Bjarne Riis has hit back at criticism from Oleg Tinkov after the demise of the Tinkoff team, revealing his personal disappointment at seeing the team he built and developed over 15 years disappear from the professional peloton. Riis suggested he and Tinkov fell out because the Russian businessman was envious of Riis' respect within the team and killed off the philosophy he had created within the team.
The Tinkoff team competed for the last time at the Abu Dhabi Tour, with Alberto Contador finishing fifth overall despite being openly criticised by Tinkov for failing to ride Il Lombardia and helping win the UCI WorldTour ranking. Most of the riders and staff have found teams for 2017 but team buses and other equipment have been sold to the highest bidder and the team Riis created in 2001 will no longer exist from December 31.
Somewhat ironically, the end of the Tinkoff team coincides with Riis' return to professional cycling after his 18-month hiatus. He fell out with Tinkov in March 2015 after selling the team for a reported 4.5 million Euro. Riis was supposed to manage the team for a reported €1 million a year salary but his relation with Tinkov soon broke down.
"It's a long time since I've had something to say when it comes to the team, but it is said to note that it is now just gone. The sad part is that everything I built up over a period of 15 years was broken down in such a short time," Riis told Brian Askvig of the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet in an exclusive interview.
"Many times I have asked myself about what happened. I have no answer, and it no longer means anything to me. I have long since moved on."
Last week Riis confirmed that he and business partner Lars Seier Christensen will own and manage the Continental level Team Virtu Pro-VéloConcept to help develop some of the best Danish riders and also a WorldTour women's team captained by US time trial champion Carmen Small.
Riis has always been an awkward figure in Danish cycling and even his return was criticised by some at the Danish Cycling Federation. He was celebrated as the first Dane ever to win the Tour de France in 1996 but then demonised when he finally admitted to doping in 2007 and offered to give back the Tour de France yellow jersey. Last year, after a long investigation by Anti-Doping Denmark, he also admitted that he failed to do enough to stop doping in the teams he has managed and confirmed that he knew that Hamilton was working with Dr. Fuentes for blood doping treatment when leading Riis' team. Riis also confessed to blood doping during his own career. He only avoided sanctions due to an eight-year statute of limitation rule in force at the time.
Our special podcast on Bjarne Riis and the 1996 Tour de France
- The 1996 Tour de France: What to do with Bjarne Riis’ yellow jersey - Podcast part III
- The 1996 Tour de France: The fall of Indurain, the rise of Riis – Podcast part II
- The 1996 Tour de France 20 years on - Podcast part l
A life's work
Riis describes his team as his life's work and so was deeply saddened to see it disappear this year after Tinkov opted to stop funding the team and failed to find a new title sponsor despite having Peter Sagan under contract.
"It has been a very big part of my and my family's life. It was my training as a leader and businessman, so it does of course hurt to see it disintegrate. I really hadn't imagined that Oleg would buy the team to close it. It certainly was not my intention when I sold the team that it should be shut down. On the contrary," Riis said.
The team began as CSC-Tiscali in 2001 and ended with sponsorship from Tinkoff and then ownership by Tinkov as he invested his more than 50 million Euro in the team.
During its 15-year development, the team went on to win the Tour de France with Carlos Sastre and almost every other major race. Team leaders included Laurent Jalabert, Tyler Hamilton, Stuart O'Grady Fabian Cancellara, Ivan Basso, Frank and Andy Schleck and later Alberto Contador and Peter Sagan.
"I've been chasing all these years to create the optimum team. It was my desire to run a team of Sky's level, where I could have optimized everything down to the smallest detail but I just never had the funding," Riis said with regret.
You can't buy respect
Riis and Tinkov initially appeared to get on well during the team's first training camp in Gran Canaria, riding together and posing for photographs. However they were like chalk and cheese and soon began to fall out, including one famous spat outside the team bus before the start of Tirreno-Adriatico.
Tinkov often lambasted Riis in the media since their divorce and now Riis has finally responded during his interview.
"I was of course disappointed to read and hear what Oleg has said and wrote about me. I would have preferred that he'd shown a little more class, but he must do what he wants. We had a clear agreement that we should not comment on the break and another, and it's a deal, I intend to keep," Riis said.
"He has broken the deal and so I could certainly do it too but I have neither the desire or need to. I want to show a little more style than what he has shown."
Asked why the two fell out so quickly, Riis lets go of some of his diplomacy.
"I think it was envy," he said.
"I enjoyed the respect of the riders and the other employees. Respect is something you have to deserve. It's something you build up over years. It is not something you buy.
"I still absolutely do not understand why it went so wrong. I come from a world where people talk about things if there's a problem arise but it was impossible. Eventually I had enough and I asked for our agreement to be ended. I was not fired, although the journalists like to write it."
"Oleg's biggest mistake was to remove the philosophy I'd instilled in the team and do away with the way I ran the team. I don't think he'd thought through what it meant to change the team that way. Without me was the team's just a team like any other."