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Tinkov: From Siberia to the top

After years of controversy and a failed attempt with Katusha, Russian cycling enthusiast lands his dream team

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MILAN (VN) — Oleg Tinkov succeeded on Monday. The Russian tycoon, who begged for his first bicycle at 12 years old, now owns a first division team with a reported budget of $15 to $17 million.

“I’m proud and happy,” Tinkov said Monday at a press conference in London announcing his purchase of Riis Cycling and the Saxo-Tinkoff team. “I finally have my top, WorldTour team.”

He was effusive from the time Bjarne Riis introduced him alongside Alberto Contador, and the 45-year-old did not need to waste his words. His grin said everything.

Riis’ grey suit matched Tinkov’s, but the now former team owner looked blank in contrast at Google’s London headquarters. The tall, bald Dane from Herning just sold his baby, his team of 14 years. Though a reported $8.12m richer, he now reports to Tinkov, the man with whom he was at odds for much of 2013. The unlikely pair sealed the deal officially with vodka at the upscale Bob Bob Ricard restaurant in London’s Soho district.

A dream within reach

For Tinkov, the toast celebrated a significant step toward his dream. He told VeloNews in Venice in 2008 that he aimed to win the Tour de France and to wave a Russian flag on the Champs Élysées.

“I’ll keep going in with my business,” he said after selling his then team, Tinkoff Credit Systems. “When my money is there, I’ll have my own top-level team.”

Tinkov ran the Tinkoff Credit Systems from 2007 through 2008 with a mixed bag of professionals. He hired Tyler Hamilton, Jörg Jaksche, Danilo Hondo, Vasil Kiryienka, and a handful of Russians and Italians. It worked. Kiryienka won stages in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España in Tinkov’s yellow colors. Since then, the Belarusian has developing into a key domestique for Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome at Sky.

Providing a hint of his passion for the sport, Tinkov admitted at the time that Kiryienka’s win in the Giro d’Italia stage to Presolana made him emotional. He had steered the young rider from the track to the road and saw a little of himself in Kiryienka’s fight, and Tinkov was no stranger to fighting.

Tinkov a self-made patriarch

“My mom and dad couldn’t afford a bike, let alone a moped,” Tinkov explained in London on Monday, describing his roots in cycling. “I went to a shop, got a free one, and took to racing. I became the Siberian champion.”

Tinkov’s own racing career never passed the junior ranks, but he rose to prominence after leaving the military, heading an electronics distribution brand, Technoshock, before succeeding with a brewery business and then his credit bank. With his sale of Tinkoff Brewery to InBev in 2005, the Russian became wealthy enough to field a third division team, Tinkoff Restaurants, and register himself as a rider. In 2007 he invested more and went professional with his mixed bag of pros.

He called the 2007 and 2008 seasons “wild and entertaining” on Monday. Aside from Kiryienka’s stage wins, the team mostly rode in escapes. Russians Mikhail Ignatiev and Pavel Brutt marked many races with solo or long-distance escapes. Hamilton never saw much action due to brewing doping investigations.

Like his other businesses, Tinkov sold the team. He offered it to Igor Makarov, who, according to Tinkov, is just as passionate about cycling but much wealthier. Makarov, head of natural gas giant Itera and the Russian cycling, renamed that team Katusha and took it to the first division. Brutt and Ignatiev continue to race in the team’s red colors alongside three-time WorldTour champion Joaquím Rodríguez.

Conflict follows Tinkov

The Katusha deal highlighted a common thread: conflicts. Tinkov was supposed to continue in the team as general manager but fell out with Makarov over his decision to hire former professional Andrei Tchmil.

Controversy also abounded at Tinkoff Credit Systems, where Tinkov hired riders with known links to doping cases. “[Hiring] Tyler and the German guy [Jaksche] was a mistake,” he said after the pair became ensnared in the Operación Puerto investigation — dating back to their time with Riis at CSC. Hamilton told Danish media last year that Tinkov instructed his riders at the first team meeting that they should do whatever they need to succeed, as long as they did not get caught.

Tinkov returned to top-level pro cycling last season to co-sponsor Riis’ team. This season, he criticized Contador via his Twitter account, writing, “His salary doesn’t match his performance. Too rich and isn’t hungry. He must work harder,” and pulled his sponsorship from the team. Saxo Bank kicked in the extra funds to cover 2014 and it appeared that Riis and Saxo would forge ahead, until Tinkov appeared at the team’s training camp in November.

Contador dismissed the controversy today, saying, “I know you question and raise eyebrows about what was said, but I can tell you whatever happened and was said is a long way behind us. His involvement brings stability to the team.”

Tinkov’s involvement, and his Riis Cycling deal, also puts him at the top. The Saxo-Tinkoff name will change to Tinkoff-Saxo for 2014, and Riis Cycling is now Tinkoff Sport. On Monday, the boy from Siberia moved a little closer to waving a Russian flag on the Champs Élysées.