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Offseason Capsule: Bahrain Merida

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Lots of Meh, not much Bah, but a surprising amount of Wow

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One of cycling’s monied new projects had a relatively quiet second year but took a huge step in the right direction. There were a few glorious moments.

What we said last year

I pointed out that 2017 had been a team dominated by Nibali’s performance, without much spread of points. I wondered what we’d get from Sonni Colbrelli and outlined a range of possible outcomes, vowed never to underestimate Nibali again, and entirely missed the imminent emergence of Matej Mohoric. Fortunately, that error was rectified in the comments.

What we got in 2018

The last win of 2017 was an unsurprising monument victory for the evergreen Nibali. The first win of 2018 (that I care about - for effect, I’m ignoring a Dubai stage and the GP of industry and artichokes) was another monument win for Nibali. This was far from expected – if I had to describe it in three words, they’d be surprising, thrilling and glorious. The boss spent an article reflecting on how just why and how it was fantastic, and after a long season, it is good to revisit it. In a year without Froome’s Giro stage, I’d say it should have romped away with the race day of the year. You never get a day’s entertainment from MSR, but goodness me, the last half-hour is pulsating stuff.

Nibali’s year would move from the sublime to the ridiculous, as he tangled with a camera strap and a police motorbike during a chaotic climb of Alpe d’Huez on stage 12 of the Tour. He broke two vertebrae and was out of a race in which he sat dangerously in fourth. Frustrating for fans and for Bahrain Merida, but it was good to see him back at season’s end. He’d finish second in Lombardia and is back with Bah-Meh next year.

The team were led into the Giro by Domenico Pozzovivo, who finished 5th (adding high places in prestigious races like Liege, Lombardia and the Italian Nats, without getting a win) and in Spain by the Izagirre brothers. Ion’s 9th in the Vuelta was his first top 10 in a grand tour and not, you’d expect, his last. For much of the early season, you’d have taken Gorka as the stronger brother. In his sole year with the team he won the Spanish roads and added podiums on a Tour stage and in Paris-Nice.

Meanwhile and seemingly throughout the season, Matej Mohoric was on a rampage. His eye-watering descending prowess and fearless riding style won him many admirers and saw him grab overall wins in Binck Bank and Germany (the latter with a stage win) as well as a Giro stage, a stage in Austria, the aforementioned Artichokes win and a national championships. The offseason peanut gallery of 2017/18 were on the money; this was a breakout season. Elsewhere, Colbrelli was disappointingly quiet through the cobbles and Ardennes but did grab podiums in Kuurne and Brabant, as well as his usual glory in the autumn races of his native Italy.

All in all, the team grabbed 26 victories, with a range of winners, some prestigious trophies for their proverbial cabinet, and unexpected development of some talented youth. It was a good year.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

6th a huge step up on the 14th place they suffered through in 2017. Solid stuff.

Top Highlights

1. Vincenzo Nibali rode away up the Cipressa and held off the sprinters to win Milan-San Remo at the 10th attempt, adding a third monument to his four grand tours as he continues to build up a palmares that is seemingly not of this era of hyperspecialisation. Incidentally, he looked more than handy on cobbles, too.

2. You can more or less pick your moment from Mohoric’s season, but I’ll go with his tough and intelligent ride on the final stage of Binck Bank into Geraardsbergen. Riding to maintain a lead was a new experience and he took his first stage race win a world tour event with plenty of canny veterans poised to pounce. He’s more than a one-trick pony.

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3. Mohoric again, this time for his victory in stage 10 of the Giro. This was much closer to the “one trick pony” label – grabbing a two-up sprint after escaping on a long and rolling stage with a tough descent towards the finish.

Bottom Lowlights

1. Nibali grabs this for his misfortune on Alpe d’Huez. Only his biggest fans thought he was in a winning position but his race was a very long way from over. More importantly, this was a crash that was not his fault and which had serious repercussions (mercifully, he has made a full recovery, as it could have been even worse).

2. I’ve got through plenty of these capsules so far without having to refer to drugs, but Kanstantin Siutsou went old skool (and idiotic, assuming the test is accurate) in getting pinged out of competition for EPO. Not part of the image this team are going for.

3. After a year that went well by any reasonable standard, let’s put the transfer market in this spot, and return to it in the next section.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing), Stevie Williams (SEG Racing Academy), Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing), Marcel Sieberg (Lotto-Soudal), Phil Bauhaus (Sunweb), Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing), Jan Tratnik (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), Andrea Garosio (d’Amico-Utensilnord)

Outs: Manuele Boaro (Astana), Ion Izagirre (Astana), Gorka Izagirre (Astana), Niccolo Bonifazio (Direct Energie), Enrico Gasparotto (Dimension Data)

Renewals: Hermann Pernsteiner

There’s a lot here, so this section will be longer than usual.

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The names that leap out at me here are the Izagirre brothers, moving to Astana where they’ll provide Nibali’s rivals with valued lieutenants and grant the team other options in classics and weeklong races. They’ll be missed. Boaro joins them and is a versatile and experienced team member. Gasparotto’s departure is probably a function of age and opportunity but he’s not a rider to forget about on the biggest stage. Finally, nobody will be sadder to see Bonifazio drop out of the world tour than me, and my abiding belief in his talent.

There is plenty of talent coming into the squad, including Rohan Dennis and his rainbow chrono kit. Dylan Teuns stepped back on a great 2017 last year but is young enough and talented enough to fly, whilst nobody is ready to give up on Bauaus as a sprinter yet. Tratnik, Sieberg and Caruso are all useful pieces, Pernsteiner was worth keeping, and Williams is a youngster with untapped potential and well worth trying at this level. I was surprised to see Garosio given a permanent contract after underwhelming as a stagiare, but I’m willing to trust that the team see something in training or on the team bus that is yet to come across in his results.

Given that my only quibbles are with two Izagirres leaving (in a season where lots of talent came in) and one gamble was taken on a 24 year old who might not cut it at this level, why am I putting the transfer performance on the lowlights list? Simply because, after a successful year on the road, they’ve somehow made this team more confusing. Here’s Fausto (always worth reading in the offseason comments, but don’t tell him I believe that) commenting last year.

Bigger picture? Maybe we still don’t see a plan for this team because there isn’t one. At least, there isn’t one beyond “be Nibbles’ team until he wins the Olympics in 2020 and then retires.” It’s been his personal vehicle from Day1 and, for me, nothing they’ve done yet definitely contradicts that.

As a response, they’ve brought in Dennis, who for all his success as a time triallist continues to fail as a general classification rider and is one of the hardest talents to understand in the peloton. They’ve also brought in Teuns who is another of these “what is he good at?” types from whom BMC didn’t extract all of the available talent, and a sprinter in Bauhaus who is a long way from the finished article. None of these moves are, in themselves, wrong. Great riders without blemishes aren’t ten a penny on the market and a good team with a good plan can make unfinished pieces fit. This, though, feels more like a fantasy team than a cohesive unit. I don’t know if they’re trying to support Nibali, build for youth, or manage both. I don’t know what sort of races they are targeting. Truth be told, I don’t think they know either and the haphazard offseason simply hammers that point home.

Most intriguing rider

I’ve talked about Mohoric, who I think is more “talented and wildly promising” than intriguing, so I’ll leave him alone for now. Instead, I’ve edited out all references above to Mark Padun. Not because I’m not keen to talk about him, but because he belongs in the intriguing section. The intrigue is quite simple – he’s clearly good, but just how good can he be?

First, let’s look back at his results. Like a lot of the world tour wunderkinder, he’s done an awful lot right in the junior ranks, and his third place in Valle D’Aosta in 2016 caught the eye. A cursory review of the top ten will show why I rate that performance particularly. He stepped into Bah-Meh as a stagiare during a 2017 that was equally impressive but he wasn’t the highest-profile recruit of that season. In 2018, however, he showed his talents on the senior stage to great effect.

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In both the Basque Country and the Alps, he showed himself as an impressive climber, winning the final stage of the latter solo after descending away from an elite group. He was active in a break in stage 12 of the Vuelta, in which he’d finish 3rd, and come the U23 worlds, my only surprise was that he didn’t take the win (he was 5th). It wasn’t a consistent year but the signs of promise were clear. As the picture shows, he even grabbed a win, in the Limburg Hammer. No, me neither.

Looking ahead, I see a very good climber and a decent allrounder (he’s not awful against the clock and he seems to be a clever race tactician and decent rouleur. Ultimately, however, he’ll go as far as his climbing takes him. 2019 will be the year when we know how high that will be. He could prove himself a genuine star and add to the sense of continuation in this squad, or he could establish that domestique is his talent ceiling. My money is on the former, but let’s watch him closely.

So, what happens next?

The headline act for 2018 will be Nibali once more, and I just don’t know what that cat is planning. He’s still (understandably, IMHO) talking about legal action against ASO over the Tour fiasco, and is unclear whether he’ll target the Giro or the Tour. He’s a threat in any monument or grand tour he turns up in and others will work around him. Yes, he turned 34 last week (happy birthday, Nibbles!) and is entering his 12th season of competing meaningfully in grand tours, but I am sticking to my plan to never underestimate him again. He could easily win another monument or grand tour.

Among those working around him will be Pozzovivo, still a climber who’ll rack up top tens and world tour points, Colbrelli, who is a threatening presence throughout the spring and autumn, and Dennis, who is competing only with Dumoulin for pre-eminence among the time triallists. Teuns, Williams and Bauhaus are joining Mohoric and Padun in a team that now looks far younger and with far greater upside than the previous iterations. Any of the five could go well and Mohoric in particular will be feared.

I can’t build a narrative for this squad. I don’t know what they’re aiming for or even what races their biggest star will target. I do know, though, that 2018 was far better than 2017, and that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about 2019. This team are rocking the best jerseys in the peloton since Aqua Blue folded, and I think they’ll be more visible than ever.