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Cappuccino with Oleg: Tinkov wants to limit peloton size

PINZOLO, Italy (VN) — Oleg Tinkov is never one to hold his tongue. The brash Russian millionaire is rich enough and smart enough to say what he wants, when he wants, and pity the fool who dares to disagree with him.

And he’s not shy about sharing his views. Whether it’s via his Twitter account — that was so outrageous that many were convinced it was a fake — or a self-described “manifesto” that he recently posted on Facebook to outline his vision of what professional cycling could and should be, Tinkov is a power to be reckoned with in the sport.

Ask him about politicians? “They are all losers. If you are imaginative, with ideas and charisma, why would you go into politics?” Or the general state of cycling? “The more I am in the sport, the more I realize how much stupidity reigns.” Or the future of his team? “The crisis in Russia with the ruble is over.” Or his big-dollar signing of Peter Sagan? “I won’t make that mistake again.”

So it was somewhat of a surprise that he enthusiastically backed an idea presented by someone else, when Tinkov sat down with VeloNews for an early morning interview. Specifically he agreed with Jim Ochowicz’s call to reduce the peloton by limiting major races to WorldTour teams. In fact, Tinkov said he had just read and tweeted a story posted on VeloNews about the issue moments before sitting down for a 45-minute chat over cappuccino.

“I kind of agree with this idea. I am not against small teams, but I am against the high number of teams in the races,” Tinkov told VeloNews. “The wildcard concept has its place in this sport, but 22 teams is definitely bullshit. That’s ridiculous. You would have much less crashes with 18 teams. That’s more than enough.”

Tinkov is the latest voice to join the debate about safety on the road, and the question of just how big the modern peloton should be.

Earlier this week, BMC Racing’s general manager Ochowicz prompted the debate with an open letter posted on the team’s website, sparking controversy by suggesting that second-division teams could be one reason behind the recent uptick in crashes.

That obviously didn’t sit well with the Professional Continental teams, which live and die by the wildcard invitations. In a scathing response to Ochowicz’s plan, Androni-Sidermec boss Gianni Savio said, “Ochowicz missed a great opportunity to keep his mouth shut,” and said wildcards teams are an essential part of the fabric of the peloton, insisting that it’s often the so-called smaller teams which light up the race, not the established, major teams.

Tinkov, like any smart businessman, is keen to protect his investment, and said the logic is sound behind Ochowicz’s call to limit the size of the peloton in the major races.

Alberto Contador, earning an estimated annual paycheck of $4 million, has barely averted disaster in this Giro, first, dislocating his shoulder in a crash in stage 6 provoked by a fan reaching into the peloton, and again last week, in a late-stage pileup just beyond the 3km to go banner. Tinkov echoed the sentiment that 200 riders and 22 teams is simply too big.

“I think 150 riders is about the right number. Why you need 200 riders, I have no idea,” Tinkov continued. “These days, with the speed bumps, roundabouts, there are more and more dangers. You cannot have 200 riders; it’s just not safe.”

The debate about how big the peloton should be, and how many riders should be in such races as the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, has raged for decades.

Smaller teams, such as Savio’s, loathe the idea of being locked out of races like the Giro. And race organizers like the wildcard concept, not only because those teams tend to animate the race and provide more local flavor, but it gives them additional potential revenue. Invite a small team from an emerging market, and guess what? Lucrative TV rights deals are usually part of the package.

Since his re-entry into cycling in 2014, Tinkov says that the more he learns about the inner workings of the business side of professional cycling, the less he likes what he sees.

“I am still new in the sport, but the more I learn about the sport, the more stupidity I see,” Tinkov continued. “What happened last year in the Giro with this ‘red flag’ on the Stelvio. If you remember, they put the red flag, for some it was a sign of emergency, for others, it was a sign not to overtake. The riders and sport directors were confused. I hope they have fixed that.

“But I see in this Giro the same stupidity is still there, with this 3km rule, when Alberto [Contador] crashed. He was 200 meters from the flag, and they did not neutralize it,” Tinkov continued. “I had heard in other races, there was a crash with 3.4km to go, and the time was neutralized. That is a complete mess, and it should be resolved. After 3km on the sprint stages, the time should be neutralized there for the GC riders. Let the sprinter teams make their trains, and let the sprinters have an open road to safely make their sprints. People want to see beautiful battle for the sprints, and later a beautiful fight in the mountains. They do not want to see Contador, [Fabio] Aru, or [Richie] Porte risk crashing. It’s not smart.”

Tinkov even suggested the “safety zone” could be extended all the way out to five kilometers to go in sprint stages with flat finales. At this point, Tinkov was just getting started, and that was just the five minutes into the interview.

“I start this interview criticizing the system,” he laughed. “What else do you want to know?”

Well, Oleg, since you asked … to be continued.