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Riis breaks talks with Tinkoff Bank; Saxo seeks replacement sponsor

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Jul. 25, 2013
Saxo-Tinkoff will have a new name — and a new kit — for next season with the departure of co-sponsor Tinkoff Bank. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

The unlikely partnership between outspoken Russian businessman Oleg Tinkov and the stoic Bjarne Riis is over.

Just days after Tinkov criticized Saxo-Tinkoff star Alberto Contador on his supposed Twitter account, Riis confirmed negotiations to continue a sponsorship deal beyond the end of this season are dead in the water.

The decision leaves Riis with only Danish investment bank Saxo Bank as its lone sponsor going into the critical 2014 season, just as he and Contador are desperate to play catch up with Sky and Chris Froome.

“During the course of our extensive negotiations with Tinkoff Bank, it has become clear that we are unable to settle on common views and the ideas that are necessary for our partnership to grow and be successful for both parties beyond 2013,” Riis said in a statement on the team’s website. “Most importantly, we disagree on how the team should be run.”

Riis insists he has other sponsorship options lined up to continue on solid footing for 2014, so the break marks the end of an unlikely and potentially explosive relationship between two disparate personalities.

Tinkov is a self-made millionaire who rose out of the ashes of post-Communist Russia, earning millions with a chain of restaurants. He later started a credit card bank, giving him the money to enter the cycling game in 2007 with the Tinkoff Credit Systems. That team morphed into Katusha, leaving the charismatic Tinkov on the sidelines.

Riis, a man of few words, remains one of the most controversial figures in cycling. Despite admitting he won the 1996 Tour doped on EPO and other drugs, he remains popular among Danish cycling fans.

Tinkov linked up with Riis in 2012, joining the squad as a co-sponsor in time for Contador’s return from his backdated two-year ban from his clenbuterol case.

Looking to bolster the lineup to support Contador, Riis needed an extra sponsor and gladly welcomed the arrival of the Russian.

It was not sure how much Tinkov brought to the table, but sources cited a figure of 6 million euros, a realistic number for a major co-sponsorship.

Riis has been perpetually strapped for cash, and the arrival of Tinkoff Bank as a co-sponsor helped open the checkbook to sign such riders as Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers, and Nicholas Roche.

The 2013 Tour began with Tinkov reportedly ready to re-up with Riis, and there were even reports he was looking to take over as title sponsor and even buy out Riis’ license.

Things evidently went sour during the course of the Tour, however, and a Twitter account under Tinkov’s name became an outlet for ever-outrageous comments.

Team officials could not be reached to confirm the veracity of a Twitter account under Tinkov’s signature @olegtinkov. His remarks on Twitter started to become so outrageous that many assumed it was a “fake” account, but some within the team believe that it is indeed Tinkov’s real account.

Writing between Cyrillic and English, Tinkov takes aim at just about everything and anyone.

Two days ago, Tinkov’s twitter persona seemed to boil over. Tinkov posted that he is leaving Riis and taking his 6 million euros with him. He had especially stern words for Contador, who failed to reach the Tour podium with a fourth-place finish.

“His [Contador's] salary doesn’t match his performance. Too rich and isn’t hungry, that’s my opinion, and I deserve it. He must work harder,” the posting read.

Those comments were widely reported in the Spanish media, which claims the Twitter account was indeed Tinkov’s.

Tinkov’s departure leaves a huge hole in the Saxo team budget moving into the 2014 season.

Saxo Bank has confirmed it will stay on through next year, giving Riis some breathing room as he searches for more money to keep some of the big-name riders on board.

“We already have a strong portfolio of partners on board, and our key partner Saxo Bank have told us that they are ready to continue their sponsorship in 2014 and are willing to help us find a solution that benefits all parties involved,” Riis said. “So I’m confident we will be able to continue to field a strong and competitive team in the years to come.”

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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