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Tinkoff-Saxo, Bjarne Riis part ways

WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — Bjarne Riis has been booted off the team he founded.

Tinkoff-Saxo released the 51-year-old Dane, effective immediately, a decision that is sending shockwaves around the peloton. The team, owned by Russian banker Oleg Tinkov, made the announcement Sunday evening.

A team release stated that Riis and Tinkov reached a “mutual agreement” and that a new management structure would be revealed shortly.

The text of the release follows:

Managing company of team Tinkoff-Saxo and Bjarne Riis have reached a mutual agreement to terminate all contracts entered between Tinkoff Sport A/S and Bjarne Riis with immediate effect. All terms of said agreement shall remain confidential and both parties shall abstain from making any further comment‎. Early next week, Tinkoff Saxo will announce, in a separate statement, the new structure of its technical and performance group. Tinkoff Saxo would like to thank its title sponsors, Tinkoff Bank and Saxo Bank, as well as all its other sponsors and suppliers for their continued support and confidence shown ‎in the team. At the same time, the team looks forward to continuing receiving the support of its fans both on the road and on its social media platforms.

Sunday’s termination was a sudden and unexpected exit for Riis, who has weathered a string of controversies and crises, both on and off the bike, dating back to the 1990s.

As a rider, he won the 1996 Tour de France, but later admitted he used the banned blood booster EPO throughout much of his career, earning him the nickname “Mister 60 Percent,” referring to a high hematocrit level.

After retiring as a racer, he joined the Jack and Jones team, a small Danish squad, and quickly took over management. He landed a major sponsor, CSC, and built the team into a legitimate grand-tour and classics powerhouse, signing such riders as Tyler Hamilton, Fabian Cancellara, the Schleck brothers, Stuart O’Grady, and Carlos Sastre.

Controversy continued to dog him, however, especially after riders such as Hamilton, Ivan Basso, and Fränk Schleck were linked to Eufemiano Fuentes, the Spanish doctor at the center of the “Operación Puerto” doping ring in 2006.

Through sheer stubbornness and defiance, Riis battled onward, and signed Alberto Contador at the end of the 2010 season in a move that he thought would give him a legitimate Tour de France contender. Contador, however, tested positive for clenbuterol, and would serve a back-dated, two-year ban. Still, Riis stood by the Spanish star.

Following the departure of American software company CSC, Riis landed Saxo Bank, a Danish investment back, a coup that allowed him to keep the team alive.

The arrival in 2013 of Tinkov, a Russian businessman who ran the Tinkoff Credit Systems team in 2006-08 before selling it to Katusha, seemed to be a financial salve for Riis.

But the two men have had a tumultuous relationship since Tinkov stepped in as a co-sponsor. Riis was forced to accept the Russian’s money because he needed to shore up the sponsorship front of the team, but Tinkov quickly revealed that he thought he should be the one calling the shots.

Tinkov and Riis had a falling out in the fall of 2013, and Tinkov pulled his money from the team, leaving the Dane in a bind. After some intense negotiations, Riis was forced to relent, and agreed to sell the racing license and team structure to Tinkov for an estimated 6 million euros. Part of that deal was the agreement that Riis would stay on for three seasons as team manager.

Things seemed to go fairly smooth through 2014, but behind the scenes there was growing tension. It was whispered that Riis was disengaged from the day-to-day operations of the team, and Tinkov was pressing for more results.

A row between Riis and Tinkov that coincided with Tirreno-Adriatico was reported by L’Equipe, and less than a week later, Riis was suspended from the team, and he did not attend Milano-Sanremo last weekend.

Terms of Riis’s release were not revealed, and officials said they would not comment further on his departure. Tinkov was reportedly traveling in Asia, and was not present in Belgium for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.

The team also stated that a new sporting structure would be announced shortly. It has been hinted that Omar Piscina, who worked with the Russian at the Tinkoff Credit Systems team, would take the reins. Other staff changes could be coming as well.

Riders and staff will surely be surprised by the unexpected turn of events. Contador grew close to Riis, and will surely be missing the experienced Dane as he tries to tackle the Giro and Tour later this season. Riders and staff were mum on Sunday evening, and there was no immediate response to Riis’s ouster.

The decision also marks Tinkov’s complete takeover of the team. Following last season, a few sport directors were quietly shown the door, including Fabrizio Guidi and Philippe Mauduit. This year, the arrival of Peter Sagan, as part of a contract worth a reported 4 million euros per season, only raised the tension. With only two wins all season coming into the spring classics, Tinkov was upping the pressure.

It’s hard to say what’s next for Riis. He’s also facing heat in his native Denmark as the Danish cycling federation that some say could lead to a possible lifetime ban.

Without a team, however, it might not matter for Riis. The “Eagle from Herning” might have finally had his wings clipped for good.

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