vuelta, but just for variety, let’s put forward Colbrelli’s Brabantse Pijl win. It crowned a very strong cobbled season for the Italian and proved that he would ride better on the bigger stages than many of us suspected.

Bottom Lowlights

1. Ion Izaguirre’s crash. It looked horrible, the doctors confirmed that it was horrible, and it was a shame it happened to a big rider at the start of a big race. Not good.

2. Another injury blow for a team lacking depth, Ramunas Navardauskas was out for the season after abandoning in the Dauphine back in June. That turned out to be a cardiac arrhythmia, and fortunately surgery was successful. Again, let’s hope for a full recovery.

3. I feel like I mention victory totals in a lot of these columns, and they aren’t always particularly important. On the other hand, Bah-Meh picked up 12 wins, fewest of all the teams. Must do better.

Comings and goings for 2018

Ins: Gorka Izagirre (Movistar), Kristijan Koren (Cannondale-Drapac), Matej Mohoric (UAE), Hermann Pernsteiner (Amplatz-BMC), Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale).

Outs: Tsgabu Grmay (Trek-Segafredo), Javier Moreno (Delko Marseille Provence KTM), Ondrej Cink (retired), Janez Brajkovic, Jon Insausti (Foundacion Euskadi).

Renewals: Sonny Colbrelli, Heinrich Haussler.

I’ve pulled my punches until now, but I don’t get this at all. This is a new team that should be developing rapidly. We see hardly any change, and what we do see isn’t towards youth. Grmay didn’t have a stellar 2017 but is 26, talented, and will be an asset to Trek. Where is the youth coming in? That’ll be Matej Mohoric, 23 and moving over from UAE. He’s a decent rider and a good piece to build around, but had far from a stellar development.

For 2018 alone, there are some good pieces. Gorka joining brother Ion makes sense, Pernsteiner and Koren are decent pieces, and Pozzovivo can still find a top 10 in a grand tour, as well as helping Nibali and Izagirre on their days. Renewing Colbrelli was a good move, and why not keep GHH around? Still, you’d have hoped for more fireworks here.

Most intriguing rider

I think this has to be Sonny Colbrelli, who really did surprise me with his performances on the cobbles. He’ll be watched more in 2018, but he’ll also have vastly more experience. There can’t be many riders who have made a top-10 on their first appearance in the Ronde. There’s a reasonable amount of support for him, and he’s got a decent finish. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he were to win one of the tough shorter classics. He’ll be around in the Ardennes and the Italian autumn, too. If last spring wasn’t a fluke, this could be a very big year for the Lombardian. Equally, virtual obscurity isn’t impossible.

We might see more wins on Belgian roads for Colbrelli. Then again, we might not.
Corbis via Getty Images

So, what happens next?

My take on this team is very simple. If I had to describe Bah-Meh in two words, those words would be shallow and old. I get that new teams will be shallow, and that building around a couple of stars makes sense. Colbrelli and Nibali were good choices. I like Izaguirre, too, as well as Bonifazio (who was disappointing in 2017) and I think a focus primarily on riders who can deliver one-day performances is sensible. What surprised me last year was the age of the supporting cast. 19 of their 27 riders were 27 or older. That’s a very mature squad, without the leavening of neo-pros you’d expect. What’s really frustrating is that they’ve not got any younger with the moves they made in the 2017/18 off-season. This team is still old and it is still shallow. They need to be winning now, because the future is no brighter.

There are likely to be wins coming to them in 2018. Nibali is another year older and with two more tough GTs in his legs; I was too fast to write him off last year but he won’t keep competing forever. Still, ignore him at your peril for 2018, with Liege, Lombardy and France likely on his radar. He could go well in Innsbruck, too.

Colbrelli I’ve talked about, and he made me into a fan in 2017. A similar year would be a great result. For Izaguirre, just returning to riding will be great and it’d be a surprise if he was competitive until the end of the year at the earliest. I’m rooting for him and Navardauskus.

The rest of the team need to step up. Pozzovivo can deliver some World Tour points and he’s still among the best climbers around, a top ten staple in the Giro and Vuelta. Bonifazio needs to improve but is only 24 and seems to be a Ben Swift type who does best after the toughest races. He and Colbrelli potentially make a great 1-2 punch for Milan San-Remo. One rare youth with talent in this squad is Ivan Garcia. There’s no shortage of hardmen-sprinters out there, but he’s another for the field, and he might make some noise in 2018 after a promising 2017.

I still don’t see a plan for this team, and whilst they won’t be terrible in 2018, they aren’t so good that they can choose not to bother with long-term planning.