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Commentary: Tinkov’s done tilting at cycling’s windmills

Oleg Tinkov isn’t exactly hitting pro cycling’s door running, but he has most definitely slammed it. On Saturday, the bombastic Russian businessman dropped his biggest bombshell yet, announcing in an interview with CyclingNews.com that he’s quitting the sport by the end of 2016.

Team officials confirmed Tinkov’s decision Sunday morning, and said they would make no further comment. But what else needs to be said? In the interview, Tinkov spelled out his rationale, saying he he’s sick of spending money on cycling (he pegs the number at $60 million over five years), and angry that no one would follow his lead in changing the sport’s business model.

The outspoken 47-year-old from Siberia (whose birthday is on Christmas Day) was never one to shy away from controversy, and his parting shot Saturday was par for the course. He called the UCI “stupid guys” and gave the cycling fraternity a one-finger salute, saying, “f*ck all of them,” adding that he will “jump on his jet — and everyone who is left in cycling will be the ones who will be in the shit.”

More than a few will be happy to see Tinkov fly away. Though he was provocative and outspoken, he did little to build bridges or create any effective political alliances within the tightknit world of professional cycling that could foster true change. Instead, he seemed content to drop bombs, hold court in the media, and engage with the public via Facebook and Twitter, once alluding to U.S. President Barack Obama as a “monkey.”

During his second foray in cycling — he ran the Tinkoff Credit Systems team during 2006-08 — Tinkov brought deeper pockets and broader ambitions. Flush with cash after an IPO in 2013 gave him millions of dollars, he made a big splash, linking up with the cash-crunched Bjarne Riis. By 2013, he joined Saxo Bank as a co-sponsor, then bought out the “Eagle from Herning,” and his checkbook stayed open.

With no one holding him back, he ruffled feathers almost immediately. In 2014, he single-handedly inflated the riders’ market, paying Peter Sagan an estimated $5 million per season in a three-year deal. Tinkov couldn’t care less. He wanted to do things his way.

His over-the-top public image sometimes overshadowed his true passion for cycling and his desire for change. Tinkov imagined that he could transform what he viewed as a backward and old-fashioned sport into something modern, more palatable to younger audiences, and perhaps cash out one more time.

He talked of permanent licenses for teams, profit-sharing with the big race organizers — including sharing of TV rights — and a closed international racing calendar similar to Formula 1 that included ticket revenue, the top stars in all races, with aggressive marketing and merchandising. Though these might have all seemed like new ideas to Tinkov, others had been singing the same tune for years, among them Jonathan Vaughters and Johan Bruyneel, all for naught.

Many businessmen who try to enter the world of politics (and the inner workings of the peloton are more political than can be imagined) are not accustomed to compromise, negotiation, or sharing power. Tinkov is clearly the captain of his ship, an affirmation made loud and clear when he sacked Riis in a personal row this past spring. It was obvious from the beginning of Tinkov’s buyout of Riis in late 2013 that this marriage between two alpha males would end in a bitter divorce.

The irony is that Riis might get his old team back if he chooses to, and probably for a song. The only value in a professional cycling team — and this is one of Tinkov’s beefs — lies in its contracts with riders. Only Sagan and Rafal Majka have contracts beyond 2016. Sure, the team buses and other infrastructure might be worth a few hundred thousand dollars, but the human capital — riders, directors, mechanics and support staff — can easily be cobbled together with a few well-placed phone calls. Even the team’s racing license holds little true value, though it’s not a touch of irony that WorldTour licenses will be valid for three years, instead of one, starting in 2017, the year after Tinkov has decided to pull the ripcord.

Tinkov tried to engage with his fellow team owners, urging them to boycott the Tour de France, and create their own breakaway racing league. Tinkov was an enthusiastic backer of Velon, but he chafed at what he perceived as a lack of daring among his colleagues. For their part, the longtime players in the peloton were skeptical of Tinkov. Many considered him pompous and wondered about his staying power, and those private reservations seem to be borne out with Tinkov’s decision to call it quits.

As Tinkov railed against the perceived inertia of team owners, he quickly realized who holds the real power in cycling. With teams scrambling to secure sponsors and protect their own interests, the UCI largely relegated to an oversight committee, and the riders without any real power, Tinkov saw Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) as the true impediment to change. He publicly and privately insulted the family-held French company that owns the Tour, the Vuelta a España, and a host of other one-day and week-long stage races. He called for a “cycling revolution,” urging all the top pro teams to boycott the 2016 Tour. But ASO countered by threatening to pull out of the WorldTour.

In the end, Tinkov realized the futility of his quixotic struggle and decided to quit tilting at cycling’s deeply rooted windmills, with a typical mix of defiance, grandiosity, and even self-pity. Why? It’s hard to know exactly how much of his own money Tinkov has put into the team, though he said he’s started to pay out of his personal checkbook, especially following the departure of Saxo Bank as a co-sponsor for 2016. But it’s clear Tinkov sees cycling as a losing bet.

This will mark Tinkov’s second exit from cycling — he sold his Tinkoff Credit Systems team to Katusha in 2008 — and it will likely be his last. It’s hard to imagine him making another comeback, especially if he is the one who has to pick up the tab.

With his departure cycling will lose one of its most flamboyant, outspoken and controversial team owners. Some viewed him as cycling’s version of Donald Trump, and like the American businessman and presidential candidate Tinkov liked to play up his image as a rich, self-made millionaire with little patience and even outright disdain for bureaucrats, compromisers, and traditionalists. An impatient man, he finally realized that the tradition-laden sport of cycling is loath to embrace change for its own sake.

Too, there are also some realpolitik reasons for his sudden retreat. With Tinkoff Bank’s stock price dropping from a high of about $20 per share in late 2013 to under $3 this fall, and the Russian economy struggling, Tinkov admitted that bank officials told him that the cycling sponsorship has run its course, and they want to move marketing dollars to TV within the Russian market.

Tinkov isn’t fool enough to spend his own money on cycling. For an entrepreneur who’s made a fortune selling jeans in post-Soviet Russia, then opening a chain of brewpubs before doubling down on creating the first consumer-minded credit cards for Russia’s growing middle class, cycling clearly became a sucker’s bet. He’s taking his chips off the table before the losses really start piling up. There should be no surprise in that.