Lars Seier Christensen has reiterated that Saxo Bank will honour their current deal with Tinkoff as a co-sponsor of Oleg Tinkov's team but the Danish bank's CEO has insisted that no negotiations over a contract extension will take place at this time.
Seier Christensen was set to visit the riders and staff on Sunday morning, ahead of the Tour of Flanders but he will find a very different squad to the one he first helped build eight years ago, with former boss Bjarne Riis dismissed from his duties and a new management structure in place courtesy of Tinkov's recent restructure.
Last month Riis was suspended by Tinkov, with his contract terminated by mutual consent days ago. Seier Christensen had tried to broker a form of mediation between his long-term ally and Tinkov but found that neither party were willing to discuss terms with their conscious uncoupling confirmed in the lead up to the Tour of Flanders.
"Now it's an interesting opportunity to touch base with the riders and see how they're doing. I want to show my support and involvement with the team and that we're sponsors that we take an interest with the team," Seier Christensen told Cyclingnews.
"I think now is a really important time to underline that support. For me it's also interesting to get an impression about what they think. I've never really interfered in strategy but I think it's interesting to hear what the atmosphere is like on the team and how these changes are being perceived by them."
Seier Christensen, Tinkov and riders including Peter Sagan have all been on a PR warpath since Riis' removal - a firing that one Danish journalist told Cyclingnews was more a humiliation than anything – with carefully prepared statements placed on social media. Interestingly the team chose to forgo their usual pre-Tour of Flanders press conference, perhaps in a move to displace an opportunity for the media to ask questions but Seier Christensen stated, at least, that the changes in management and loss of Riis should not distract the riders from their primary target of winning races, however for a team that's won only twice all season that's easier said than done.
"Whenever you have big changes people want to see what comes next. That's been clarified now with the structure of the management. These guys are professional, they're ambitious so I don't think it's going to affect them that much, but of course psychology matters in sport and they're used to having Bjarne at the helm so there might be some uncertainty. I'm sure that they're professional enough to pull through that."
A result at Flanders would of course change everything from the riders' morale to Tinkov's justification in seeking a new structure. The Russian is passionate about the sport but with such a heavy investment in a WorldTour team and the signing of Peter Sagan in the winter, he expects the best.
"I'm probably a more patient man than Oleg so I'll let him put the pressure on," Christensen jokingly said before adding that, "I believe in long term plans, I think we've a strong team and I think they'll do well over time. I've been through periods when we've had a great team and the results weren't there and then other times when they over-delivered and outperformed when we least expected. I'm a patient guy, we get a lot of exposure and we're always very visible. We have spirit and we try but ultimately it would be nice to win some races and I'm sure that we will."
The new team structure sees Steven de Jongh move into the position of head of the team's sport directors and general manager Stefano Feltrin provide an input into the team’s sporting decisions.
For Seier Christensen the firing of Riis was not solely down to results but linked to the two competing strategies Tinkov and his former employee had over the direction of the team. Speculation has floated around suggesting that Riis had also taken his eye off the ball too. Certainly that holds water to some degree. One rider, who moved to Leopard Trek from under Riis' wing told Cyclingnews that the Dane was more interested in his golf swing that rider development, and Daniel Freibe's piece last month reported that episodes of the West Wing were distracting Riis from his job while at the Tour de Suisse.
Whether Tinkov made the right decision, Christensen says, only time will tell.
"It all remains to be seen. It's well documented that I had a good relationship with Bjarne. Him being there was important for the sponsorship but there's not just one way. We can have different strategies in business that work. The important thing is to not have two strategies at the same time. If Oleg thinks that the team should be run in a different way then we'll see how that pans out. As long as there's not uncertainty then you can deploy different strategies to achieve goals."
"There's obviously a different dynamic when you've got a different owner to the team. I thought it was going to work out and it did for a time but at the end of the day they're both strong-minded. A lot of people have been quick to say that this would happen but I thought it could work for a longer time. At the end of the day I was proven wrong.
"I like stability above all. You need to have good reasons to change strategies mid-stream but it's Oleg's team and I'm just a sponsor but yes I tried to bring them together but it felt like neither of them were keen to continue together. I was the only one wanting that to happen."
Saxo Bank's involvement with the team has lasted eight years but the current contract runs out in 2015 with Tinkov already looking for further investment from new areas. With Riis gone, one would assume that Seier Christensen would have tougher decision that usual when it came to the option of reinvestment for 2016. He states that his friendship with Riis will not sway a decision that will be purely based on business and the wishes of Saxo Bank's share holders, of which he is one.
"It's still the same sports directors and I know Feltrin well. I don't have any issue with those guys. They're good people but we analyse on a year-to-year basis and we'll always take into account what’s best for the bank. That could mean an increased or decreased sponsorship, it could mean no sponsorship it could be another sport but that's usually what we assess after the Tour de France."
And what if Bjarne, once his gardening leave is over, comes to Saxo Bank with a new offer and the hope of starting a new team? It is all theoretical based off the fact that Riis has said very little in the last few weeks, and any hopes of starting again could rest on the long and protracted Danish anti-doping investigation.
"I don't know," Christensen says when asked if working with Riis again is a possibility.
"Now he's going to take some time out. I like Bjarne and I have no issue with him whatsoever but right now he’s not in the industry. I doubt it's a retirement but you'd need to ask him.
"We're here to market the bank and be to be visible. That's the number one priority so whatever the best bang for our buck will have the highest priority. If the team continues to be the best in the world maybe that's the best deal and if it doesn't then maybe there's another deal but I have no aversion to working with Bjarne or anyone else so if he has an idea I'll certainly listen to him.
"With renewing with this team, I can't say because that's dependant on a lot of thing. What's the price going to be, how do we see the world so I can't say if that's a positive or negative. If we win every race for the rest of the season and it turns out that Oleg was right then it will increase the probability and if it goes horribly wrong it would decrease but that's simply something we've not thought about it yet."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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