THE Giro d’Italia began yesterday in San Lorenzo with a favourite, Alberto Contador, who is bidding to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to do the Giro-Tour de France double. It is one of several fascinating subplots, with another the battle between Contador’s team, Tinkoff-Saxo, and Team Sky, with the British squad led at the Italian race by an Australian, Richie Porte.
Yet the most intriguing subplot of all concerns Contador’s team, or, more accurately, his team owner, Oleg Tinkov. The Russian billionaire, a Siberian (and an entrepreneur, he stresses, rather than an oligarch) who made his fortune selling jeans, then frozen food (selling this company to Roman Abramovich), then beer, and since 2006 through his bank, is a compelling, charismatic, eccentric and gloriously colourful character who is cutting a swathe through the sport – and perhaps his own team.
Last month Tinkov sacked his manager, Bjarne Riis. Riis has not been replaced. Well, other than by Tinkov himself, who instead of donning team kit and riding this year’s Giro route ahead of the race – as he did last year – will be in the team car. “No other team owners go in the car like I do but I enjoy it and it’s why I bought the team,” Tinkov said last week. “I think I’m a good substitution for Bjarne Riis.”
Although he and Riis signed non-disclosure agreements after the Dane’s sacking, Tinkov seems to have disregarded this. “He didn’t actually do much,” Tinkov said of Riis. “He was too expensive for doing nothing.”
Depending on where you stand, the Siberian is either a straight-talking breath of fresh air, or a megalomaniac whose involvement in cycling seems bound to end in tears. He was a promising rider himself – and perhaps still fancies himself as one, accompanying the team at training camps, usually riding at the front alongside Contador, as though daring his riders to pass him – who makes little secret of the fact that he owns a team not to promote his bank (whose business is entirely in Russia), but because he loves the sport.
After a spell owning a lower-tier team in the mid 2000s, Tinkov returned before the 2013 Tour when he became a co-sponsor of Riis’s Saxo Bank team. The early signs were not promising. When Contador was beaten by Sky’s Chris Froome, Tinkov tweeted his verdict: “[Contador’s] salary doesn’t match his performance. Too rich and isn’t hungry, that’s my opinion, and I deserve it. He must work harder.”
After that Tour Tinkov flirted with other teams, eyeing a takeover. But in the end he and Riis ended up back together, with Tinkov buying the team from Riis in December 2013 and appointing Riis general manager. When they announced the news, at Google’s headquarters in London, Tinkov walked on stage behind Contador, pretending to jump on his shoulders. Contador’s smile looked as natural as Tinkov’s tan.
Tinkov was asked whether he had apologised to the Spaniard for his tweets. “Sometimes journalists take my Twitter too seriously,” he said. “It’s not my official way of communicating. It’s my alter-ego, I’m making fun. I believe that the internet is for porn and Twitter for fun. It’s not serious. I’m just making people laugh.”
Since then he has continued in a similar vein, lampooning an entire country (Denmark) when he and Riis parted company. Random example, from 22 April: “my Danish friends, what is your most popular animal for sex there? Sheep, rabbit, or perhaps eagle? LOL”. (There used to be an eagle on the Saxo Bank team kit. How long the Danish bank remain as co-sponsor remains to be seen.)
Tinkov has 188,000 followers on Twitter. He follows one account: Tinkoff Bank.
Taking full control in 2014, he had Team Sky and Sir Dave Brailsford in his sights. When both Contador and Froome crashed out of the Tour and chased the consolation prize of stage wins, Tinkov’s men won three to Sky’s none.
“I feel a little bit sorry for [Sky] because they’re a strong team, and they really changed cycling, and chapeau,” said Tinkov after the third win. “But this year they haven’t been doing so well and actually it’s a pity. I’m not trying to dance on Sir Brailsford’s grave. It’s a bad season for them but I hope they come back and I think next year we’re going to have a big fight. They are definitely the two best teams out there: Sky and us. And it’s a pleasure for me to fight with ‘Sir’, right? I’m Russian.”
Over the winter he bolstered his team with ex-Sky recruits: coach Bobby Julich and sports director Sean Yates joined other former Sky men, Steven de Jongh and Michael Rogers. Then in December Tinkov gave an interview to the Telegraph in which he said of Brailsford: “Obviously, he is afraid of us. Because Dave was the king, he was alone, he dominated the scene. And then I came, and I invest some money, and not only money but invest some brain. And we start to catch up to them. And I hope, in 2015, we overtake them.”
A month later Tinkov was the guest at the British cycling writers’ Christmas dinner. Ordinarily a light-hearted affair, in his pre-dinner address he berated the journalists for – as he saw it – obsessing over and exaggerating his enmity towards Brailsford. He was not obsessed with Brailsford, he insisted, adding that he hardly thought about him. Then he sat down and, for the next couple of hours, spoke mainly of Brailsford.
So far, his forecast has not come true. His team, including star signing Peter Sagan (on ¤4 million a year), has badly under-performed – it doesn’t help that many appear to miss Riis, and seem terrified of Tinkov – while Sky have stepped up.
Contador is the marginal favourite for the Giro, with the in-form Porte expected to be his closest challenger. Will Tinkov replacing Riis in the team car help or hinder his leader? Many wonder, though Contador is adept at rising above internal strife, overcoming Lance Armstrong’s mind games in 2009 to win the Tour.
Tinkov was at his Twitter tricks again this week: “It looks like @richie_porte and @TeamSky are under serious pressure before @giroditalia they haven’t won a single [Grand Tour] in whole 2014 season.”
On the road, the Giro should be fascinating. And with Tinkov in the team car, calling the shots and tweeting his thoughts, it is set to be entertaining off it, too.