Don’t be fooled by the smiles and handshakes in Monday’s press conference to announce Oleg Tinkov’s takeover of Bjarne Riis’s cycling empire.
It’s hard to say how long the Tinkov-Riis love-match will last, but most arranged marriages rarely do.
Tinkov’s money bought his way into the UCI WorldTour, and as he let it be known this summer, he likes to do things his way. And now that he is outright owner, the Russian entrepreneur will have nothing stopping him from calling the shots.
With his millions, Tinkov will feel obliged to meddle in the business of running the team, something that’s sure to grate Riis no matter how many assurances that he will remain the general of his troops.
According to details of the deal, Riis came out the winner, at least financially, with the Dane padding his retirement fund by 6 million euros, with another three-year deal worth a reported additional one million euros per year to be sport director.
Tinkov buys a WorldTour-ready team and will be able to strut his stuff at the Tour de France alongside all the big boys next season without having to complete the due diligence and sweat-equity that comes with building a team from scratch.
Riis confirms yet again he’s one of cycling’s true survivors and will remain at the helm, at least in sporting terms, but it will be interesting to watch how “the Eagle of Herning” handles being a minion to an interloper like Tinkov.
Just like Tinkov, Riis also likes to call the shots. Unlike Tinkov, Riis was never able to untangle himself from the burden of chasing sponsors.
Riis has always held in disdain fans with checkbooks, and firmly insisted that his sponsors simply provide the financial platform for his vision and little more. He was willing to do a song and dance for sponsors when he needed to, but there was a strict line that could never be crossed. Riis ran the team, end of conversation.
That intransigence is what created the fallout between Tinkov and Riis during the 2013 season. Tinkov naturally felt that his checkbook allowed him the right to opine; Riis naturally felt otherwise.
By July, things had gotten so bad between Tinkov and Riis, fueled by Tinkov’s sometimes hilarious Twitter outrages, that the pair publicly split, putting the team once again in choppy waters. Saxo Bank stepped up to fund stop-gap financing to assure the team going into 2014 — acting in a way that Riis believed that sponsors should act (writing a check, and stepping out of the limelight, thank you very much) — but Riis was in desperate straits.
It’s hard to discern if Riis simply wanted to cash out before a Danish investigation into alleged doping activities during the CSC era turned ugly — Riis insisted that was not his motivation for selling — but Tinkov’s arrival clearly marks the end of the Riis era.
The news of Riis’s buyout was seen as a blow by Danish fans.
Tinkov’s takeover will end the Danish imprint the team’s had since its inception. Though Riis always insisted the team was international in its makeup and spirit, many of its key riders and staff were Danish. Most of today’s leading Danish pros, such as Lars Bak, Matti Breschel, Chris-Anker Sorensen, and Jakob Fuglsang, got their starts with Riis.
Although Riis has been controversial at best, both as a rider and as a sport director, he remains one of Denmark’s most popular sports figures.
Despite having to confess to taking EPO en route to winning the 1996 Tour, Riis has stubbornly stayed in the game. When the Giro d’Italia started in his hometown of Herning in 2012, Riis was a bigger draw among fans than any of the contemporary pros.
As a team owner, Riis insisted on doing things his way. One motivation for becoming a team owner in 1999 was that he wanted to do things that he always wanted as a pro but never saw. He brought in such innovations as military-style team-building exercises that have been replicated across the peloton a decade later. Riis was the commander of his troops.
For Alberto Contador, Monday’s announcement is yet another bizarre turn of events in what’s been a career filled soap operas both on and off the bike.
Things have hardly been smooth sailing for Contador since turning pro in 2003, and he’s never been quite able to settle into a comfortable team setting. In 2006, just as his career was taking off, Operación Puerto engulfed his Liberty Seguros team. Contador escaped relatively unscathed and joined Astana, only to see that team prevented from racing in the 2008 Tour de France. The following year saw the arrival of Lance Armstrong in what turned into a living hell for the Spaniard.
Contador thought he had finally found a stable home with Riis after he penned a deal to join Saxo Bank for 2011, but just weeks after winning the 2010 Tour de France, he tested positive for clenbuterol, sending Contador spiraling into a tortuous, wrenching, two-year odyssey that eventually resulted in a back-dated ban in 2012.
Just when things looked to be on solid footing with the arrival of Tinkov’s millions at the end of 2012, which allowed Riis to sign such riders as Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers, and Nicolas Roche, things quickly began to unravel as Tinkov started harping publicly about Contador’s performances.
On Monday, Contador downplayed critical comments Tinkov made earlier this season, and publicly hailed Tinkov’s buyout as good news for him, for the team, and for cycling.
For Contador, the continuation of Riis at the helm as sport director was fundamental.
Insiders say Contador confides in Riis more than any sport director he’s ever ridden for. Contador has publicly stated he intends to finish out his big-dollar contract through 2015.
With Tinkov’s arrival, Riis will now be able to, at least in theory, focus all of his attention on winning the Tour de France again.
And therein lies the rub. If Riis and Contador can manage to beat Chris Froome and break Sky’s stranglehold on the Tour, Tinkov might leave well enough alone.
If Contador and Riis fall short again, however, it’s hard to imagine either one of them sticking around very long. Contador has Fernando Alonso waiting in the wings with what will be a new Spanish super-team for 2015, and Riis will have Tinkov’s millions earning interest in the bank. And Tinkov will be Tinkov.