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Problems still brewing in team Tinkoff-Saxo

Ahead of a busy springtime full of important races, Tinkoff-Saxo organization seems threatened by a rift between Tinkov and Riis

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GHENT, Belgium (VN) — Team Tinkoff-Saxo heads into the busiest time of the year with issues left unresolved. Team owner Oleg Tinkov benched founder and manager, Bjarne Riis and created a leadership vacuum ahead of the biggest one-day races.

Peter Sagan, the team’s new $4 million star, led the team in Milano-Sanremo on Sunday. Tomorrow, he will line up with dossard #1 to defend his 2014 E3 Harelbeke title. However, he is racing without the master tactician, Riis.

Riis sat home while Sagan raced to fourth place in Milano-Sanremo and had to leave Alberto Contador in Stephen De Jongh’s hands in Spain’s Volta a Catalunya stage race this week. The problem appears to be a power struggle between him and the team’s owner and Russian businessman, Tinkov.

Tinkov bought the team from Riis in December 2013 and appointed the Danish 1996 Tour de France winner as team manager. Early this year, however, he reportedly began second-guessing Riis’ decisions. It came to a head in Tirreno-Adriatico, where Contador’s inability to respond to Nairo Quintana’s (Movistar) attack would have only highlighted the team’s quiet year.

So far, Tinkoff-Saxo counts only two wins this year with Sagan’s stage in Tirreno-Adriatico and Contador’s in the Ruta del Sol. By comparison, Etixx-Quick-Step counts 18 and Sky 13.

One morning in the Tirreno-Adriatico race, Riis reportedly drove off without Tinkov. Ahead of stage two in Camaiore, the two were in a lengthy discussion and Tinkov would not speak to the press afterward.

Riis was then a no-show at Milano-Sanremo and the team issued a statement Tuesday to clarify, albeit unsuccessfully, the situation.

“Bjarne Riis is not being actively involved in the team’s activities,” it read. “However, he was not suspended of his active role.”

CEO of long-time sponsor Saxo Bank, Lars Seier Christensen, is trying to save the ship and its crew before it sinks.

“I respect Oleg Tinkov’s right as team owner to act as he wishes, but I would also like to stress that Bjarne Riis’ able leadership is a major reason why Saxo Bank has sponsored the team for eight seasons,” Seier Christensen said on his Facebook page.

“I have spoken with the parties involved over the last few days, and there is nothing to prevent the matter from being resolved amicably, if they really [want] to do so.”

The Dane said he would be in Belgium ahead of Ronde van Vlaanderen, April 5, but that comes after another week of important races for Contador, Sagan, and the rest of the team.

It may not matter, as Tinkov could have his own plans.

“Dear Fans @tinkoff_saxo, I assure you that team will be stronger than ever this season,” he wrote on Twitter Thursday. “We’re Super TEAM, and minus 1 won’t change nothing.”

Spanish website, Bici Ciclismo reported that Tinkov could give the team manager role to Italian Omar Piscina, who was a sport director in Tinkov’s first team, Tinkoff Credit Systems.

If Tinkov boots Riis for good, then he would likely be unable to renew Saxo Bank’s sponsorship for 2016 and would have to find new sponsors. He may be trying to do so via his “exclusive membership” Tinkoff Sport Club.

Such a move could cause a rift in the team, which already appears under pressure to up its win count well above two.

“There is no doubt that Tinkov is a huge problem to have on a team,” former rider Anders Lund told Demark’s Feltet website.

“He delivers some money, but he also provides some unrest and a lot of noise for the riders, which is not beneficial.