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Rumors flying of new Riis team backed by Bahrain

Rumors are flying that Bjarne Riis is poised to link up with Bahrain to underwrite a new cycling team for 2017.

A few things line up to give the speculation some added credence. First, Riis and Saxo Bank associate Lars Seier Christensen are scheduled to hold a press conference Thursday in Copenhagen. Second, the crown prince of Bahrain posted on his Facebook account Sunday evening that a “Bahrain Cycling Team” is coming soon. Rumors that Riis recently traveled to the Middle Eastern kingdom only fuel speculation that Thursday’s announcement could see Riis’s re-entry into the peloton.

Here’s what Bahrain’s crown prince Nasser Bin Hamad posted on Facebook: “It’s real! I would like to officially announce the birth of Bahrain cycling team. Our main effort is to introduce the cycling sport, encourage and support young athletes, to maintain a healthy lifestyle in our region, and to compete with the best teams in the world.”

It’s that last phrase that’s sparking interest. Riis has made it no secret that he’s in the market to return to the peloton following his bitter exit from Tinkoff-Saxo last spring when team owner Oleg Tinkov sacked him. Saxo Bank ended its sponsorship with Tinkov last year, and Seier Christensen is once again cooking something up with Riis.

It’s not yet known exactly what Riis and Seier Christensen will unveil Thursday. The press conference was planned weeks ago, and there is speculation it could be nothing more than an announcement their intention of getting something going. Reports in Danish media that Riis recently traveled to Bahrain, however, have fueled speculation there could be something more substantial.

What’s behind Bahrain’s interest in cycling? Located just off the coast from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is certainly flush enough with petrodollars to sponsor a major European bike team. A slumping oil market could reduce the flow of government largesse, but like its neighbors in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain has tried to diversify its economy. The island nation has been marred with violent protests since the Arab spring in 2011, but the royal family has retained its grip on power.

Its interest in endurance sports is nothing new. This year, Bahrain backed an elite professional triathlon team, called “Bahrain Endurance 13 Team” featuring several top triathletes, and the crown prince is active in endurance sports.

Bahrain seems to be taking a page out of the recent cycling boom across the oil-rich region. Bike races attract top stars in Qatar, Oman, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, while Dubai also backs its own cycling team.

Whether or not Riis links up with Bahrain will be revealed Thursday, but it comes just as there are moves to create other new teams for 2017. Tinkoff is already confirmed to be leaving the peloton, but team general manager Stefano Feltrin is hunting for new sponsors to take over the team. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) has also revealed his intentions of trying to find sponsors to create a new Spanish team for 2017.