The Middle East’s other well-heeled, reasonably successful cycling Tour team saw its world turned inside out on March 21 last year when its leader, Italian classics ace Sonny Colbrelli, collapsed briefly into a cardiac arrest following a stage sprint at the Volta a Catalunya. Colbrelli survived and recovered just fine — a familiar theme now to NFL fans who just experienced an eerily similar event — and the team rallied to have another fine year. But with Colbrelli forced to retire and transitioning to a director’s role, the 2023 squad will have to dig deep to keep up with the ever-rising tide of competition.
But before we go into all that, permit me a little sidebar...
1. Do we need Italian teams in the World Tour?
I started planning a discussion around the lack of officially-Italian teams in the World Tour while I was writing the UAE post the other day, but for some reason (mainly UAE having too many other subjects worth covering) I figured, nah, I’ll save that for the Bahrain-Victorious discussion.
Is that weird? Yes and no. Maybe it’s only in my head that Bahrain-Victorious are in some way the substitute for one of Italy’s two recent teams, Lampre and Liquigas. In the literal sense, they aren’t; Lampre’s license was supposed to go to a Chinese group who then fell out when its leader got sick, only for the UAE government to jump in. Liquigas’ license went away when the last iteration, Cannondale, merged with Slipstream/Garmin/EF Education. Lampre’s bike sponsor Merida and GM Bret Copeland did show up a couple years later in Bahrain to start this team. And their original leader was former Liquigas superstar Vincenzo Nibali. That’s about it, and maybe I should really have done this Thursday. But here we are.
The change in cycling sponsorship from Italian goods manufacturers to Arab state governments is jarring from a traditionalist’s point of view. Forty years ago when I was buying two-month-old Italian cycling magazines in Harvard Square for a peek at my theoretical heroes (or at least a chance to learn who they were and what they rode), the influence of Arab state governments on cycling was approaching if not literally nil. Places like Bahrain, UAE, even Saudi Arabia had no role in producing athletes, races, equipment or fans, while Italy was exporting all of the above en masse. [And France, Spain, the Low Countries... I know.]
Fast forward to now and the sport of cycling has been mondialised, as they say, something well represented at TBV and its riders from sixteen(!) different countries. But the contribution of Arab states remains very low, except for sponsorship dollars. It’s fitting, I guess, insofar as what you’d expect from a world where capitalism has gone into hyperdrive, especially around petro-dough, but in a sport whose real value lies in heroic performances and the landscapes that demand them, Italy’s presence is barely diminished. Comparatively, the ability of Arab monarchies to truly influence the sport, even with their countries’ names plastered on jerseys, remains marginal; at most, the UAE Tour event might generate a trickle of tourism, and its terrain is only suitable for winter warm-up races. Capitalism alone doesn’t bring sports fans lasting joy. Maybe if Bahrainian or Emirati athletes, inspired by these teams, start winning races — that would move the needle in a way we could really celebrate, more than just seeing rich guys in thoubs hanging around the VIP tent. [I see you, double-Bahrainian national champ Ahmed Madan!]
Until then, the sport needs sponsor dollars where it can find them;* a team’s country registration is just a piece of trivia; the sport’s culture forms around the athletes and coaches; and Italy is where people go for some or most of their cherished cycling experiences, racers and fans alike. That feels like enough, even for an espresso-toting traditionalist like me. If it bothers you, well, then definitely don’t go looking up where Italian bike frames are made.
[* Within limits, and human rights advocates would say that Arab governments are a test to those limits. That’s a much longer, less enjoyable, discussion.]
2. So who will win TBV a Monument this year?
The answer is possibly nobody, but they have taken a remarkable four of these in their six years of existence, including a two year streak of shock wins — first Sonny Colbrelli in the 2021 Paris-Roubaix, and then Matej Mohorič last year at Milano-Sanremo. Would you bet against them? Not if you want to keep your money.
The real question, though, is who and where. Wout Poels is seven years out from his Liège triumph, and given the competition there right now I wouldn’t bet a dinar on that happening. Mohorič was on fire last year but his wheel will have lots of company this time around. Gino Mäder isn’t a big one-day guy. Therefore the answer is... Fred Wright, in De Ronde, with a solo attack. Book it.
Often we attach labels to teams — grand tour squad, or cobbles, or a youth factory — even though all teams at the WT level are equipped to fill a variety of roles. It’s not crystal-clear what Bah-Vic conjures up in the minds of fans, but it should definitely be the classics. Mohorič and Wright have a nice lineup around them, with veteran support from Jascha Sütterlin, Heinrich Haussler and Nikias Arndt, plus developing talent like Johan Price Pejtersen, Filip Maciejuk, and especially Italian comic book hero Jonathan Milan. OK, I made up the part about the comic books, although with a name like that it might as well be true. Anyway, Johnny Milan is already winning sprints and is a dark horse candidate to do something big as soon as this spring. They aren’t trotting out a lot of household names (except Haussler!) but the quality is there.
Maybe that doesn’t guarantee them that third consecutive Monument win. But they will have a say in the classics, all spring long.
3. Is there anything happening in the grand tours?
Here is the less exciting part... I don’t know that we will hear from TBV in the big races outside of some stage attacks. Mind you, Wright was a stage-chasing revelation in both France and Spain last summer. But their biggest results came from two 32-year-olds, Pello Bilbao and Mikel Landa, both top five in the Giro, bucking their otherwise downward career trends. Worse, their Tour team centered around Luis Leon Sanchez and Dylan Teuns, both gone from TBV now.
That’s not to say they have nothing to work with. Jack Haig broke through with a third place in the 2021 Vuelta before crashing at the Tour last year and hurting his back, and the 29-year-old Aussie is now recovered and geared up to revive his pre-Tour form. Mäder already has a fifth overall at the ‘21 Vuelta, plus two other grand tour finishes, and would have made his Tour debut last year too had he not contracted COVID. Colombian climber Santiago Buitrago, just 23, showed his stage-hunting form at the Giro, and could make a case for trying out the Tour. Damiano Caruso — even older than Landa — seems to just keep showing up in the big events. Sprinter Phil Bauhaus is off to a good start in Australia and should bag a stage somewhere. Bottom line, it’s kind of a watershed moment for the team as they shift focus from their Italian and Spanish veterans to this younger outfit. At its best, and with Caruso, Bilbao and Landa still in the mix, they could be even more relevant than they were in 2022.
4. OK, tell me about some guys I don’t know
Hm, well their youngest rider is Fran Miholjević, a highly touted stage racer who already has a pair of Croatian national ITT titles to his 20-year-old name. He is just a couple months into his WT career so it may be a moment before he starts showing what he can do. In the meantime, 21-year-old Italian Edoardo Zambanini got a few results ahead of schedule last year that would portend good things: third and 13th on a pair of Vuelta mountain stages, fourth in the Gran Piemonte classic, and fourth overall (in amongst some big-name youngsters) at the Tour de Hongrie.
But these kids are kids, and it may be a while before they can really hang at this level. The pessimistic view of this team is that, if the older guys really do fall off and the younger guys need time, then suddenly the 1000+ point hole in their resume after Colbrelli’s retirement could make for some lean times. A lot of guys rallied impressively last year, which was great to see, particularly given how a shock like Colbrelli’s cardiac incident can affect a team. But it won’t be easy to repeat, since they are surrounded on all sides by teams awash in talent. Bahrain’s next iteration needs to come together quickly, but it’s a lot to put on their young guys right away.
5. Jersey rating time!
Unlike a lot of the teams, TBV has a short enough lineage to make it possible to consider every version of their kit. They have also consistently used bright reds and oranges, with blue accents, to convey the desert sun I suppose. But even within these narrow sidebars, there are some wildly — and I mean wildly — different efforts here.
2023: Shapes and Fades
Like a lot of the newest editions, it’s a culmination of what they tried out in past years. Here, TBV not only brightened up the previous year’s edition, but faded in some criss-crossing black bands to highlight it a bit, especially the team’s name in white. I actually think it works great.
2022: Just a little less ...
As compared to this version, which had some of the patterns and somehow looks ... awful next to the newest one. Thankfully Mohorič was in the lovely white Slovenian Champs kit when he won MSR.
2021: IT’S A LOT
OK, holy shit. I have to show both sides because one photo is not sufficient to take it all in.
Honestly, it’s kind of incredible, and I can’t really remember why I didn’t pay more attention to it in real time. [Answer: because Colbrelli won P-R in the Euro champ’s kit.] It’s like a complex, very artsy multimedia presentation distilled into a cycling jersey. Which is a bit of a shock to our eyes, and I honestly have no idea to this day whether I love it or hate it. But the idea is fantastic.
2020: Hot as the sun
Their lone season as Bahrain-McLaren featured a stylistically (if not color-wise) toned down look with just black lettering over the two-tone red/orange meld. Plus the patented blue sleeve band, which I have no idea what that means, except that it must mean something.
2019: Plain Jane
The first three years featured three slightly different versions of the same basic warm-red field with some blue around and gold accents and/or lettering. It all seemed a bit... royal? The 2019 version had the least going on.
2018: Gold Lacing
The first two years came with gold lacing in the style of Arabic art and architecture. This one was otherwise just a lot of red.
2017: First try
In contrast to 2018, the 2017 had a bit more blue. If I don’t sound excited about these developments, well...
Bahrain’s Best Look is...
2023: Shapes and Fades
2022: Shapes and Fails
2021: Multimedia Madness!
2020: Hot as the sun
2019: plain jane
2018: gold lace
2017: First try