Cappuccino with Oleg, Part II: Politicians, owning a team, and Contador

Oleg Tinkov says Contador's Tour de France rivals are "afraid" of him, that it's unfair for Nibali, Froome to skip Giro

Photo: TDW

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Oleg Tinkov just couldn’t help himself. When Alberto Contador rode into Milano as victor of the 2015 Giro d’Italia, the Russian owner of Tinkoff-Saxo wanted in on the party. He’s like a kid in the candy store, except that he’s rich enough that he can buy the candy store. Tinkov dyed his hair pink, hoisted the trophy, and carried Contador on his shoulders. Who wouldn’t? If you were so loaded you could buy your own cycling team, you would, too. Just admit it.

Last week, as the Giro headed into the decisive mountains, VeloNews shared a morning cappuccino with the irrepressible team owner in the hotel lobby of Tinkoff-Saxo. It was a few hours before the start of the stage to Aprica, which would later see Contador ride like Moses through the Red Sea up the Mortirolo. Tinkov was in a talkative mood. He could sense that the Giro was almost in the bag, and even before VeloNews had a chance to ask the first question, Tinkov volunteered his views on ideas about limiting the size of the peloton (see part I here).

Tinkov speaks as fast as the words will come out. An interview with Tinkov is more like strapping into a rollercoaster rather than a lot of give and take. The ride takes you, not vice versa. Finally, an opening, so what do you think of new UCI administration? Tinkov didn’t hold back.

“I never follow politics. Politicians and bureaucrats are not interesting to me. In the USA, the United Kingdom, and Russia, if you have talent, if you have ability, and charisma, why would you go into politics? If you are mediocre or a loser, then you go into politics,” Tinkov said, just warming up. “The worst people are going into politics and bureaucracy, and for me, they are just a bunch of losers.”

Hm, OK. So, what is the best part of being the owner of a team?

“Maybe you need to ask Freud. Most of our passions come out of our childhood. I used to be a racer, I was a sprinter, I was 75kg, 190cm [165 lbs, six-foot-three], I liked to race, but I had to go two years to the Army. I won many races, so I know what it’s like to win, to suffer in a race, but I feel I never fulfilled my dreams. I could never become a pro,” he explains at manic speed. “When I made my money and became a businessman, and I had some success, I went to see the Tour de France. I saw the teams, I saw the riders. I was excited about that, but I couldn’t have access to the riders, I couldn’t get beyond the barriers. I was just standing there, like everyone else. Then I thought, why don’t I own the team? Then I will have unlimited access to the riders, all the time. I have to admit, it comes out of my childhood when I did not fulfill my dreams. I had ‘asphalt sickness.’ Had I been able to continue, I would have been like [Mario] Cipollini. I was very fast. Now, I can own the team, and share the victories of my riders … like Michael Rogers.”

And just like that, almost as if on cue, or as if he were walking unawares into a trap, Rogers strolls into the hotel lobby, and Tinkov waves him over to join the chat. The veteran Australian amiably offers his views on what could help make the peloton a better place, offering insight into a too-crowded racing calendar, ideas that Tinkov quickly agrees with. When asked how Tinkov is as a team owner compared to others he’s ridden for, Rogers didn’t miss a beat.

“He’s coming into it from a very different view. He’s ahead of his time, in many ways,” Rogers said. “The vision he has is quite unique. Cycling as a business model needs to be worked out, and I think Oleg can be a big part of that.”

Tinkov chimes in with a laugh, “I would like to make money out of my hobby! I would be as happy as the day of the birth of my children. Now it’s costing me a lot of money! If I could make money out of this team, I would be a happy man.”

VeloNews asks Tinkov about the financial stability of the team; after all, the ruble has crashed, Tinkoff Bank’s stock has crashed, and there are rumors that the team might crash at the end of the season, but Tinkov just waves off the question as if it were a pesky fly buzzing around his head.

“I don’t know where these stories come from. There is no problem for 2016. I cannot commit indefinitely, but next year is no problem. We have a budget, with contracts signed,” Tinkov said, his mood souring. “I just deny all of this speculation. I know people like to say that Russia is in crisis. And about Russian ruble, I like to remind people that in January the ruble was at 85, now it’s at 55. The ruble has strengthened a lot in these few months. The Russian economy has recovered. It does not affect the team.”

Rather than politics or business, what Tinkov really likes to talk about is bike racing and bike racers. Ask him about Alberto Contador, and he will talk all morning.

“The more and more I know Alberto, the more I am excited about him. In January, I spent 10 days with him at altitude at Teide. I knew he was a professional. I knew he was a big champion, but when you see how controlled he is, how concentrated, how he takes care of his body, his diet, I became very excited about Contador,” Tinkov said, his voice rising in tempo. “Nothing is free in this life, and when I saw how dedicated he was, back in January, I realized how special Contador really is. He is a step above everyone, in dedication, details. He is like Ronaldo or [Roger] Federer. Contador is in this league of quality.”

Even before Contador pulled off the first leg of the double, Tinkov was enthusiastic about the idea of the Giro-Tour double — something Tinkov insists was Contador’s idea, not his — and he couldn’t help but take a jibe at Contador’s rivals.

“I would be so happy for Contador if he could win the double. It would be historical. It would be a testament to Contador. It is doable, but I said even in January that doing the Tour after the Giro is more difficult. I still believe that it is not fair that the other riders are not racing against each other. Right now, Nibali and Froome are sitting on Teide, and I don’t know where Quintana is, probably hiding somewhere in Colombia, but it’s not fair,” Tinkov grumbled. “Contador is racing now. If he comes to the Tour and crushes them, then there is no question who is the best cyclist in the world. If he finishes second or third, and wins the Giro, is he not the best cyclist in the world?”

Earlier in the interview, Tinkov was ranting about the “stupidity” he sees at all levels of professional cycling. And one thing that irks him more than just about anything is why the top stars are not racing in all the top events. Last fall, Tinkov even made the suggestion that riders like Contador and Froome should race all three grand tours, not just start, but race to win. It rankled him that Quintana, Froome and Nibali were all skipping the Giro.

“That’s what I hate about cycling business now. We need to have rankings, we need to have the best riders racing against each other all season long. Contador is the greatest, the best and the No. 1, but the others will come fresh to the Tour,” he continued. “They are afraid of Alberto, they hide from him. The only way to beat him is to hide, and come fresh to the Tour. That should be something that the sport needs to work on. The top riders need to be in the top races.”

If he’s rich enough to buy a team, maybe he’s rich enough to buy the entire sport. Then he could be inside any team car that he wants and give orders. If Tinkoff Bank’s stock makes a dramatic comeback, anything seems possible with Tinkov.

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