In an extensive interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport Tinkoff-Saxo team owner Oleg Tinkov has talked further about the departure of former team manager Bjarne Riis, how he would like to cut Peter Sagan's huge contract and how long he envisages remaining in the sport.
Tinkov bought the WorldTour team outright from Riis at the start of the 2014 season but he fired the Dane through via mutual termination of their contract, ending the Dane's long association with the team he created from scratch. Since then Tinkov has taken a more central role in the team, splitting up several of Riis' former responsibilities within the existing management structure.
In a recent blog for Cyclingnews, Tinkov was critical of Peter Sagan's spring Classics campaign but praised him after he snatched overall victory at the Tour of California on Sunday. Sagan moved to the Russian team for the 2015 season and became one of the most expensive signings in cycling history with an estimated salary of 4 million Euro ($4.5 million) per season. In the interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, Tinkov confirmed he is investigating if he has the legal grounds to cut Sagan's salary.
Tinkov asks if the business model for cycling wages is structured correctly because riders who under achieve are paid the same basic salary regardless of performance.
"In the Classics we only had plan A, but no plan B, so when Peter didn't perform, there were no other guys to cover for him. There was not much we could do because we put all of the chips on one guy and it didn't work. Peter's still a great rider but he cannot win everything," Tinkov told Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Ciro Scognamiglio.
"The problem in cycling is that it's not easy to cut salary because we have a contract. I believe that cycling needs a different model. The problem with cycling is that riders look to raise the salary once they win. When Peter wins, he wants more money. When they start to win, that's okay, they have more and more money, and teams even increase them during the season, it happened with my riders last year. Unfortunately you cannot cut their salary but they have a bonus when they win, but if not they still have a huge fee, and that's really painful. They can have a huge part of your budget and they don't perform, but I can't do anything because they have a three-year deal. I don't like this model. Of course if I could find any legal possibility, I would decrease the contract. But we have to work with it."
"I wish Bjarne all the best"
In his blog with Cyclingnews, Tinkov also insisted he is a good replacement for Riis and that he is equally able to motivate his riders. He spent the first week of the Giro d'Italia on the race and occasionally travelled in the team car, alongside directeur sportif Steven De Jongh. He returned home to Moscow on Sunday to undergo surgery on a long-standing knee problem but will return to the Giro d'Italia for the final week.
He talked at length about Riis but insisted it will be the last time he discusses the subject.
"First of all I would like to emphasise that this is my opinion, not the team's opinion. My personal opinion is very much separated from the team opinion. My opinion is that all of the rumours in circulation about why I parted ways with Bjarne Riis are true," Tinkov said.
Rumours as to why Riis' position at the team was terminated ranged from poor communication, a lack of time and effort with the riders, poor results, budget reductions to the Dane being caught watching episodes of the West Wing during important WorldTour races.
"So you take all of the rumours, they are all true, so there is not one specific reason. It's not true to say that's the reason, there were many reasons and that's why we split."
"This is an exclusive for La Gazzetta dello Sport, which I respect, that's why I answer this question but it's the last time I'd like to talk about BR. He did a lot for this team, he wasn't the founder. It already existed and he kept it going for ten years. Now I'm the owner and I'm carrying it on. I will not accept anymore questions from the press now. It's in the past, it's over. We're separated now and it's ok. He has his life and I have my life."
"What he has done for the team is good so we have no fight, no problems. He's the past and I'm looking to the future. There is no specific reason. I'm looking ahead of us, and I believe the team will be stronger and grow, I wish Bjarne all the best."
A lack of results was certainly one area in which Tinkov thought the team underperformed in. The Russian has arguably assembled one of the strongest Grand Tour teams in the world with Alberto Contador recently extended his contract with the team.
When asked by La Gazzetta dello Sport if he expected more from the team, Tinkov said, "Yes, that's true. I believe we are one of the best teams in the world and we cannot be beaten in the Grand Tours. That was another difference with Bjarne because he built the team only around the Tour de France, which I didn't like. I like to be good at the Giro, which is my favourite race and is very important. The Tour de France is still the biggest race and it's hard to compete with the Tour because of the money it has, but it's not the only race. There are the Classics, the other WorldTour races, the races in Australia, the Middle East, Abu Dhabi is coming… We have to respect all of the races, and I would like to win from January to October. That's why I expect much more from the team."
"That's the reason we bought Sagan and built a team around him with Breschel and others, because we wanted him to be good in the Classics but unfortunately we didn't get any podium places and of course I cannot be satisfied."
Tinkov understands and respects that money alone does not build a successful team. There are a number of WorldTour outfits who operate with a significantly smaller operating budget that have outstripped Tinkoff-Saxo for results so far this year.
A lack of major results in the spring for example "doesn't mean I will commit suicide because this is sport, and sport is never certain. You don't buy results. It's not the money that does that, but still I expected much more from my team in the Classics campaign. even if you win Giro, Tour, Vuelta – all three together - I still believe it's not enough for such a big budget team as Tinkoff-Saxo. A big budget team has to win not only Grand Tours but many other races around the world."
"This is not business, this is just my toy"
Although Sagan moved to the team under Tinkov's watch and with the Russian's bank balance subsidizing the contract the Russian team owner believes that the squad is still in transition. Riis' spent over a decade at the reins, shaped a team in his image and for better and eventually worse, Tinkov has had to operate under constraints as a result. Suffice to say, if the team owner was starting from scratch he would have done things differently.
"I have to admit that I bought the team as it is," he said.
"I bought existing contracts with staff and riders, so this year I couldn't buy many riders because there wasn't room. The UCI limits teams to thirty riders and we already had something like 26 with contracts, so I bought Kiserlovksi, Brutt and some others. There wasn't much I could do. Even this year is still a transition year for me. You couldn't call it 'my' team because it's still a team built by Riis. I have to get more people."
Tinkov has of course run a team before but the question of longevity in terms of this project is one that he as wrestled with on numerous occasions. Budget and finance are central but so is the Russian businessman's passion for this sport. On a business front he is open to finding a new co-sponsor as Saxo Bank's current deal expires at the end of 2015 and there is no certainty that the Danish bank will remain associated with the squad.
When asked how long the team might last, Tinkoff answered, "I don't know what to answer because I'm quite an emotional person. My strategy is good tactics. We have to see month by month what the results are, what is the situation."
Much may depend on the future of Tinkov's personal business but a number of the squad including Contador have contracts going into 2016. Tinkov is open to finding a new sponsor and is willing to hand over the title sponsorship.
"Normally I don't have any problem to continue. The Russian crisis is not good but it doesn't affect this year because all of the contracts are signed, the budget is there. For the next year it very much depends on how we perform and what kind of riders we keep and what riders we buy. But in general there are two possibilities, two directions. One is that I continue – if Saxo Bank goes, it doesn't change much, I can continue by myself. Ideally I would like to have some other big sponsors to help me or even I am open to give the whole space on the jersey. I happy for Tinkoff Sport to be just the owner of the team and have another sponsor. I am open to that."
"If there is not that option, we can be just the only sponsor. But I have to see at the end of each year. I cannot say now if it's a ten-year project or a twenty-year project or a two-year project. There is no fixed term. It's based on how things are going, on what is my mood – don't forget, this is not business, this is just my toy. And like a child, when you play with your toy maybe it stops being interesting. Maybe I would have enough at the end of this year. I don't know – it's hard to answer this question."