Bahrain on ice? Peloton’s game of musical chairs ramps up

With the trading season opening August 1, teams, riders, and agents are jockeying for position in the market.

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LIMOGES, France (VN) — Next Monday’s rest day at the Tour de France is more than just a chance to recover. It’s one of the key days for team managers and agents to finalize deals for the upcoming season.

“These next days are very crucial,” Trek – Segafredo manager Luca Guercilena said. “We are active, and we have to hope within the next 15 days to find some solution. These upcoming days on the Tour are the days when everyone is very active.”

The 2017 rider market has plenty of big names coming off contract, and the media speculation has been just as active.

So where do things stand for some of the top teams and riders? VeloNews has been working the ropes.

The latest rumor, via L’Equipe, is that the Bahrain team is on hold until 2018. Without naming sources or providing details, the French sports daily reported that Vincenzo Nibali is back on the market.

If true, that tidbit will ricochet across the rider market.

With IAM Cycling and Tinkoff closing at the end of this season — though Tinkoff owner Oleg Tinkov joked to Sporza that he may be having second thoughts, “If [Peter] Sagan wins two more stages, I will stay in cycling!” — the Bahrain-backed project was expected to be the main new player with plans to join the WorldTour for 2017.

Speaking to VeloNews on Friday, UCI president Brian Cookson confirmed that the Bahrain project has yet to file an official racing license application. He also confirmed that he expected the team to be “taking over an existing license rather than forming a new team.” Other sources saying that a merger with the Lampre – Merida outfit was part of that game plan. Cookson also stated that there were no other major teams expected to come into the peloton for 2017.

If the Bahrain deal is on hold, it will have a major impact on the annual game of musical chairs. Several top riders were linked to the team, including Nibali and Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka.

Another major player on the market this year is Trek – Segafredo. With the imminent retirement of Fabian Cancellara and the added financial firepower of Italian coffee maker Segafredo, the U.S.-registered team is expected to sign a few marquee riders. John Degenkolb (Giant – Alpecin) has been linked to the team, as well as Alberto Contador (Tinkoff). BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert, another big star off contract this year, has been linked to both of the major Belgian WorldTour teams.

Speaking to VeloNews, Guercilena said, “It’s not easy to replace Fabian. With Fabian leaving, we need to find a substitute. We have been working the market to replace him with a strong classics rider.

“We are also looking for GC riders, but it’s a bit more complicated,” he said. “As a core, we are a classics team, so to hire a GC guy, we need another two or three riders to support him. We also have Bauke Mollema, and we are confident he can do a nice race. We will try to make something to have a second GC leader to be competitive on the WorldTour.”

Without revealing details, Guercilena’s comments seemed to suggest that an imminent Contador signing might not be in the cards. The Spanish grand tour rider has also been linked to Astana, where he raced in 2009 and 2010, as a possible replacement for the departing Nibali. If Nibali isn’t going to the Bahrain project, Trek would certainly be interested.

Another big player is the German-based Bora organization, which is bringing on a new co-sponsor, and could make the leap to the WorldTour next year. Tony Martin and world champion Peter Sagan have been linked to the team.

Other efforts to create new teams involving Contador (whose brother, Fran, has been searching for sponsors in Spain), ex-Tinkoff owner Bjarne Riis, and former world champion Thor Hushovd all appear to be in holding patterns until at least 2018. Cannondale recently merged with Pro Continental team Drapac, some of the latter’s riders and staff will be incorporated into the WorldTour structure.

Media speculation is one thing (often fueled by agents looking to hype the asking price of their “in-demand” riders), but deals can fall apart and come together in a moment’s notice. Last year’s mega-transfer involving Marcel Kittel from Giant – Alpecin to Etixx – Quick-Step didn’t happen until September.

Other rumors are quickly shot down. Barely hours after L’Equipe wrote that BMC Racing would be shuttering by 2017 if the team does not find a major title sponsor, general manager Jim Ochowicz shrugged it off as “pure rumor.”

“The team will probably continue as long as BMC exists, but we are looking for additional sponsors,” Ochowicz said. “The goal is to get someone as a title sponsor, and BMC as a supplier sponsor.”

The “official” trading season opens August 1, but much of the haggling and closing of the deals will go down in the coming weeks.

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