Bjarne Riis has held court at many memorable press conferences during his time in cycling but on Monday afternoon in London he announced the end of his ownership of Riis Cycling and with that the end of the Saxo Bank team in its current form. The Danish press, who were on hand, referred to the squad as his life's work but within a matter of minutes the canvas had been wiped clean and Riis had ushered on stage one Oleg Tinkov. The team name changed to Tinkoff-Saxo and Riis relinquished control for a reported 6 million Euros as Tinkov switched from out-of-favour collaborator to team boss.
Earlier in the summer no one would have predicted such a scenario. In July, with a disappointing Tour de France behind them, it looked as though the Riis-Tinkov band was at an end with artistic differences having simmered for a while. Occasionally they would publicly surface, providing almost jaw-dropping disbelief and entertainment rolled into one. They always came from Tinkov, where else, with the Russian taking to Twitter and unleashing gems like, "No I already have Bjarne Riis)))) he was never doped lol" or 'Nicolas [Roche] is a real MAN and a gentleman too, unlike Contador.IMHO".
Little wonder then that around the same time Riis Cycling issued a press statement declaring that the partnership would end this year.
Tinkov was then supposed to sail off with his millions and set up his own team while Riis looked to consolidate the Danish outfit. There were options out there for Tinkov too: Vacansoleil had the infrastructure but not the sponsor but Cannondale became the most likely solution in November with the company looking to ensure Peter Sagan's signature for the long term.
However, a month later and Riis was welcoming Tinkov back on stage for an online-streamed press conference at Google's head offices in London. Pay-per-view or pay-per-tweet? It hardly mattered as Alberto Contador sat with his arms folded, looking anywhere but at his new boss, while Tinkov skimmed through his cycling past. The Russian sprinkled us with his resume: Tinkoff-Credit Systems, selling to Katusha and then sponsoring Saxo Bank. And that was before he brought out such show stoppers as "doping is over, cycling has changed" and "the internet is for porn and Twitter is for fun."
But with that, with a handful of journalists present, a few thousand fans watching online and perhaps only one man truly happy to be the press conference, Riis' tenure as the elite owner of a WorldTour team came to an end.
Going forward he will have more time to focus on leading the team on the road, instead of looking for sponsorship each season. The sale of his company also means he can spend more time with his family, but while those were the reasons Riis raised during the press conference today the outcome needed further explanation. How had Riis and Tinkov managed to rescue a relationship that looked dead and buried?
"At that time there had been a discussion about continuing but I must say that on the business side we didn't agree," Riis told Cyclingnews when asked why the situation had shifted so dramatically since the summer.
"But we still had a good relationship," he quickly added. "He was a sponsor and we actually had no problems with each other. Then time went on and we made contact again.
"We agreed to sit together and see if there were any possibilities. We solved the issues on the business side that we didn't agree on. We agree on them now. Then in the last month it's been good and now we're here today."
Who initiated the reconciliation? Even in November, Tinkov was quoted as saying that he would be looking to set up his own team.
"It was clear from Oleg that he wanted to own his new team and me the same but it has been a dream of mine for many years to one day find someone who was interested in doing this, buying my team and hiring me to run it," said Riis. "So I said to him that the possibilities are there and if the deal was correct then we could find a solution."
Tinkov now owns Riis Cycling outright and has turned the team into Tinkoff-Saxo, an initial move to publicly announce both his leadership and influence. His name (company) is on the jersey and in cycling that's what counts. Riis played down the problems with Tinkov in the past.
"We also know that Oleg can say things that can be misunderstood and so on but generally I've always had a good relationship with him, other than the business we have talked about. If there has been anything then we've talked about it and the issues are behind us. That's crucial and believe me, if I didn't believe that I could work with Oleg I would not be here today."
And today Riis finds himself working for a man with whom he previously didn't even want to partner. The dynamic has shifted significantly for the Danish WorldTour team and while Riis can design the set - move the deck chairs if you will - the undercurrent that ran through Riis' typically stoic answers and Tinkov's brashness 'No more doping questions. Are you stupid or something?' he asked one journalist - came all the way from Denmark.
Riis has been dragged into an investigation into doping by the Danish anti-doping authorities and his home nation look determined to wade through a generation of malpractice and cheating. He has of course admitted to doping during his career but the allegations from Tyler Hamilton, Jörg Jaksche and most recently Michael Rasmussen have brought Riis back under the spotlight. Asked by Cyclingnews if the timing of the anti-doping investigation fit with the timing of selling his team, Riis dismissed the coincidence as speculation.
"It doesn't fit at all. It has nothing to do with it. This is a dream I've had for a long time, as I've said and the rest is speculation. As I've said this is just speculation and I've been available, and will be available for this. There's not much more I can say on that."
Has Riis been contacted? "I'm available when needed and that's all I've got to say."
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