Oleg Tinkov was at Il Lombardia on Saturday for his final race as team owner of the Tinkoff team and a final dinner in Milan with many of the riders and staff. He has hinted that he may eventually return to the sport in a few years' time but wanted to end his current spell as an often outspoken, often boisterous team owner with a final a farewell interview with Cyclingnews.
As in his blogs and throughout his five years as a sponsor and team owner, Tinkov has always spoken his mind, criticising the way the sport is managed, taking pot shots at his rivals and even at his own riders when they fail to live up to his expectations. In this final interview he again calls on ASO to take control of the sport and turn it into 'pure business' using pay for view television model and without the UCI involved. He also talks about his personal enjoyment of spending 50 million Euros to fund the team and recalls his memories – good and bad – from over the years.
Tinkov was critical of Peter Sagan in 2015 but he claims they now get on well. However he reveals his true sentiments about Alberto Contador, criticising him on his performances in 2016, describing him as a "limping duck" and predicting he will never win another Grand Tour.
Although he now rarely rants on Twitter, Tinkov made waves and enemies in the past, often with offensive comments. He claims he was provoked and was replying to those who offended him. He signs off by insisting he loves cycling and hinting he may return when the sport has reformed and Chris Froome has grown old and is perhaps unable to win the Tour de France.
Cyclingnews: Oleg, was your last day in the team car an emotional moment?
Oleg Tinkov: Yes and no. I announced my decision last December and so I knew this day was coming. The whole season has been a process of ending my ties to professional cycling and saying goodbye. The Tour de France was emotional because I knew it was my last Tour and because it was an emotional race. Like a rider who retires after a long career, I'm gradually getting used to it.
To be totally honest I've no regrets. All the stuff that has happened in the last few months just makes me feel stronger about my decision to leave. There's no clarity in the sport, only mess. The future of the WorldTour is so unclear, look at the mess they made by reducing to 17 teams, the mess with the team time trial at the world championships with only a handful of teams riding, or even the mess at the Vuelta when they didn't apply the time cut when the guys finished more than an hour back.
Some people think they're only minor problems of how our sport is run but to illustrate the importance of the Vuelta decision, look at it this way: We would have had five riders if the time cut had been applied, while Froome would have been alone. If they had made the decision to cut the riders, the race would have been different and maybe we would have won the WorldTour team classification instead of finishing second to Movistar. That's an example of the poor management of the sport and even though I'm leaving, it still makes me mad.
CN: Who do you think is responsible for what you describe as a mess?
Tinkov: Normally the UCI but they don't do much about it, they do fuck all.
As I said so many times in the past, you don't have to be smart or intelligent to suggest what needs to be done for the future of the sport. I believe that ASO should take control, perhaps with a big, deep-pocket financial investor. They should come together and finally buy RCS Sport, which is struggling and full of debt. They have to buy them out and they have to get rid of the UCI. I don't see any role for the UCI in the management of professional cycling.
ASO should create a pro league like the NBA and move it to the pay-for-view television model. Cycling has been promoted enough by the socialist state television channels in France, Spain and Italy for long enough. Millions of people love cycling and always will, so the fan base will not disappear if they are asked to pay a little to see it on television; many of them will and everyone will benefit. Who cares if the old woman who likes to look at the French countryside can't see the Tour anymore? It's about creating a good business model that works. That way the teams can also get something out of it and survive. Cycling will become much bigger, better and nicer to watch when it becomes a pure business.
No regrets on spending 50 million
CN: Do you think you got value for money in dollar terms for your sponsorship or was it more a personal investment for the pleasure of it?
Tinkov: If you say I threw 50 million Euro away, that isn’t true. People know the Tinkov brand in Europe now. Just the other day I bought some clothes in Milan’s Via Montenapoleone shopping street and when I gave them my credit card, they recognised my name and gave me a special discount. The brand is known in Europe. Is it worth the kind of money I spent? Unfortunately not. In many ways it was my toy and that’s why it ended, there was no direct financial benefit for Tinkoff Bank in Russia.
If I had a time machine I'd go back and spend the same money again because the emotions and the enjoyment I got in the last four years cannot be compared to any amount of money. As MasterCard says, there's some things in life that money can't but. You cannot buy something like riding with Peter Sagan, riding with the guys on the climbs and drinking champagne with them after a victory. That was priceless for me.
I can afford it and so I enjoyed it. Of course there were sad moments but in general I have a lot of good memories. I’d hoped that cycling would have become more of a business and less of a toy but sadly it's still only a toy for me, for Makarov at Katusha, for Andy Rihs at BMC or Gerry Ryan at Orica. The teams are 80% a toy and only 20% business. It should be the other way.
CN: Do you think you will miss being involved in professional cycling?
Tinkov: Maybe in two or three years' time I will but not now. At the moment I'm tired of it all.
I think the serious reforms that are needed will all take place in the next two or three years and so that could mark the right moment to come back. Plus the bank may have grown globally and Chris Froome will be tired too and so be beatable in the Tour de France. Winning the Tour de France is the only reason to come back. It's the one thing we haven't won. We've won the world title, the European championships, the individual world ranking. Unfortunately we were fucking second in the WorldTour team ranking but that was because of Contador.
I have to monitor things and then decide. For now if I want to come and visit a race, I can call a race organiser and they'll put me in a VIP car. If they don't I'll just buy a place and enjoy it. I can do whatever I want. If I want to ride with the pro riders I can do it when I'm on holiday in Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany. Basically everything I’ve been doing I can still do it. For now I’ll just have to sit back, watch the racing on Eurosport and decide when I come back.
CN: What's your best memory from your time as a team owner this time?
Tinkov: I can't say which is my best memory because there were a lot. But my biggest memory was when Contador crashed in the 2014 Tour de France. I still believe he would have won, especially after Froome abandoned after his crash. Alberto was the big favourite to win, not Nibali. I was sure he was going to win and so when he crashed out it was a big moment and something I'll never forget.
We won the Giro d'Italia in 2015 but for me the Tour de France has always been very emotional and a special race. Of course Peter gave me a lot of emotions by winning the Tour of Flanders too.
Criticism of Contador and a warning for Trek-Segafredo
CN: Was your relationship with Sagan difficult? You wanted to cut his salary after he struggled in the 2015 Classics.
Tinkov: People think we had a bad relationship but I only criticised him once and I had the right to do it. There were some problems but we fixed them by speaking together, just me and him, for an hour in my room. Since then we have had no issues and we often speak on the phone. He is coming to the party in Milan and we’ll drink champagne together to celebrate the end of the season.
To be honest I have a much worse relationship with Contador but the media have never really picked up on it. In fact I don't have a relationship with him. I respect him as a rider for his past but as a person he's never really appealed to me. I don't like him. Even in the team, most of the riders don't like him. He ended up having a bad relation with almost everyone, apart from his little Spanish group.
I think Trek manager Luca Guercilena has to be careful. He signed them as a group but I think this group will create a lot of mess at Trek. I want to warn Guercilena about that. It was difficult for anyone to do that to me because I'm strong and have big balls but I'm sure they'll do a mess at Trek.
Personally I think Alberto should stop riding because he's not as strong anymore. I stopped owning the team at the right moment, at the top. He's a great champion and so should stop now. I think he's going to be like a limping duck. He's going to look stupid. At the Vuelta he was dropped by the best four or five riders, next year it will be by the best 20 riders. I don't think he's ever going to win another Grand Tour. He should forget about it and quit.
CN: You seem angry with Contador. What happened?
Tinkov: I'm angry because we didn't win the WorldTour ranking because he either crashed, he was sick or abandoned. He didn't ride Lombardia and I don't know if he didn't ride on purpose but I don't like it. It's shit. For the money he earns, that shouldn't happen. Valverde was sick three days ago but he rode Lombardia and finished top ten. That's class.
Contador won't be at the farewell party because I told him: you're sick, stay at home, you can't bring a virus to the party and make the other guys sick before the World Championships. I think the party will be better without him anyway because he's a sad person. He never really wants to drink champagne and is always careful about what he eats because he's focused on winning the Tour de France in July. That's what he was like last November in Moscow. That's a stupid attitude, that's why he kept crashing, he's too hard on himself and too focused. Peter is more relaxed and is easy going. The guys who are always serious are always boring. They can fuck off. They're boring guys, they have a terrible life.
Explaining his use of social media, on being misunderstood
CN: You often caused a stir and were very vocal on social media. You even offended people. Do you regret that?
Tinkov: What I said on social media was actually a reaction to what other people said about me, there was a cause and an effect. People criticised me a lot, but they rarely started a constructive or sensible dialogue.
People attacked me for something I wrote, saying: 'Tinkoff you are a piece of shit'. Some Danes said I was a Vodka clown. But when I said something back, then it gets blown up and goes in the media. When someone offends me, my response is strong too. When people use my nationality to hit out at me, I respond quickly in a similar way. Concerning the Obama tweet; Vaughters started that one and then one guy was saying Putin is a shit. He started to talk about my president, so I replied. I think I have the right to do that. I don’t even like politics and so I'm not keen to go into politics or religion on social media. I was provoked.
CN: Do you think some people in cycling misunderstand? Is that a problem for you?
Tinkov: I think everyone feels they are misunderstood in some way, even by their wife or kids, its normal for human beings. We try to express ourselves as best we can but some people understand things in another way. There's not much you can do about it. That's life.
I think I have a big heart but I also speak my mind. I know I never tried to really hurt anybody. Everything I've done was to try to help cycling be better. Any criticism of my riders was to help motivate them. I think I was right to do that. I know that some people don't like me but I know that the cycling world is a very strange world. People hate each other but then they're always ready to sign a new contract for the new season. People make alliances but then they quickly fall out too.
I don't expect people to miss me but I hope they will over time remember me for good reasons. I know I'm controversial but I've built and sold five businesses; now people from my earlier businesses tell me they had their best time with me when we were building something special. I know that over time people will remember the good things about the Tinkoff team.
I want to make it clear that I still love cycling. It's my favourite sport and love all the people involved. As I say goodbye I can only say: Vive le vélo!
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