Eyewitness: Tinkoff-Saxo in Croatia

Ivan Črnjarić knows the road from Poreć to Zagreb well.
The rain falls unrelentingly on his car windscreen, but fails to dampen his enthusiasm. He and business partner Vladimir Miholjević, a veteran of ten consecutive Giri, estimate they have covered 60,000km, visiting sponsors, broadcasters, and politicians from local mayors to ministers of state to gain support for their Tour of Croatia.
By their efforts, Tinkoff-Saxo has spent the last four days in Istria, a coastal region in Western Croatia popular with tourists from Austria and Italy, and with an interior by turns mountainous and heavily forested, preparing for the 2016 season.
Meetings have been held, kit distributed, the riders given UCI-mandated annual cardiograms at a medical centre in nearby Opatija. Interviews have been given to a small delegation of cycling’s international press corps, and a much larger delegation of the Croatian mainstream media.
Next year, the Russian team will return to compete in the second edition of Croatia’s national tour, a race that has swiftly gained 1.1 status, coverage on Eurosport and the support of Croatia’s tourism ministry.
Tinkoff will not be the only WorldTour team competing next April, and Črnjarić does not intend for the race to remain as 1.1 for long. He and Miholjević will bid for 1.HC status in 2017 and then for a position on the WorldTour calendar.
“It’s ambitious, but not impossible,” says Črnjarić. “When we started to organise the race, we said, ‘Look, we need €2m.’ People said, ‘You’re crazy, how can you get €2m?’ But we did it.”
The brief history of the Tour of Croatia, the story of its foundation and rapid ascent, will interest any who bemoan the slow death of professional cycling in its European heartland, and its continued exodus to the Middle East.
It is a tale occupied as much by the mundane but essential business of proving return on investment, creating sponsorship packages, and generating publicity as designing a challenging parcours.
“There is no romanticism any more,” says Miholjević, mourning the end this year of the Junior Tour of Istria, a fixture on the Junior World Cup calendar for half-a-century. “I’m sad about that, but the time of gentleman has passed.”
From tiny acorns
Six years ago, Črnjarić looked from the window of the bar he ran in Opatija to see local resident and then Astana rider Robert Kiserlovski stop for drinks with Katusha’s Simon Spilak.
An entrepreneur with an events management company, Črnjarić seized the moment to introduce himself to Kiserlovski and plant the seed in the rider’s mind for a Tour of Croatia. Might such a race be possible?
The pair remained in contact, but with his time limited by the small matter of competing in the UCI WorldTour, Kiserlovski was unable to help Črnjarić advance his ambition. He suggested Miholjević, a rider who, for a decade, had been Croatia’s most successful cyclist and was a resident of Istria.
MIholjević had called time on his professional career in 2013 after 11 years as a gregario for the likes of Liquigas and Alessio. A demarcation of labour was swiftly established: Črnjarić would call on his experience in organising large scale events and Miholjević would mine his contacts in cycling.
Črnjarić is quick to acknowledge the value of Miholjević’s knowledge and reputation. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the Tour of Croatia’s careful positioning on the calendar, 13 days before the Grande Partenza of the 2016 Giro d’Italia.
“I prepared for the Giro for ten years in a row,” MIholjević says. “I know the process: altitude training, then you come down, then you need five or six days to recover, then you need good racing, like the Giro del Trentino, which leaves you enough time – 13 days to recover [from the Tour of Croatia] – then you are fresh for the Giro.”
He has planned the route in detail, but, with negotiations still in progress,  declines to name the start and finish towns. The 2016 Tour of Croatia will have six stages, beginning with three likely to end in a bunch sprint.
On the fourth stage, the race is likely to begin in earnest, courtesy of three climbs and a summit finish: some 4,000m of ascent in total. Stage five is still in  planning. Two options present themselves: a medium mountain stage with two “sharp” climbs, or a 35km time-trial. The final stage will end in the capital, before the Zagreb parliament.
MIholjević does not seem a man given to displays of emotion, but his pride in having brought the race this far is obvious. It is underscored, however, by realism. The topic changes quickly to analysis of the media coverage of last year’s inaugural Tour of Croatia: 722 articles in various media, generating an equivalent value in commercial space of €7.5m. He estimates the return on investment in PR terms of more than 40 to one.
He has considered too the various motivations for watching a bike race, comparing it to a travelling show. The viewing public sees the country unfold before them in slow motion, with the ample distraction of the race. It’s an impressive change of perspective for a man who spent more than ten years in the peloton.
“Maybe it seems clever to you, but even I have my limits,” he says, almost wearily. “I am not able to find €100k to organise a junior race, or even a 2.2 race. With 2.1, if you have promotion and can show return on investment, you can find money.”
His business partner is similarly realistic. Unless a race is in the UCI’s first category, Črnjarić says, Eurosport are not interested, and without television coverage, a race fails to exist, commercially at least.
“Times are changing. Unless you give documentation and an explanation why they must give you money, [they won’t]. Maybe 20 years ago that was not the situation: governments and cities gave because it was traditional. That’s good, but these are different times.”
1 attended the Tinkoff-Saxo camp as a guest of Croatia Tourism for the official launch of the 2016 Tour of Croatia

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