Could Bjarne Riis be fired from the team he founded? Rumors were flying Monday that the controversial Dane was removed from his role as Tinkoff-Saxo team manager by Russian owner Oleg Tinkov.
The Danish newspaper BT reported Monday that team officials notified staff via an internal email that Riis was suspended from his role as team manager.
On Tuesday morning, team officials released this statement:
“Following the rumors and speculations published by many Danish media first and then by international cycling media later last night, Tinkoff Saxo would like to clarify that Bjarne Riis is not being actively involved in the team’s activities since last Sunday. However, he was not suspended of his active role because of lack of results nor for financial issues. The team management has full confidence in the technical and performance team, in all the riders and staff members and is currently working to establish the best way forward in the racing season. No decisions have been taken and any formal and final decision on any team member — if taken — shall be communicated at the appropriate time. Until then there will be no further comments on this matter.”
Riis was not present at Milano-Sanremo on Sunday nor was he spotted at the Volta a Catalunya on Monday, but one team official said Riis wasn’t scheduled to be at the WorldTour race in Spain.
Alberto Contador spoke out in support of his team chief, although he said he was in the dark over the suspension. “Right now the first thing is to truly understand the situation because all we know is what is in the statement and basically we need to know why this decision has been taken,” he said before the start of Tuesday’s second stage of the Tour of Catalonia. And he added that Riis is “someone very important in my career.”
There have been reports that Tinkov was pressing Riis for more victories, and the pair reportedly had a row during Tirreno-Adriatico last week, according to L’Equipe. The French sports daily also reported that Riis returned to home in Lugano, Switzerland over the weekend.
Team officials contacted Monday by VeloNews would not comment, nor was Feltrin available for comment. Tinkoff-Saxo riders seemed to be in the dark as well, and the news could be little more than a rumor, but the lack of reaction from team officials in light of media reports only served to fuel speculation.
Just two weeks ago, things seemed to be going well. Spanish superstar Alberto Contador had just signed a one-year contract extension to remain with the team through 2016, but tension was building behind the scenes.
Tinkov was grumbling that the team wasn’t producing the results that he believed are in line with the millions of euros he is shelling out to his top riders. Going into this weekend’s classics opener, the team had only posted two wins: a stage by Contador at Ruta del Sol (where he eventually loss the GC to bitter rival Chris Froome), and a stage victory on the penultimate day at Tirreno-Adriatico with Peter Sagan.
If the reports are true, it could mark an unlikely end for Riis, who’s avoided worse traps throughout his controversial career that includes a drug-tainted 1996 Tour de France victory as well as links to doping scandals that engulfed riders on his team. Anti-Doping Denmark is currently investigating Riis.
The 50-year-old sold his ownership of the team to Tinkov in the fall of 2013, reportedly for 6 million euros, with a three-year agreement to remain as team manager. Riis told VeloNews last year he was relieved he sold the team.
“Now I can focus on the sporting aspects and just work on cycling,” Riis said in an earlier interview. “I don’t have to worry about finding money to pay the salaries for 65 people. That was a big pressure.”
Tinkov, who ran a team in 2006 and later sold it to Katusha, returned to cycling with a flourish in 2013, stepping up as co-sponsor at Riis’s Saxo Bank team. He was quick to criticize riders, typically during lucid Twitter comments, and is not shy about saying what he thinks. After talks between Tinkov and Riis collapsed, the Dane finally agreed to sell his team to the Russian.
Tinkov, 47, made millions in various entrepreneurial ventures throughout his flamboyant career that’s included importing blue jeans and creating a chain of brewpubs. He pocketed millions via an IPO in 2013 during latest venture, the Tinkoff Bank, which also bears his name, but the stock price, and the Russian ruble, have since tanked, raising some doubts about the future financial stability of the team.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.