The team might bear the names of a Gulf state and a Taiwanese bike manufacturer, but the feel is rather Italian. The core staff and most of the main riders are proud of their mamma, like their pizza and drink their coffee strong. Add a drop of Slovenia, garnish it with a few Croatian aides, a splash of oil money and Taiwanese bicycles and you’re set to conquer the world of professional cycling. The team can boast having the best debut year of any fledgeling on the cycling World Tour.
Well how the hell does a world tour team end up in sleepy December Hvar for a training camp? Well, first there’s the sports director Vladimir Miholjević the first Croatian to successfully complete a Tour de France. And then there’s a certain Riccardo Kuhar, a successful Hvar Italo-Croatian entrepreneur and triathlete that happens to know Paolo Slongo, the main coach, the guy who tells the Il Squalo, Nibali what he has to devour in training. And thus the team makes its’ landing.
Well behaved boys, these tightly clad cyclists. Some female journalists noted that never had they attended a training camp where no guys approached them or at least teased them thinking that every woman is just dying to get a piece of their clean shaven legs. The management also keeps stressing that these are all good boys. Although most of them are not what you would call academics. By and large they all dropped out of high school. But there is something curious about this gathering in a fancy hotel. As you hang out with the team you soon realize that everyone in the team; coaches, management, cyclists, the lot, are doing what they love, the job of their dreams, and they know it. Savouring the rain, 200 km rides, the fancy bikes, and painful massages. Everything but for those pestering journalists.
What about Bahrain? Isn’t that the country where there’s no free speech and no one rides bikes? Yes, the owner of the team is Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the guy whose hobby is a 100 million dollar pro cycling team, the fella who once used his diplomatic immunity to get away from serious human rights allegations. But there’s the flipside, the fact that the Sheikh is involved in sports has brought more and more people into sports, women included. They are investing in local Bahrain riders. So it is, in fact, a liberating factor. The world is a weird place indeed.
Weird indeed. Would you believe that Croatia can also be a tax haven? Several of the Italian riders on the team have decided to take up residency in Rijeka, or as they would call it Fiume, to get away from the Italian taxman. Although we Croatians see our taxman as the ultimate bogeyman, it seems Italians have it even worse. Sonny Colbrelli, Valerio Conti and others have chosen good old Fiume as there place of residence.
It started with a horse and a Slovenian? Well yes, there is a lot of Slovenians in the team, and the managing director, Milan Eržen from Novo Mesto, is the guy without which this project probably wouldn’t have been born. The ex-pro cyclist actually got introduced to the Sheikh when the latter purchased thin-air oxygen tents for elite endurance athletes designed by Eržen. Only the Sheikh purchased these for his prize-winning endurance race horses. Cause yes the Sheikh competes in Endurance riding. Eržen in turn had some contacts in the professional cycling stables and the wheels started turning…
Brothers in cycling are fairly common; maybe the most famous couple in recent history the Schleck brothers, in close attendance with the Yates twin-brothers that confound TV commentators around the world, each time they get fielded in the same race. BM has two pairings, I fratelli Nibali and los hermanos Izagirre, the guys that provide the team with a much needed Spanish flavor for all the Iberian stops on the world tour. Only, yes the guys are proud Basques. Oh well. Both sibling couples enjoy the sibling life in the team and claim they would never have it any other way. In cycling brothers, it seems, they get along surprisingly well.
So, some people are gay, get over with it. But wait, not in the pro peloton. Having attended this camp where a bunch of guys in tights spend most of their time in their revealing cycling costumes and discuss the best strategies on how to get rid of leg hair while getting hour-long massages makes you think how these are very emasculated guys. Yet, even macho soccer has more coming out. Weird again.
While I’m often very critical of Croatian roads and driving culture it’s good to sometimes hear the perspective of someone who is not biased. Vincenzo Nibali tells me that riding on Hvar he feels safer than riding in Sicily. Granted it is easier when a couple of support team cars are surrounding you. And a Swedish journalist, Gabriella Ekström having cycled all around the world says that touring in Croatia was fine and that while it’s not as good as the Baltic States, her favourite location, it’s also not as bad as, Sweden? So maybe we cyclist just get very annoyed when it’s our fellow countrymen trying to run us over.
Looking from the indigenous Hvar perspective, nobody on the island really fathoms why these cycling lunatics have taken over the sinuous roads of Hvar. The locals might be worried that an even longer off-season might disturb their traditional 4-month long siesta. Warily they watch the emasculated dudes cycling in the rain and think about the world going nuts. Isn’t happiness stuffing ourselves with pašticada while sipping Bogdanuša and listening to the sound of the wife cleaning the dishes. Che cazzo?
Cyclists are very much like sailors. On average they spend 200 days travelling the Globe chasing wheels. They also seem to get addicted to this globetrotting life and tend to plan their future around it. One asks oneself do these guys have families. Well, according to my interview sample most of them do. Then you inevitably wonder. These guys don’t really figure as desirable partners. Housework? Woman, got to fly to Paris and ride for three weeks. Help with the homework? Sorry, got to shave my legs and have my massage. Retirement? Sorry, now I have to manage the procurement of shaving cream and plastic bikes for my protégés.
The most interesting story sometimes turns up where you least expect it. A cycling prodigy of a different kind is Gabriella Ekström. A 17-year-old cycling infatuated girl starts a cycling newsletter and ends up being snatched by Cyclingnews, the most popular road cycling website. So, she starts to make a living scribbling away about cyclists she sees on TV. Soon the girl grows up to become a cycling TV presenter as well as a cycling team sports director and cyclo-historian. Today, a seasoned globetrotter, Gabi can veluminate you with accounts of unpleasant interviews with Lance Armstrong, cycling in Rwanda as well as non-cycling stories about being a tourist in North Korea or collecting tropical fish in the Amazon. With the notable exception of unsavvy Croatian specimens the rest of the cycling journalist posse was a bunch of people who perhaps love their job even more than the cyclists themselves.
Learn more about where Bahrain Merida was based during their stay - the bike hotel Pharos hvar bayhill.