The wealthiest men in cycling

I wrote about the wealthiest men in cycling back in March 2010, but fortunes can come and go, and now there are new names to add to the list and some names to delete.

If you thought the likes of Alberto Contador, Mark Cavendish or Philippe Gilbert were the best paid in cycling, time to think again. It is the people behind the scenes who fund some of the pro teams that are the wealthiest. Read on and you will find the missing link between Damiano Cunego and Jennifer Lopez.

Andy Rihs – BMC Racing
The 2010 piece was a contest between Bob Stapleton, the telecoms entrepreneur behind the Highroad team, and Andy Rihs, but Stapleton has left the sport. Rihs – pictured above – is the Swiss owner of BMC bicycles and the big benefactor behind the BMC team. Perhaps you’ve played in a fantasy cycling league like Velogames and wanted more credits to buy extra players? Rihs is playing for real and has almost limitless resources to fund the team. That’s why he’s got the likes of Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and more on his team.

Rihs isn’t wealthy thanks to BMC bikes. Instead he founded a hearing aid business that went from his garage to a global consumer healthcare giant called Sonova (formerly known as Phonak) and at the time of writing it is worth about US$6.5 billion. Rihs still owns 10% of the business (a stake valued at $650 million) meaning he gets a giant haul of dividends from this profitable company.

He was richer back in 2010, but the stockmarket has fallen and, more specifically, an insider dealing probe saw the share price tumble and it has yet to recover. Fortunately for him and the BMC team, Rihs and senior executives were cleared, but the Swiss fell on his sword and resigned as Chairman of the company after some governance concerns were exposed. The fall in the share price cost him plenty, but he’s still a billionaire and has interests in watch-making and vineyards. He is also building an indoor velodrome in Switzerland.


Igor Makarov – Katusha

Cipollini and Makarov

Russian tycoon Igor Makarov is a contender for the richest man in the sport, only nobody knows how much he is worth. If you read the Tinker, Tailor, Cyclist, Spy piece on here the other day you’ll know he is part of Russian Premier Vladimir Putin’s komanda of oligarch business owners. Makarov is probably a billionaire. He has appeared on Forbes’ rich list in the past based on the value of his declared holding in ITERA but it is possible he has greater wealth. His wealth via corporate ownership and other dealings is not exactly transparent. One piece by the Jamestown’s Institute’s Eurasia Daily Monitor makes some bold claims:

According to recently acquired documents, Makarov is the Ultimate Beneficiary Owner (UBO) of a slew of companies affiliated with Itera, many of which are registered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and other offshore tax havens including Cyprus, as well as in the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the UK (confidential documents obtained by the author).

The article makes some even more bold claims, but I’ll leave those for now. Note the Jamestown Foundation is reputed to be a front for the CIA, a US intelligence agency with a possible interest in discrediting foreign countries and companies. Either way, it is certain that he owns several luxury properties including a villa on the shores of Lake Garda, just up the road from his Katusha team’s service course.


Sergey Taruta – Lampre ISD
You probably have not heard of Taruta nor his job as Chairman of the Board at the Industrial Union of Donbass in Ukraine. In Russian this business is known as Индустриальный Союз Донбасса and its Cyrillic initials, ИСД, are ISD in the Latin alphabet. It is the co-sponsor of the Lampre-ISD team, the Italian UCI Pro Team. When younger Taruta was keen on cycling and football and he is now wealthy to indulge these interests on a grand scale.

Cipollini, this time with Taruta

Born in 1955, Taruta is billionaire and reputedly Ukraine’s second richest man whilst estimates of his wealth range from US$1-3 billion. He started ISD in the early 1990s with Vitaly Gaiduk and the two metallurgists took over steel mills in the east of Ukraine. At one point they were exchanging Ukrainian steel for Turkmen gas with a certain Igor Makarov; such barter trades were common in those days, but it’s odd to think two pro teams can trace their genesis to this trade.

In fact, we can add a third team because oddly a young Kazakh student called Nursultan Nazarbayev worked during his student days in one of the steel mills owned by ISD before becoming President of Kazakhstan… and the patron of the Astana team. And read the piece on the Omega Pharma Quickstep team’s Zdeněk Bakala who has business dealings with ISD too. Four teams, one Ukrainian steel mill.

Taruta is an astute survivor, once close to the imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoschenko he has now sold half of ISD to Russian interests backed by the Kremlin. The full story on Taruta, Makarov, Tymoschenko and others is for another day.

Taruta started the cycling team under the ISD name in 2007 and it grew into a Pro Continental level team with an Italian base. By 2009 the ISD team rode the Giro d’Italia. Come 2011 and Taruta switched sponsorship to the Lampre team, taking fellow Ukrainian Vitaliy Buts along with him.

He also owns the FC Donetsk football team – currently mid table in the Prima Liha – and funds the Kiev Sokols (“Falcons”), the Ukrainian de facto national ice hockey team. Taruta also backs many of the athletes who will be going to the Olympics this summer, but the Lampre team is ISD’s most high profile outlay.

Taruta doesn’t just spend his money on sports. When his daughter married the son of an Uzbek mining tycoon, he reportedly paid Jennifer Lopez $1.8 million to perform at the wedding.


James Murdoch – Team Sky
The younger son of Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, James is a British citizen and keen cyclist, a factor behind the creation of Team Sky. The British-based satellite TV company Sky is part-owned by the Murdoch family, and James was formerly a Chairman of the company, whilst he now runs News Corporation.

Murdoch Brailsford
Sky's Murdoch and Team Sky's Brailsford

James Murdoch is not in the same league as Rihs, Makarov and Taruta for now but his ulimate fortune depends on the performance of News Corp and the will of Rupert Murdoch; he could inherit a business worth billions at some point in the future.


Marc Coucke – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
A pharmacist by training, Coucke co-founded Omega Pharma in 1987. A cycling fanatic, he has sponsored several cycling teams and today he has the likes of Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and Tony Martin riding, literally, in his colours.

La vie en rose for Marc Coucke

Coucke is in the middle of acquiring Omega Pharma back from the stockmarket in a bid worth some €880 million. The company has been amongst the BEL-20 index of companies in Belgium, and with a big stake already in the business already, Coucke will be the owner of a large consumer healthcare and para-pharmaceutical business empire. A maverick at times, Coucke is known for his loud suits and pink shirts but doesn’t always live the life of a tycoon. Omega Pharma made profits of €70 million in 2010 and he’ll enjoy an even greater share of this soon, whilst being able to run Omega as his personal fiefdom. Don’t be surprised to see some big signings, but he is famously tough on prices and wages; he refused to pay the wage demands of Philippe Gilbert and in 2009 gave up his Bentley for a Skoda.


Zdeněk Bakala – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
Co-owner of the team with Marc Coucke, Bakala is a billionaire financier from the Czech Republic and sits on the Forbes list of the most wealthy people in the world. He crossed the Iron Curtain for business school education in the US and then became an investment banker and soon returned to open the offices of Credit Suisse in Prague, then at the frontier of capitalism. In time he then started his own bank and later sold this to a Belgian bank to make his fortune.

Zdenek Bakala
What's he got to smile about?

He then parleyed this capital in to a range of businesses interests from mining to restaurants, including one of Europe’s largest coal and iron operations in Ukraine and Poland, one that works very closely with Taruta and ISD. Business New Europe describes the deal in the September 2008 edition:

Zdenek Bakala… is widely regarded as having pulled off one of the deals of the decade by doing a leveraged buyout of the coal miner for a reputed €400m in November of 2004, then set about stripping out assets worth around €2bn, and then flogging off the remains to an eager market that valued the firm at €4.5bn.

Just over a year ago he bought the Quickstep cycling team with Bessel Kok, a telecoms executive he worked closely with during an aborted bid to privatise the Czech national telecoms business. Indeed just as he tried to reshape the telecoms sector, he is interested in pro cycling’s strategic and financial future and has spoken about reform.

He was instrumental in building the Havel library in Prague and organised the late Vaclav Havel’s birthday party last year. He now lives with a former Miss Czechoslovakia and their three children. Note the presence of compatriots Zdenek Stybar and Frantisek Rabon on the team, no coincidence.


Gerry Ryan – Greenedge

Gerry Ryan
Ryan seems to enjoy sports

The Australian entrepreneur founded Jayco, a long time supporter of cycling ‘down under’. Today he is the man behind the Greenedge cycling team and funding it until a sponsor is found. Reports have put Gerry Ryan’s net worth at around $180 million Aussie dollars. Ryan’s son Andrew is also closely involved in the Greenedge cycling project and Gerry said:

“my son Andrew whose role is sponsorship, has the greatest incentive to go out there and make it happen because it’s his inheritance that I’m spending”.

As well as funding a big cycling team he has a passion for horse racing and his horse Americain won the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s biggest race in 2010 and he has a stud farm. Down the road from this he also owns a good sized vineyard too. Over the past 20 years Ryan has funded Aussie football, rugby league, basketball, cricket, motocross and even lawn bowls. But Greenedge is the biggest project so far.


Flavio Becca – Radioshack-Nissan
The Luxembourg real estate and sporting mogul Flavio Becca remains in pro cycling. After launching in 2011 in front of Luxembourg’s royalty, the Leopard team went from fanfare to, less than a year later, being folded into Radioshack. This was largely because the team did not attract a sponsor and Becca was losing a lot of money as a consequence. 2011 wasn’t a vintage year for him after headlines in the autumn reported his home and offices being raided by police.

Andy Schleck and Becca

Becca is the owner of several Quick burger bar franchises, a hotel and sports stadium in the Duchy. 2012 should be better as he is involved in a project to built a national sports stadium with a large retail mall attached. Negotiations are ongoing and we’ll see if Becca stays in pro cycling. A millionaire many times over, the native Italian somehow looks impoverished compared to some of the others listed above.

29 thoughts on “The wealthiest men in cycling”

  1. Just a small correction: Tymoshenko is not an ex-president, she’s an ex-Prime Minister. By the way, thanks for the Tinker, Tailor, Cyclist, Spy article — really enjoyed it and look forward to more exposes on Katusha. I am completely surprised that the russians haven’t targeted your site for the negative coverage. They’re apt to take down sites that criticize them…

  2. They’ve got more than denial of service attacks. Tech problems can be engineered too… uh oh, now I’m starting to sound paranoid 😉

  3. these posts are gold. So all these tycoons are connected through their past and business dealings except for Gerry whose fortune also looks paltry when compared to others. I hope GreenEdge finds a long-term sponsor and survives for the good of cycling.

  4. Very interesting read, again. Where does Doug Ellis fit in among these guys, I thought he was a pretty big hitter, certainly wealthier than Ryan.

  5. Very interesting article, thank you.
    Could be also a dangerous development. Don’t underestimate the influence which these patrons (could) have against the UCI, IOC, ASO etc.
    But more or less the same development as in football (soccer), where lots of wealthy men invests in clubs. (Abramowitsch at Chelsea FC etc)

  6. Great stuff! While reading it I couldn’t help thinking about the folks who think pro cycling teams should somehow be a profitable business on their own, going on and on about how the exposure is such a great value that any corporation run by a board with half-a-brain should cough up $10-20 million to support a team. From this piece it’s pretty clear that NONE of these folks is really getting any advertising value for whatever it is they make or sell, it’s about prestige, passion for the sport or maybe just money-laundering? These same folks tout the North American pro sports model as the savior, but the NFL, NBA, etc. are not a lot different than these oligarchs and plutocrats funding their pet sports. As someone elsewhere wrote, the basketball team owner Mark Cuban is just like Rock Racing’s Michael Ball, but with a viable business to fund his team. If pro cycling truly had to rely on the “business model” these folks tout I’m afraid pro cycling would simply cease to exist. They say the TdF should share out their revenue but who else but ASO makes any real money promoting/marketing bike races? And ASO props up unprofitable events like Paris-Nice, etc. with those profits. Will these “business model” teams put money INTO the races that break even or lose money? I doubt it. Love ’em or hate/fear ’em, these oligarchs and plutocrats are who pays for pro cycling – and with rare exceptions I believe it’s been that way for pretty much the entire history of the sport. Can’t wait for the next installment, good job!

  7. Excellent, well-researched reading.

    Andy Rihs wasn’t the founder of the hearing aid business that would become Sonova – but he did acquire shares from his father which he used to put Phonak (under a global parent) on the world map; from a company that was virtually unknown to having well above 80% public recall (when asked to “name a hearing aid company”) in CH and DE a few years after the Phonak Cycling Team was inaugurated.

    Both insider trading allegations, and the allegation of Rihs’ consent of in-team doping by Floyd Landis, seem to have been quickly forgotten.

  8. Ronan: I gather he is wealthy via inheritence, marriage and work but not in the same league as these guys.

    Swiss Citizen: good points, especially since Makarov is now a member of the UCI’s Management Committee. It’ll be interesting to see what he brings and takes from this role.

    Cam: thanks, I thought he started the business but you’re right, it was a family venture. Rihs senior did start in a garage I believe, a good success story.

    G Fraser: I think some want to be seen with Cipo too, but he has been an advisor to both ISD and Katusha.

  9. Regarding Sky’s sponsorship of Team Sky I think this may well make sense from a marketing point of view. A lot of the continental coverage of cycling is on non-Sky sports channels so good marketing by Sky to have their riders advertising a competitor. Equally in Britain activities associated with olympic sports and increasing participation in sport create a good public image of corporations and Sky’s interest in cycling goes far beyond supporting the road team. Given the recent scandals around phone-tapping that’s probably something Sky are interested in at the moment.
    The fact that James Murdoch is interested in cycling surely helps but this is about more than being a benefactor. (Or am I just being naive?).

  10. Gavin: yes I gather this sponsorship happened because of commercial reasons on the back of the 2008 Olympic Games success but as ever, some personal connection can make things happen. I seem to remember Richard Moore, the British writer who has published a book on the team, stating this.

  11. Although Sky sponsor Team Sky if you look on the Sky Sports Website cycling isn’t listed on the main header bar , 10 other sports are listed first then you click ‘more+’ to see cycling. Also unless something major happens in cycling nothing on the main page is to do with cycling.

    With the money they are paying Cav and Wiggins this always surprises me.

  12. Fascinating detail, well done.

    Good to see these guys put money into the sport. If I won the lottery or woke up as the owner of an oil company one day I think I’d do the same.

  13. Lets leave the conspiracy theories and say that for the most part, these few individuals are in it for love, not money. In the case of GreenEdge, there are rumours in Australia that a large corporation will get on board for naming rights in time for the Euro season, with the payoff the big TV audience that the TDF will certainly get in Australia this year. Evans win in 2011 got the national attention. My guess is its Qantas – one of the few brands that would get value.

  14. On the Sky point, it’s worth remembering that Sky isn’t just a content provider, it’s a distributor as well. If they get consumers who only use ITV4 & Eurosport that is till a net win, especially as they do not have to pay for the license cost to broadcast big events.

  15. We do need to thank these rich “patrons” as we would not have a higher quality of pro road bicycle racing to enjoy today with out them.
    Might some of the steel from the Ukrainian Steel Mill back in the day found its way into the steel of Columbus or Reynolds steel frames?
    Perhaps in the near future we might see a “carbon fiber baron” become the next patron of a pro Asian team in a continental peloton.

  16. @GeeTee As a native, I’d be very surprised if Qantas gets on board now – it would be a PR disaster. The unions have just come back from strike action due to pay disputes, and recent spates of technical problems in flight have been alleged to be due to the majority of maintenance being performed abroad as cost-cutting measures.

    Their annual general meeting resembled a circus at times due to shareholder malcontent.

    To spend $10m+ on a sponsorship would be near impossible. Qantas are already sponsor the national football team, the Olympic team and the PGA President’s Cup the outlay for a WorldTour team could bring with it even more shareholder unrest

  17. Steve: there’s not the same money in carbon fibre as steel, especially when you read about the deals done by people like Bakala, turning €400m into €6.5bn in a few years.

    GeeTee / Pete: I was thinking there could be an announcement on the eve of the Tour Down Under about this, I’d name who it was… but the team has denied it’ll happen. We’ll see.

  18. Yes. For what it’s worth two sources, independent of each other supplied the same name. But the team said I was wrong when I put it to them. I did have some thoughts that “they would say that”, not wanting a blogger to spike the big announcement but they were firm and it was not a “no comment”, it was a full “no way”. Here’s hoping the team lands a sponsor in due course.

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