Oleg Tinkov’s Dream Team Nightmare

Oleg Tinkov Bjarne Riis

Tinkoff-Saxo team manager Bjarne Riis has been suspended by Oleg Tinkov. It’s hard to see the Dane coming back from this, in fact he’ll probably be delighted to pedal off into the sunset, his panniers loaded with Euros. Yet it’s far more than a clash between two men, this is the story of the whole team, Alberto Contador included, and there are lessons for the sport as a whole.

The Jean Genius
Oleg Tinkov is neither an oligarch nor a pal of President Putin. Instead he’s a successful businessman who has made billions by copying western business practices and importing them into Russia. It all begin with cycling and a race in Uzbekistan in the 1980s when Tinkov spotted some blue denim jeans for sale in a market, rare goods in Soviet times. He spent all his cash to buy four pairs and returned to St Petersburg where he sold them for four times the price, the good old “buy low, sell high”. In time came printer cartridges, caviar, cars and then a chain of electrical shops which he sold for US$7 million in 1997. He went into making dumplings on an industrial scale, industrialising home made pelmeni and sold this to up and coming oligarch Roman Abramovich for millions. He then opened a chain of brasseries which he eventually sold for €200 million to Belgian brewing giant Inbev. Now it’s Tinkoff Bank, a credit card operation that apes the American firm Capital One.

“How to become businessman” by Oleg Tinkov

Transaction after transaction, he’s shown the Midas touch and his career path has resembled the profile of a Tour de France mountain stage progressing over foothills to the high peaks. Until now… Tinkoff Bank’s stock price is plumbing new lows on the London Stock Exchange in the wake of the Rouble Crisis. This brings pressure and dented the image of endless success – he’s written books on how to become a businessman – has taken a blow with the cratered stock price.

More roubles, more troubles
Now comes the matter of the cycling team. For Tinkov this isn’t a marketing opportunity, it’s a lifestyle choice. He might be using his bank’s name on the jersey but this is his pet project, his passion. His personal jet is used for the team and he flies around the world to follow his riders. When Alberto Contador stood atop the Vuelta podium, Tinkov joined him. Even when he’s not at the races he’s watching and tweeting about them. If you were a billionaire you might do the same.

Oleg Tinkov Vuelta podium

Only all the business acumen used to make billions seems absent. It happens, there are marriage counsellors with lousy relationships, accountants with slapdash personal finances. Tinkov rushed into the sport, buying the team from Bjarne Riis for a giant sum, reports vary between €3-€5 million. He could have waited to build his own team but preferred to buy in straight away, more fun but goodbye “buy low, sell high” given the premium paid. This was compounded by the apparent €1 million annual retainer given to Riis. Now Riis is valuable but as team managers go this is unheard of. In business terms it looks like Riis got the better deal, selling a team and his services for millions, all while a Danish anti-doping investigation threatened him. It’s time to seal the deal, Tinkoff first came on board as a sponsor for Riis in June 2012 and was supportive in early July 2013 only by the end of the Tour Riis announced he was looking for a new sponsor as he couldn’t get on with Tinkov. Months later Tinkov bought the team and kept Riis on a retainer.

Riis Tinkov

This “buy high” tendency can be seen with the recruitment of Peter Sagan. His career started so well but has reached a plateau since, albeit a very high one. He’s not winning this year? Well he’s been missing the big moments for some time now. It’s too early to tell, the Slovak could win the Tour of Flanders and five stages of the Tour de France. But never mind the could, would or should, for now all we know is Tinkov forked out €4 million for Sagan in a deal done at the top of the market. Sagan was signed just when talk of Team Alonso reached boiling point. Not that Tinkov was alone, the same fevered mood prompted Cofidis to drop €1.2 million on Nacer Bouhanni.

Tinkov isn’t the first tycoon to splash the cash in the sport, there are many who have made their fortune in business and spent it on the sport, see January’s The Wealthiest People in Pro Cycling for look at the other sugardaddy sponsors in the peloton today. But Tinkov is high profile while Igor Makarov, Michel Thétaz and Andy Rihs are discreet, there’s a touch of Bernard Tapie here, the controversial entrepreneur who backed the La Vie Claire cycling team in the 1980s.

If you want to look successful don’t sponsor a cycling team
Last year OPQS won the most races with an impressive 62 wins but there are roughly 620 days of racing at World Tour, *.HC and *.1 level in the year so OPQS “only” won about one in ten races. For everyone else wins were even more rare. It’s not like, say, football where top team is expected to win almost every week. Not that Tinkov is ignorant of this but sections of the media will have been grilling him on this, “why isn’t your team the best in the world?” etc.

The personal passion is great but there’s business risk too. Oleg Tinkov might be a dependable partner in business but judging by cycling he’s Mr Fickle, tweeting criticism one minute and praise the next. It makes you wonder if Tinkoff Bank is the kind that lends you an umbrella on a sunny day and calls it in on a rainy day. It’s not projecting the image of stability and longevity that most banks crave.

Tinkov vs. Team
A clash between Tinkov and Riis goes wider. Several staff members have been ejected because Tinkov didn’t like them. Philippe Mauduit and Fabrizio Guidi are driving different team cars this year and Alberto Contador’s preferred masseur Valentin Dorronsoro got the chop last year. A “climate of fear” is too strong a term but there is a nervousness in the team with people afraid to upset the boss or to take risks with tactics. Still, that’s if Riis goes there’s no rush to replace him, the lawyer and general manager Stefano Feltrin can presumably cover plenty.

Tinkov has also taken to baiting the Danish media. The country has an aggressive tabloid culture so Tinkov’s hit back with provocation but the Danish interest is obvious. The team might have adopted a Russian flag for 2015 but it’s DNA is Danish and there are six Danes on the roster compared to four Russians. Making this core contingent of the team insecure is not going to help.

Oleg Tinkov Alberto Contador

Read L’Equipe or La Gazzetta Dello Sports and you’ll see numerous “X under pressure” headlines relating to soccer team managers facing the chop after a three game “losing streak”. In cycling it’s rare, largely because team managers are often team owners. But it’s not uncommon, some random examples:

  • John Lelangue was ousted in a mini-coup from BMC Racing after years of under-performance
  • There’s been a revolving door at Cofidis with several changes over the years
  • Astana have gone from Marc Biver to Johan Bruyneel to Yvon Sanquer and now Beppe Martinelli
  • The Kelme team went through several managers
  • Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride tells of the chaotic changes inside the RMO team

It happens but Riis’s suspension is a bigger story. Partly because everything Oleg Tinkov does is observed more closely, he invites publicity when others cultivate discretion. Also Riis has been more than a chauffeur calling the tactics, he founded the team and ran it while riders have joined the team in order to work with Riis.


“Tinkoff Saxo would like to clarify that Bjarne Riis is not being actively involved in the team’s activities since last Sunday. However, he was not suspended of his active role because of lack of results nor for financial issues”

The statement issued by the team prompts more questions than answers. If he’s not suspended because of results or money, then what was it? In the speculative vacuum people are mentioning an upcoming report from Anti-Doping Denmark. We know Riis had links to Dr Fuentes and it’s possible he’ll be held to account. All speculation and informed sources say Riis will survive the report.

L’Equipe says it’s not so much results but the managerial aspects. For example Tinkov’s annoyed with the Kilimanjaro team building camp, as if the riders should have been training rather than walking up a mountain; it’s perhaps not so much the tactical choices on the road – although this blew up in Tirreno-Adriatico with DS Steven de Jongh relegated to the second car – but the longer term preparation.

Cycling managers get ejected from time to time but it’s a bigger story for Riis who built this team. For now he’s suspended but the betting is that he won’t go back.

Riis cashed out for a premium, out-trading Tinkov. Lucky for Bjarne but it’s not easy for the remaining staff who will be feeling nervous. Imagine if you’re a rider whose contract is up this year: crash live on TV and it’ll be noted, maybe even the subject of a barbed tweet rather than a sympathetic Direct Message. Meanwhile Alberto Contador has been close to Riis for a long time – the two live in the same town in Switzerland – and now has more to worry about, even being asked countless questions about office politics rather than sporting matters will be tiresome.

Cycling needs outsiders with fresh approaches to management and marketing but so far Tinkov is enjoying the sport as a passion, a fan rather than a man-with-a-plan. It’s entirely his right. Those in cycling who have worked with him say he’s tough with money but outwardly all we see is expensive signings and provocative tweets rather than the long term investment to build a successful team; the fickle image can’t help his bank either. Tinkov can still bring plenty to the sport but if he really wants to win big what’s needed is more than his Roubles, it’s his marketing genius and the same eyes that spotted those jeans for sale in Uzbekistan.

80 thoughts on “Oleg Tinkov’s Dream Team Nightmare”

  1. So who is in charge now; Oleg?

    All that expenditure on top assets and no one with experience to direct it?

    Is there a closed season on managerial transfers the same way there is on riders?

    • Managers can move mid-season but many will be on contract. Riis has been present at the races but there are others on the squad with experience like De Jongh and Yates if he stays suspended and longer term they can plan for more management if needed.

  2. I am sure this will destabilise the team even more, definitly won’t help the “Spirit” in the team.
    A lot of the riders and the staff joined not just for cash but to work with Riis (Julich, Basso, Contador).

    Like Bjarne or not I do not see how this move can help anyone.

    • I was about to post the same comment. It would be a shame if this is the case as the roster is quite strong in my opinion. Majka, Contador, Sagan et al. must be aware of the situation and it can’t be anything but detrimental to team spirit and performance.

  3. Thank you for yet another excellent insight into the on going Tinkov saga.

    This was always a relationship that was going to end in a messy divorce. I guess Tinkov is angry, frustrated and somewhat poorer. Riis is richer and removed from all the pressures of running a team. There is an obvious winner. I would prefer to see both exit the sport, not necessarily for the same reasons .

    • +1 I think if you look up MEGALOMANIAC in the dictionary there’s a picture of the guy who purchased Mr. 60%’s team and he’s doing about as well as when Silvio Berlusconi was making the decisions for AC Milan. Come to think of it, Sil’s photo might be next to Oleg’s in that dictionary!! Sagan’s not exactly thriving there, will Il Pistolero be the next victim?

  4. Quite enjoying seeing the troubles going on at Saxo, should provide some side entertainment throughout this year. Wouldn’t be surprised if Riis pops up with a new team sometime in the future, I doubt his days are over. This is not the right environment to get Sagan winning again.

  5. I have to wonder if this “perform or else” vibe that oleg puts off is counter productive to riders staying dope free (assuming they already are”). I reminds me of an office boss saying “I don’t care how you do it, I’m paying you to get it done”.

        • “Already at the first team meeting, where we sat in a conference room, Oleg Tinkov said: ‘I do not care what you do, just do not get caught’. You can write this because there were many people in the room who can confirm it, if Tinkov decided to sue me for saying this,” said Hamilton.

          From a 2012 Cycling News article

          • Ah, cool. Finished his book recently and don’t recall a reference to tinkov being in there hence the confusion.

            That seems quite clear cut! You’d think drugs was an issue that Tinkov and Riis could unite behind……

  6. Surely if you’re Riis, and presumably sitting on 4m+ euros, then you take your leave now and do what Tinkov should have done and set-up a team again. Ok, it’s difficult given lack of sponsors (/struggle Riis has found annually to find some) – but I could see a link up with Alonso working. Alonso with his contacts supplying the money and Riis would give the team kudos when searching for riders.

    Even if that was a bad example, the principle remains that Riis has trousered a lot of cash, but should be able to carry on with another team. ie I have no idea what Tinkov is doing!

    • Saxo bank is only on board because of Riis. I’d take a guess that if Riis is gone, as soon as the contract with the Tinkoff-Saxo outfit is over, they are gone as a sponsor as well. Especially if Riis makes noises about getting a new team together, they’ll probably jump on that again.

  7. Who was behind the wheel on Sunday, if not Riis? Makes you wonder about Sagan’s hesitation to go off the front with 1.9km to go, and Dane Breschel sprinting for himself to get 12th rather than leading out Sagan…….

    • It was Ricardo Scheidecker. But remember riders are not remote controlled by their managers, if Sagan was hesitating it was because of longer problems, he’s lost other races this way too, trying attacks in the final and then being outdone in the sprint.

          • Of course, for example Cimolai and Bonifazio apparently tried and failed, according to their declarations.
            Nevertheless, I insist that sitting directly on your leader’s wheel – and *making your sprint* from there – instead of leading him away from a bad position isn’t the most brilliant idea when you’re an expert pro rider, you shouldn’t need the fresher tactical mind to try something else.
            Anyway, this (mine) is just bla bla bla, no need to explore the subject further for me.

          • I noticed Stefano Garzelli mentioned Breshel’s behaviour at RAI’s post-race coverage and Tinkov of course tweeted about it. Brechel himself offered a more pragmatic version to Berlinske Tidende (google translated from danish):

            “We did what we could. Peter decided that he’d rather try to stay on Degenkolb’s wheel than having me opening the sprint for him. It is a decision that’s taken in the heat of battle. The finale is fast and it was Peter’s decision that we did as such. It could also have been right, if he had won.”

          • … so when he saw that Sagan *wasn’t* on Degenkolb’s wheel he preferred to “stick to the plan” (and Peter’s wheel) instead of trying to bring him ahead?
            Anyway, I guess it maybe was like that, or Breschel simply didn’t know exactly what to do or how in those last furious hundreds of meters.
            Indeed, from the outside it seems strange but maybe it wasn’t. Couldn’t tell about Garzelli; in the last few years I couldn’t follow many races on Italian TV (including this Sanremo). Well, generally speaking I consider it’s really a pity since normally the Italian RAI commentators are very, very good (compared to Spanish RTVE or English Eurosport, at least).

          • Yeah, RAI has a great coverage, and, in Italian races especially , they’re always well informed about what’s going on on the road. Having previous Giro winners on scooters behind the race is pretty cool. And Garzelli is actually really good.

            Though the seem to categorically ignore the doping-elephant in the room, which is kind of creepy. Especially as a lot of the guys involved in production has played their part. Garzelli, Savoldelli, Di Luca (previewing stages for RAI during his suspension a couple of years ago!?) and others. What happened to Savoldelli in the end? He seems to be replaced for good?

            Also, I find that Beppe Conti guy to be pretty lame. On Sunday he went on and on about how Kristoff had made a big mistake underestimating the change to via Roma and this had lost him the race. (In an interview at the start, Kristoff had stated that he didn’t think the finish would make a big difference from last year).

            To me it looked like Kristoff didn’t win as his designated leadout, Guarnieri, crashed early on. Had they had him between Kristoff and Paolini (easily the most impressive ride of the day) in the finale, Katusha would have been hard to beat.

  8. I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Tinkov. He’s a maverick. He does things his own way and simply because he wants to. Its his money so he can spend it how he likes. He likes cycling as a fan, as INRNG said, and I can appreciate that too. No one should have ever imagined he was going to be a “hands off” type of owner.

    All that being said, riders and staff should be making their choices with eyes open. Tinkov is not shy to share an opinion. If you can’t take the pressure, don’t work for him. Contador recently signed on for 2016 knowing all this so he can’t complain now. De Jongh and Yates should have been “eyes open” too.

    I have less sympathy for Riis (for the reasons we all know about). But he’s got a few million € in his pocket so he can go and find a boat somewhere and lie in it in the sun all day. He sold the right to have any final say. Now he must lie in the bed that he made.

    Is any of this good for the Tinkoff-Saxo team? No. But its entertaining to watch!

    • It definitely has a whiff of the tabloid-esque football media but when you form a super team with two of the best riders currently out there and you’re not getting much of a return, I can understand why you would express some displeasure.

      The difference between Tinkoff and other sponsors is that he isn’t some faceless person behind the scenes, he genuinely gives out the impression that this is a passion and a way for him to be closer to the racing. The downside is that sometimes we see the passion come out publicly as in the Contador tweets last year, which can’t do anyone any good.

      • Nothing good will come of going down the football route of interfering uber-rich owners. And they interfere without knowing what they’re doing – a lack of results? Contador won the Vuelta and this season’s hardly started.

  9. Not at all surprising. Gigantic ego takes over team and decides he knows best. He’ll ruin it. Riis must be laughing his arse off – he can go elsewhere with a sack of cash. Contador and Sagan must wish they could leave. Tinkov is an imbecile and has a past as dodgy as Riis’s.

  10. Once again some insightful comments and observations from the IR. With a belly full of Vodka and Beluga caviar Oleg Tinkof is cyclings swashbucking crown prince looking for bragging rights all the way to Paris with his ‘Dream Team’. It seems he likes to brag and play big, there are no half measures when Oleg is involved it’s either go big and get results or end up being trashed. However I have a sneaking suspicion that other factors led to his manager leaving the team.

  11. Best cycling blog on the net by far!

    Slightly unrelated, but the pressure Tinkov seems to put on his riders is immense, which could lead them to doping to get the results he wants. I genuinely would not be surprised if Sagan got popped this year.

  12. “Jeez…beaten by a guy like Riis”

    – Max Sciandri, after Stage 7 of the 1993 Tour de France.

    That quote still cracks me up. Don’t worry Max, you haven’t been the only one.

  13. Well, Hamilton’s story, if it was true, would be incredibly good news in terms of clean cycling… 🙂
    If Tinkov was really saying that to riders, it means that he hadn’t implemented (or asked the DSs to implement) a top-down organised team doping system, which is the kind of doping with the greatest impact on results and on pushing clean riders away from the sport.
    I’m partly joking. Partly.

  14. “Alberto Contador’s preferred masseur Valentin Dorronsoro got the chop last year.” Shame, a nice guy with a wealth of experience, drove the ONCE team bus too, used to see it parked next to the family restaurant in the Basque Country in the “off season”

  15. Tinkov, is a personality as colorful as a rainbow jersey!
    He pays his team out of his own pocket for the most part so you have to respect him for that. Know that
    he seems to running the team as the GM he has only himself to blame for poor performance.

    Wonder if Riis has a non-compete clause in his contract?

    • If he does have a non-compete clause it will either be void if he’s fired or he gets a mega payout to compensate for the time he has to stay out of the sport.

  16. Read an interesting interview with Tinkov the other day (unfortunately I can’t remember where and it was in his own interesting style of Russian!). He is very much hands on in all his businesses and was complaining about the lack of drive and motivation of many of his employees – implying he has a very large turnover. He also suggested that his ‘failures’ (Tinfoff Digital – although he doesn’t see them as that) are due to the market not his concepts and people will be queuing for his expertise when they resurrect these ideas.

    Having read that ,much of this doesn’t come as a surprise. He certainly isn’t the Russian Richard Branson.

    He is now selling insurance on line. Not sure quite what his USP is!

      • That’s odd he would be critical of journalists since he seems to crave their attention with his comments and antics. He looks like he truly loves being in the limelight. And like all (or most) rich people, he equates making billions with being very smart. Is it the money that makes you lose your humility, or is it the lack of humility in the first place that allows you to make the money?

        • Well, we must remember this guy’s big start was pretty much based on smuggling, so expecting ethical behavior is wishful thinking, whether it’s his cycling squad or one of his commercial ventures. Just another effect of pro cycling failing to clean up, sponsorship is so tough to come by the big stars are forced into these dodgy teams if they want those big paychecks.

          • He is a very cute businessman. He spots a niche, goes for it and then sells the business on before the market get full.

            You would find it difficult to identify a single biznesman in Russia in the 90’s who wasn’t involved in contraband (unless they were part of the elite), whether it was jeans and electrical goods like Tinkov, mobile phones like Yevgeny Chichvarkin or rubber ducks like Roman Abramovich.

          • Tovarishch: “Everybody else did it too” is a pretty flimsy excuse, one that we’ve heard plenty of times when it comes to cheating in cycling. Why should business be any different?

          • Definitely not an excuse just an attempt at an explanation. Although one has to say the concept of ethics in Russia is somewhat different from our own.

          • @Larry:

            Business is not any different, neither are local politics nor geopolitics; the people at the top of any heap beyond a certain size are sociopathic monsters, regardless of how well groomed their public persona is. Remember your opinion of Tiger Woods before his dirty laundry was hung? How about Martin Luther King before the FBI transcripts of orgies with hookers? Kennedy’s as booze smugglers? Princess Di? Bernie Ecclestone being whipped by Nazi hookers?

    • Sounds like he’s got a problem with delegating to others. Great for a self-starter but it means he’s struggling to control several fronts at the same time.

    • The usual stuff, Anonymous, on climby stages of Asian races where certain Iranian teams are racing, I’m afraid. As I’m sure you know, this is just the latest episode in an ongoing saga.

    • Very good reading indeed. If everything that’s reported in there is accurate, then the whole thing starts making a lot more sense. One might even be surprised that this hasn’t happened earlier.

    • Agreed.

      I was 2/3 of the way through thinking “This is one of the best pieces ever for CN.. then I got to the byline. Friebe should have something of his own beyond Twitter; as long as he keeps tweeting…

  17. Now Oleg has ‘sacked’, no ‘suspended’, no ‘taking no part in proceedings’ Riis and having gone out of his way to annoy the Danish media, I wonder how long SaxoBank will be staying with the team ?
    It’s one thing saying that the riders and staff will have to stay because of jobs, mortgages, etc but Saxo are a Danish company brought onboard by Riis who have already been forced to downgrade their sponsorship of the team, so I can see them being off now as soon as their contract ends.

    INRNG, I’m not sure about your comments about how Oleg runs his team reflects on his Tinkoff bank though – they’re not like a proper investment or loaning bank, they’re like CapitalOne or MBNA, simply doing retail credit cards, so “not projecting the image of stability and longevity that most banks crave” probably doesn’t apply in the same way ?

    But certainly, the whole saga – as well as his ludicrous Twitterings – does not project him as the Russian equivalent of Richard Branson : similar silly haircuts aside, one is a maverick risk-taking entrepreneur with a very good grasp of the media, the other just comes-over as a dodgy businessman with no self-control

  18. Perhaps Cannondale before the merger with Garmin realized better win value than most. Many complained Sagan lacked enough support, but he did pocket a cache of big wins, and the TdF green jersey more than once. ‘Seems the formula of throwing money at big talent is dicey at best. Echoes of the BMC big rider buy a few years back.

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