As one loudmouth blond billionaire advances, seemingly, toward the presidency of the United States, another one quits the world of professional cycling. Both like winning and both like calling adversaries “losers.” The question is, what happens when they lose?
In the case of Donald Trump, we’ll have to wait until November to find out. But in Oleg Tinkov’s case, we already know.
The Russian entrepreneur recently announced that he is shutting up shop on his Tinkoff Credit Systems team. Among his parting shots, he accused UCI officials of being hopeless “bureaucrats” and said the Tour de France’s parent organisation, ASO, should take over the whole business and use revenues from pay-per-view TV rights to fund teams.
He didn’t regret the millions of dollars he’d ploughed into cycling, he insisted, but the sport’s entire economic model was broken.
Sour grapes? Certainly. And coming from the man who tweeted “monkeyobama,” it’s tempting to say, simply, good riddance.
But about the business model business. With IAM Cycling also shuttering, and BMC looking dicey, could Tinkov have a point?
Cycle sport is terribly dependent on the whims and fortunes of men like Tinkov. As reported by The Inner Ring, another Russian tycoon, Igor Makarov, is behind Team Katusha (and he is a true Putin-era oligarch, with untold wealth from gas deals parked offshore).
Orica-Greenedge was backed by Gerry Ryan, an Australian millionaire. IAM had Swiss multimillionaire Michel Thétaz. Behind Etixx-Quick Step is a billionaire Czech financier, Zdeněk Bakala. These are the guys who write the cheques that keep our guys on the road.
Tinkov’s career is worth a closer look. Unlike Trump, he didn’t inherit a million bucks.
A coal-miner’s son from Siberia, Tinkov worked briefly in the mines in his hometown of Leninsk, before military service and then enrolling as a student at a mining institute in St. Petersburg. There, he caught the business bug. He first imported electronics, and then set up a convenience food company making pelmeni (a Russian version of ravioli).
He sold the dumplings business to Roman Abramovich in 2001 for a tidy $21 million. At some point, he bought the mandatory villa in Tuscany – and he does, at least, ride his bike there. His autobiography has a chapter titled “How Cycling Saved Me” – and it gave him his first business deal: on a trip to race as a junior in Tajikistan, he bought four pairs of jeans for 200 rubles from a trader in Leninabad, which he later sold for four times as much in Moscow.
The ‘serial entrepreneur’ – a business-page term of art for a wheeler-dealer who builds businesses fast, then flips them for a handsome profit – then travelled to the United States, learned about micro brewing, and set up a craft ale business back in Russia in 1998. He soon spun it into a brew-pub business, and made another fortune.
The Tinkoff brand – the ‘ff’ suffix is considered classier in Russia than the demotic ‘v’, and Tinkov claims his family is “descended from nobility” – earned him the sobriquet the “beer oligarch”.
The blond entrepreneur liked to appear in his own beer ads, which was certainly Trump-like. (Tinkov’s 2010 autobiography, which could be called a rather boring, Russian version of “The Art of the Deal,” was blurbed by another blond billionaire, Richard Branson.)
In 2005, he sold the brewery to a multinational for €167 million (about $230 million), and moved into online consumer financial services. The Tinkoff Bank quickly gained a 7 per cent share of Russia’s underdeveloped credit card market.
The proceeds enabled him to finance a Tinkoff Systems cycling squad that competed in the 2007 Giro, with a roster of young Russian riders and a budget of about €4 million.
2013 was Tinkov’s annus mirabilis: with TCS, he launched an IPO and bought Bjarne Riis’s Saxobank team. The London stock exchange valued TCS at $3.2 billion. A 51 per cent holding in the company was enough to put Tinkov in Forbes magazine’s 2014 list of the world’s billionaires.
But by 2015, Tinkov was a dropoff (Forbes’s actual term). Although Tinkoff Bank’s trading results are respectable in Russia’s flat economy, investors’ enthusiasm waned. By early 2016, shares in the company, which had once topped $17, were trading for as little as $2 – and Tinkov himself was one of the few big buyers.
The entrepreneur’s new venture involves promoting luxury ski chalet developments at the French Alpine resorts of Courchevel and Val Thorens, called “La Datcha”. That legend – the French spelling of dacha, the Russian word for a second home outside Moscow, always the preserve of Kremlin cronies – appeared on the Tinkoff team’s kit. It seems a big comedown. Thank goodness Peter Sagan had a rainbow jersey instead.
The moral of the story is that there is a real problem with the funding of professional cycling. Oleg Tinkov is both symptom and diagnosis.
Doping scandals have made corporate sponsorship skittish, yet the sport is now cleaner than it’s been for decades and the economic crisis goes on. Corporate sponsors will come back and stay only when they know there’s a stable audience they’re reaching.
But have you ever tried to watch WorldTour races on TV? There’s a reason why pirate aggregators like cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv (bless ’em) are the go-to sites for pro cycling’s global fanbase, and why good citizens have to use work-arounds like VPNs to cheat geo-restricted content from national broadcasters like RAI.
This situation is not just crazy-making for fans; it’s completely dysfunctional for the sport. Millions of potential subscribers, whose dollars would support a healthy ecosystem of pro teams, have to act like human rights activists behind the Great Firewall of China – just to watch the last 10k of a Giro stage.
In the absence of a democratic-capitalist funding model for pro cycling, what do we have? A sport that is far too dependent on the vanity-philanthropy and oligarchy-whimsy of our 21st-century Gilded Age plutocracy.
So, a sentence I’d have thought impossible: Tinkov, so wrong, but so right.
This article originally appeared in issue 64 of Rouleur magazine