An exclusive, in-depth interview with the owner of the Tinkoff-Saxo team
Oleg Tinkov joined up with the riders from his Tinkoff-Saxo team in Gran Canaria on Thursday, and immediately headed out for a bike ride in the team's yellow and blue new kit. He spent time on the front with Bjarne Riis and rode for three hours despite little training over the winter. He will stay in Gran Canaria for the rest of the training camp.
After the ride he sat down for an hour-long exclusive interview with Cyclingnews.
As ever, Tinkov is not scared to speak his mind. In this first part of the interview he talks about his hopes for the 2014 season, his relationship with Alberto Contador, his plans for the future and how he intends to overtake Team Sky and make his team the best in the world.
In the second part of the interview that will be published on Friday, Tinkov talks about how he started in business and gives his views on the future of cycling.
He is convinced cycling needs a new business model, with race organisers sharing their TV revenue with the teams. If they don’t Tinkov is ready to consider a boycott of the Tour de France by the best teams in the sport.
Cyclingnews: You being here with the team seems to be a clear sign of your passion for cycling and for the team.
Oleg Tinkov: Of course. Cycling is my passion, my hobby, and my toy. I like to ride my bike. I'm going to try to stay for ten days but it depends on how I my knee feels. I crashed while skiing last year and I had surgery and it's painful. But I want to rebuild my leg muscles and work on my fitness, while also working. I'll ride in the morning and then make calls and work in the afternoon.
CN: You arrived the day after Alberto Contador went home. Is there a reason that you didn’t ride together?
OT: Journalists like to create stories about us but to be honest I hadn’t even thought about it. Of course it would have been nice to meet him again but he's got a training program to follow. We've swapped several SMS messages.
I wasn't able to come earlier because my family comes first, then my business and then my passion for cycling. I was on holiday with my family until Sunday, then I had three busy days in the office and then I flew here.
CN: I understand you apologised to Alberto about your tweets in front of everyone at the November training camp. Is that true?
OT: I don’t want to comment about rumours. The team is like a family and what happens in a family is our business and I don’t want to talk about it publicly. All I can say that our relationship is good now. We had some issues but at the end of the day, maybe something positive came out of the negative. Maybe it was motivating for him, that's what I heard. Maybe I learnt something too. It's not a big deal. We're friends but not close friends.
CN: Will you change how you tweet after what happened and now that you own the team?
OT: You know, I'm passionate about cycling and especially about the Tour de France. We were sure he'd win last year and so when he started not to perform I was pissed off and disappointed. Sometimes perhaps I was too hard. Then I was only a sponsor. Now I'm the team owner and it's my team now. Maybe I have to be more responsible now.
As I've said in the past, I don’t really see Twitter as an official way of communicating. This is a serious interview, it's official.
Earlier I tweeted that whoever wears a helmet is a loser because I didn’t wear a helmet this morning on the ride. But it was a bit of fun, a bit of provocation. Smart people had a laugh about it and understand it's a joke; mediocre people wanted to prove me wrong and criticised me. Of course, it's obvious that helmets are important for safety. Twitter is provocation, It's fun, its entertainment.
The Tinkoff-Saxo team in 2014
CN: Let's talk about the Tinkoff-Saxo team. What do you expect from the team this year?
OT: In many ways it’s a transition year. I bought the team as it was and wasn't able to change a lot. What can you do in December? The team was built by Bjarne. But we've got some very good riders.
We've got Alberto obviously, we've got Rafal Majka, we’ve got Roman Kreuziger, who is a rough diamond who needs a bit of a polish, we've got Nicolas Roche and some young riders. It's a good team and we've got the same technical sponsors.
This year I'm a hostage and can’t change the team overnight. I don’t think people should judge on 2014 but on what we do in 2015. The team is going to be very different in 2015. With better riders, with some star riders we're going to buy, with some helpers, with better sponsors and more serious suppliers (technical sponsors). We're a top, top team and so that's why we have to have top suppliers, top uniform suppliers, the best nutrition, everything should be top, top, top.
I think we can be judged in 2016 and 2017. So 2014 will be a transition year. We'll be much better and stronger than in 2013 in terms of performance and sporting merit. And as a structure because we've got much more money than last year. But we will the real changes and what I bring to the team in 2015.
CN: I presume the major objective is to win the Tour de France. Can Alberto Contador beat Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali in July?
OT: We've got three big objectives: We also want to see Roman Kreuziger do well in the Ardennes Classics and see Rafal Majka and Nicolas Roche strong in the Giro, and of course Alberto will target the Tour de France and the Vuelta.
I think Contador is the only rider who can challenge Froome (at the Tour de France). Froome is very strong but I think Alberto is very motivated. I've heard that he wasn't very motivated 12 months ago here in Gran Canaria. We'll see when he meets Froome for the first time. I think it'll be in Tirreno-Adriatico and it'll be curious to see how he's going to be.
I believe in Alberto. He's won a lot of Grand Tours and he's still young and still strong. He's very experienced and I think he can win the Tour.
CN: Is only important to win, or is it also important how you win?
OT: Remember that we won the team prize at last year's Tour de France. We were the best team in the race. Without us there wouldn't have been such a great show. Of course Movistar and Katusha was there too but if you ask Dave Brailsford who was the most challenging team for Sky, I'm sure he'd say Tinkoff.
It's nice to win style. But the winner takes it all. However, personally I don’t like it when someone dominates like Lance Armstrong did. Even last year it wasn't a great Tour. Froome killed everybody and there was no real fight. We all like a spectacular race, right? Like we did in the Vuelta in 2012. Everybody was sure that Joaquim Rodriguez was going to win but Alberto changed everything in one day and we won. That's a nice win and was a great show.
The Russians are coming
CN: What do you think about Team Sky. They seem to be setting the standard in the sport now.
OT: They're obviously the best now. But that's because they have good management, good riders and good organisation.
Sky was the first to bring business methods and a business culture into cycling. They're British and that's one of their best skills. British management is one of the best in the world because they used to rule remote territories all over the world. The US are the best at marketing and sales but the British are the best at management. The president of my bank is British, so I know what I'm talking about.
What makes Sky strong is good management, also not making compromises. They have good discipline and organisation, good training systems, good nutrition, diet, recovery programmes and good medical programmes. Don’t get me wrong, I mean legal medial programmes. That's what makes Sky strong. And of course, the big support from Murdoch. I think they have like 25 million Euro or something.
When I had my own team in the past I didn’t have the money to compete at the highest level, but now that my business Tinkoff Credit Systems is doing very well, I have the money too. My personal agenda is to get up to their level in 2015 and then be better in 2016 and 2017. So that we set the standard.
The Russians are coming! Look at London. The best restaurant in London now is Novikov, it's Russian. We own the best football team with Chelsea, we have the best houses and the best of everything. While the Chinese are buying things in the British shops, the Russian are buying up the British shops. That's the difference. The Chinese have a lot of money too, but they don’t have style. They can only learn from us.
CN: What can a Russian like yourself bring to cycling?
OT: Money. Because we have oil and gas. We have lots of money. We were punished by the gods for 70 years; we were under the leash of the communists. Now we're unleashed and so now it's our time. The Gulf states have money too but we're Europeans. That's the difference. We have style and money (laughs).
I'll give you a scoop about Russia and cycling. The Tinkoff-Saxo team is going to be a Russian-registered team. Our application is pending with the UCI but were going to race under a Russian flag. That's important for me. We're an international team with international riders, staff and management but under a Russian flag.
Tinkov's dream team
CN: Regarding the team in 2015, if you could sign three riders, to create your dream team, who would you sign?
OT: It all depends if riders are under contract but if I had three wishes or something, to make my dream team, I'd sign: Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome. That'd be an interesting team!
If we had Alberto too, we'd have first and second place at the Tour de France. It could be a problem deciding who is first and second but it would be up them to fight it out (lets out a big laugh).
CN: In 2015 you will perhaps have some competition from Fernando Alonso's team when it comes to signing the big riders.
OT: Do you think so? Does it really exist? They keep talking about but I haven't seen anything yet.
I'm sure it won't be easy for them to build a team from scratch. It's going to be a transition year for us after all, but we have Bjarne's 14 years of experience. I'm happy to welcome Alonso into cycling because we need his money, his name and his brand. But honestly I think it will be tough for them to do something in he first two years.
I chose to buy Bjarne's team rather than build my own team because I calculated that it would cost me the same and take less time. I'll have just one transition year, not two or three. A team doesn't have any real assets but an existing team has the structure, the riders and the knowledge. Who is Alonso going to sign? Most of the good riders are under contract. That's why the riders I named earlier are my dream team. You can't just go but and sign them.
CN: Why did you buy Bjarne Riis' team and not the Cannondale team or the Euskaltel team?
OT: We tried with Cannondale but we never spoke to Euskaltel because it was a small team and it would have been like starting from scratch.
Cannondale are good people but they didn’t want to sell me the whole thing. I don’t believe in 50-50 in business. It would have been torture for both of us. I believe one person has to be responsible for making the big decisions. That's how I do things and that's my opinion. I like that Cannondale owns the team, and that Trek, BMC and Makarov (Katusha) own their teams. The sports management shouldn't own the teams. I could be wrong but that's not healthy. They always get stressed about finding a next sponsor and lose focus on the sporting performance.
Defending Bjarne Riis
CN: Is the Denmark Anti-Doping investigation into Bjarne Riis a problem for you?
OT: The only problem is that they could ban him and so he can't be our sports director. That would be a pity for me and for the world of cycling. I think Bjarne is a one of the best, if not the best sports director in the world.
CN: What will you do if he is banned?
OT: I'd have to go the market and find a new one. I'd have to buy someone and take a risk developing someone. It'd be a nightmare.
It's not for me to judge what's going on with the investigation. I know that there are accusation from Tyler Hamilton, Michael Rasmussen and Jörg Jaksche but you know more than me. I don’t have any concern that he's under investigation.
CN: What about the ethics question? Is it right that someone caught up in doping is still involved in cycling?
OT: I don’t know. It's hard to talk about ethics. What does ethics mean?
I've learned a lot since I last owned a team. We have zero-tolerance against doping now. We made a mistake when we signed Hamilton and Jaksche back then. The times has changed and the past is past but we have to have zero-tolerance going forward.
I can give you another exclusive by revealing that we tried to sign some riders who were on the market but when we looked at their biological passport, our doctors told us not sign them. In the past if they were clear to race, we signed them. Not now.
I feel sorry for the guys who talk bad about me. I gave them a hand and now they spit on it. I tried to help them but now they're coming out with bullshit to sell a book or something. I met Tyler Hamilton for like 15 minutes at a training camp. Once. Now he's accusing me. He's an idiot to say that.
CN: So for you, it's zero-tolerance from now on, going forward?
OT: We'll have zero tolerance going forward. I can’t investigate the past, what Bjarne used to do, what others used to do. If Sky is really doing that with their zero-tolerance for the past, it’s a bit strange. How can you make sure that their riders and sports directors have never been involved in doping?
CN: They make people sign an agreement saying they were never involved in doping.
OT: That's bullshit. Katusha pushed their riders to sign such a letter and then they had two doping cases. Anyone can sign anything for money. For me there was 100 per cent of doping in cycling 15 years so how can zero-tolerance for in the past work? If Sky want real zero-tolerance they should sign riders who were juniors now and have sports directeurs who are 20 years old, otherwise it's a joke.
CN: What about Michael Rogers' Clenbuterol case?
OT: He's saying it was food contamination. I hope he's not lying, I hope for him. He called me and explained that he ate meat while in China. And I believe him. We'll see. It's a pity if he can't prove because he's good guy and big loss for us. I hope will be cleared and if he does he will be straight back in the team. If he's not cleared he'll never come back. Zero tolerance."
The second part of the exclusive Oleg Tinkov interview will be published on Friday.
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