Cycling’s agent provocateur has left the building. Il Lombardia was Oleg Tinkov’s last race as owner of Team Tinkoff before its dissolution. True to form, he didn’t go quietly, dissing Alberto Contador and the UCI in a farewell interview.
Since taking over as primary owner of Tinkoff-Saxo at the start of 2014, it’s been anything but a dull ride. Let’s start with the good bits: he correctly and regularly identified the need for a different business model in cycling, including sharing of TV rights for teams. Occasionally, he brought fresh ideas to rigidly-traditional cycling, like his €1 million challenge for a rider who could win all three Grand Tours in a season. Moreover, in a world where beige quotes from sportsmen proliferate, his coruscating comments were often like catnip for the media.
A boyish love of the sport appeared to be at the root of his team ownership. He dyed his hair pink for the final stage of Alberto Contador’s successful 2015 Giro d’Italia stage win and rode with the team on some Grand Tour rest days.
Cycling was about winning for him, which is all well and good. Yet that philosophy left him constantly disappointed, even at a 2016 season that was probably his best ever at the helm of a cycling team, in which Peter Sagan won the WorldTour and Tinkoff finished second.
In three years as primary backer, Tinkoff tore through his eponymous team like a tornado. Former business partner Bjarne Riis was gone after fifteen months. He threatened to cut Peter Sagan’s salary in 2015 for not winning enough. His team chef left during this year’s Giro, mentioning “threats and other inexcusable behavior.” That’s not to mention the crime against fashion of his tasteless monochrome training kit.
I imagine being around Tinkoff is a bit like owning a fast sports car – the engine is loud and it’s good fun at first, but once the thrill wears off, it becomes a bit nauseating.
And there was an ugly, crass side to his personality, with hints of xenophobia and sexism on Twitter. (Ironically for a man who often calls on cycling to modernise, he could do with bringing some of his own opinions into the 21st century.)
His cogent points about the future of professional cycling – and his power to accelerate change – become lost in the din of his own pantomime. Too often he was making noise rather than cutting through it.
At times, Tinkoff seemed to follow the Oscar Wilde maxim ‘the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.’ But then, if you are putting €50 million into the kitty, I suppose you’re justified to have as much limelight as you like.
Indeed, the Russian deserves credit for owning and financing a cycling team for several years, knowing it would make a loss – all this, during a period when his estimated net worth plummeted, according to Forbes Russia. It’s laughable that professional cycling’s business model forces wealthy financiers to throw money down the drain.
That said, don’t cry for Oleg: the $500 million man will be okay. The sadder thing from Team Tinkoff’s dissolution is the 80 staff on the market looking for jobs, from riders to directeur sportifs, soigneurs and mechanics.
One final note: attacking Alberto Contador in his recent interview on Cyclingnews was classless and unnecessary. It seemed based around the fact that he wants a rider who can win the Tour de France without obsessing over it, yet who drinks champagne and relaxes with him too.
It’s not decorum to pose for photos with Contador for years, then stab him in the back as you leave the building. But then, we’ve come to expect that kind of behaviour from Oleg Tinkov. Evidently, money can buy you a crack cycling team, but not class.
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