Oleg Tinkov, the outspoken owner of the Tinkoff-Saxo team, has told Cyclingnews that he is ready to start a legal battle with the UCI because of the way the international governing body of cycling has handled the Roman Kreuziger Biological Passport case.
Speaking in an exclusive interview at his summer home on the Tuscan coast after a ride in the nearby hills, Tinkov described the UCI as "amateurish" and "bureaucratic." He believes the UCI is the biggest obstacle stopping the progression and better commercialization of professional cycling.
Tinkov is ready to fight to make the UCI economically responsible for their actions and the consequences of their decisions. He hinted that he and other key stakeholders in cycling could be ready to revive plans for a breakaway structure for the sport, if the UCI fails to modernize how the sport is run and managed.
He is angry that the UCI has provisionally suspended Roman Kreuziger before he has faced a disciplinary hearing about alleged anomalies in his Biological Passport dating back to 2012 when he rode for the Astana team. Kreuziger is set to challenge the provisional suspension at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in an attempt to ride the Vuelta a España with Tinkoff-Saxo.
"My idea now is to ask them for compensation. I want them to face their commercial responsibilities. Maybe I'll take action in a London court not in a sporting court. They're managing big business sport and so they have to be responsible for what they're doing," Tinkov said.
"I've basically lost a lot of money because of their stupid procedures. They need clarify the rules for the Biological Passport. Some people, some experts say there are anomalies. Others say there aren't but who is going to prove what is the truth and when? And how long is all going to take?"
Tinkov bought the team from Bjarne Riis for a reported six million Euro last December. He has attended a number of races, including much of the recent Tour de France, becoming closely involved in the running of the team and has a long-term goal to make Tinkoff-Saxo the best team in professional cycling.
He revealed that he is working to bring several influential team owners together to defend their interests. He said some major team owners gathered at the five-star chateaux in Provence of BMC team owner Andy Rihs for lunch during the Tour de France.
He hinted he has the support of several other major teams in his fight against the UCI.
"At the beginning of the season, when I came into the game, I believed that ASO was the main obstacle to make the teams and the sport commercially stronger and independent but now after a series of meeting with team owners and with Yann Le Moenner and Jean-Francois Pescheux of ASO, I believe that the UCI is the main obstacle that does not allow cycling to progress," Tinkov told Cyclingnews.
"I saw that ASO are business people, that they're looking for money, like we are. But the UCI doesn’t care about the money. They're a bunch of bureaucrats. They've tried to establish the rules but can't even do that. They don’t understand about business and money and are making a real mess at the moment."
Tinkov was happy to elaborate on his thoughts and opinions in a long monologue.
"I met with 'my friend' Mr. Cookson and he sounded very convincing but the reality is the opposite," Tinkov said.
"I'll give you two examples of what I mean. First was the way Nairo Quintana won the Giro d'Italia with the confusion on the Passo Stelvio. It was a nice win but in my view it was a tainted win. I don’t blame the riders or the teams, it happened because there are no clear rules for that situation. The UCI have never written clear rules.
"The Biological Passport is a similar mess. I can't say that Roman Kreuziger is clean or not, that's not really the issue here and also his problems happened before he joined my team, so it's nothing I could have controlled. What I'm saying is that if he doped, then he deserves to be banned for a long time. But if he didn’t dope or he hasn't yet been found guilty, then he should be allowed to race. It's like owning a good race horse. I want it to race, not stay in the stable. I have to utilize my investment.
"There should be clear rules. At the moment he's provisionally suspended. What does that mean? I've paid him a million Euro this year but he couldn't perform at his best because he's been under pressure, getting letters from the UCI all the time and his mind was not at ease. Yet they're telling me that I have to pay him but I also have to suspend him before it's proved that he doped.
"Do they understand business? They're so amateurish but they have to understand that they're managing big bucks here. Teams like us, Team Sky, BMC and others we have big budgets. This is a big problem and I can't accept it."
No help when signing riders
Tinkov is also angry with the UCI because he believes the governing body has failed to help the teams avoid signing riders suspected of doping during the transfer process.
Teams are allowed to see a rider's Biological Passport data if the rider gives their permission but the UCI does not give any formal guidance regarding riders, their blood values and possible suspicions of doping.
"The UCI registered our contract with Kreuziger but they knew he was under investigation. Why did they hide that from us?" Tinkov questioned bluntly.
"Our experts saw some changes in his Biological Passport but they were explained by Roman and by some experts, so we believed him. Now they've stopped him racing.
"The Biological Passport needs clear procedures, clear rules. But the UCI is very tricky, they want us to stop him racing. But why should I do their job?
"If they want to use the Biological Passport, they have to have clear criteria for it, with red zones where people are banned. Now it's a tool that doesn't work properly. They have it, they talk about it a lot, but they don’t know how to use it.
"I'll reveal something important. Last year there was a rider, quite a famous rider, who we were considering for the team but we didn't sign him because our experts and our doctors looked at his Biological Passport data and thought there was something wrong with it, with irregularities in there. But one of the other major teams in the peloton did sign him and the UCI was okay with it and now this rider is racing.
"That happened because there are no clear rules, because the UCI is so amateurish. For me the UCI doesn't understand how to manage cycling."
Cookson's conflict of interest?
Tinkov's conspiracy theories have been compounded by his suspicions of a possible conflict of interest between Cookson's role as UCI President and his son Oliver's work for Team Sky.
Oliver has been described as a Performance Coordinator by Team Sky and is a key link between the team management and the Spanish-speaking riders on the team. He has been with Team Sky for several years, before his father became UCI President.
Tinkov's suspicions are unfounded, with no evidence of any wrongdoing. Brian Cookson dismissed the idea of a conflict of interest in an interview with Cyclingnews before the Tour de France saying it wouldn't matter if his son was with Team Sky or any other team.
"I don’t get involved and will never get involved in who is tested, or in disciplinary action. If I went down that road it would be a disaster for us. I can guarantee 100% that I wouldn't get involved in that way, so it doesn't matter on the nationality of a team or a rider. We treat them all the same," Cookson said.
Tinkov is not so convinced.
"Is there a conflict? Possibly," he said, setting out his case.
"I'm suspicious because Roman was going to be the main teammate for Alberto Contador at the Tour de France, he was going to be his last man in the mountains. We were about to fight with Froome and Porte but then two weeks before the Tour we lost Roman and that made Team Sky much stronger.
"Do I have doubts that the Cookson father-son relation could have some how made things suspicious? I can’t say that's definitely the case because I can’t prove it. But I'm very suspicious and I have the right to be suspicious. I think one of them should resign to avoid that conflict of interest."
Ready for a conflict
Tinkov has never been afraid to flex his muscles and share his thoughts or opinions on Twitter. He is investing heavily in the sport by signing a swath of new riders for 2015. He is extending his influence and ideas in his own team and the sport as a whole.
Tinkoff-Saxo is playing a key role in the so-far secretive Project Avignon team association that is studying and debating ways to improve and better commercialise professional cycling. Project Avignon is trying to include the UCI in any process of change, preferring diplomacy and negotiation rather than conflict.
However Tinkov is ready to take on the UCI if he comes under attack and fired a warning shot across their bow with a mix of bravado and aggression.
"Some people think the UCI will go against us now and perhaps not give us a (WorldTour) licence as they did with Katusha. But I'm not looking to start a war, I'm just trying to change cycling, to make it better. I'm the one paying the bills and I'm the one with a heart for this sport and just want to make it more valuable and better," he argued.
"But if I start the war there will be no hostages. They should understand that. I'm not starting a war yet but if they want one, then they will cry.
"Of course, if they're ready to sit down and discuss things in a normal way then we should do that. If they're looking for a war then I'm ready, no problem. Then they will push me to become the Bernie Ecclestone of cycling and create my own league. I have a sponsor behind me and I have investors behind me. If we the team owners make an agreement with ASO, why do we need the UCI?"