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An interview with Oleg Tinkov, June 22, 2007
Banking on Russians
Tinkoff Credit Systems was the most attacking team of this year's Giro d'Italia and fans were thrilled to seeing its yellow-kitted riders lighting up the race. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown caught up with team owner Oleg Tinkov after the dust had settled from the three-week race to reflect on the events and talk about the future.
One team of young, inexperienced riders enlivened the first week of the Giro d'Italia with relentless attacks. They were clad in yellow and black, and were present in every significant breakaway until stage ten. The Tinkoff Credit Systems team was so aggressive that many fans wondered if any of the riders would make it to the finish of the tour in Milan. With the majority of the team riding their first Grand Tour, even team owner Oleg Tinkov questioned the logic of expending so much energy so early.
"I was not behind the riders attacking every day," declared the 39 year-old Oleg Tinkov from his office in Moscow, Russia. He had just ended a phone call with someone from Forbes magazine and was more than happy to talk about cycling - putting his business matters, like starting a new banking company, aside. "I never said for those riders to go up the road like that. Along with [directeur sportif] Dimitri Konyshev, I told those guys to stop. 'Mikhail, please don't do it!
"We talked to Brutt too," added Tinkov. "We knew it was a three-week race and we were afraid that either Brutt or Ignatiev would not make it to Milan. Honestly, they attacked too much. I know they want to do it for me - they want to try to pay back the team and me, for my money invested."
Even the team's youngest rider, 19 year-old Ivan Rovny, was not immune to the desire to race hard, and he put in a well-timed attack on stage nine along with Ignatiev. The pair were trying to bridge up to a break of four, but also had another motivation. "On the stage to Lido Di Camaiore, with 15 kilometres to go [the race went] right by my villa," explained Tinkov, "I know they wanted to [attack] for me but it was not smart."
Despite riding well above their experience level, the team managed to finish with all but one rider in Milan - Rovny dropped out on stage 14. Ignatiev ended the race in the same way he started it: in his trademark attacking fashion. The 22 year-old Olympic gold medallist put in an attack with 24 kilometres remaining on the closing circuits of the race's final day in Milan.
"That last day was tough, I think Misha went too early," confessed Tinkov. "If he would have gone with three [laps] to go then it would have worked." However, Ignatiev reasoned to Tinkov that the pace of the 141 rider-strong peloton pushing towards the final finish would have been far too high for him to stay clear.
With all the hard work the team put in, it was surprising that they did not come away with a stage win, but Tinkov was still pleased with the performance of his squad in the Giro. "Maybe it was not the smartest strategy but they learned just the same," said Tinkov. "I am quite satisfied with the team's performance - although we did not win stages, I remain happy," he confirmed.
One could argue that relentless attacks were actually the best strategy for the Professional Continental Tinkoff team, a young outfit that can't compete against the sprinting power of Petacchi or the climbing prowess of Simoni and Piepoli. "That is true for this year," Tinkov confirmed in a slight Russian accent. "But I think we are coming.
"Nikolai Trusov is underrated in the sprints," added the business magnate. "He is up there. He has a lot of potential and he does not know it; he needs to believe in himself." Trusov, only 21 years of age, battled against the well-oiled sprint train of Milram and finally achieved a sixth place on stage 18 in Riese Pio X.
The team consisted of five Russians, three Italians and a Spaniard. "I think [Daniele] Contrini went well," he remarked on the 32 year-old Italian. Contrini made the breakaway with Marco Pinotti and Luis Felipe Laverde on Stage 6, but he could not hold on when the attacks started on the Forca di Cerro. "But [Salvatore] Commesso should have done better in my opinion. He deserves to have better results but I am happy that Contrini did well."
A learning process
Tinkov is experiencing his first full year in cycling's 'big league'. Last year he ran a much smaller team, Tinkoff Restaurants, but this year he has a formation fit to fight against the ProTour teams.
"Obviously, I have learned a lot," he confessed. "I am still learning, I am in the learning process. I am new in the business but I am not new in the sport. I have been riding my bike since 1982 but the business side is new and, therefore I need more time. I think it will take me another year to learn. I think by 2009 I will be ready to go to the head of the series."
But when Tinkov says the 'head of the series' he's not necessarily referring to the ProTour. Unlike some, it's the races themselves that the passionate Tinkov cares for - so long as his squad gets a birth at the events, the teams registration level isn't as important to him. "I don't care about the ProTour," he declared. "I care about the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España - those races are what I care about. I care about the Grand Tours.
"The ProTour is not an agenda but of course, I would not deny if they called me and offered to give me a license," he adds. "It would be quite welcomed, however, I don't want to die for it."
The Tinkoff Credit Systems squad was given recognition this season with wildcard invitations to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and the Giro. Tinkov credits this with slow, steady growth based on the team's younger riders. "I want to build a good solid team and then it [being at the top of cycling] will come one way or another," he explained. "I want have one of the best teams in the world. Now I don't know where we are in the rankings, but to be the number one team in the world takes time.
"Maybe I was a bit naive from the beginning - I thought it was going to [happen] faster," he admitted. "However, it is not going to be that fast. I just don't want to pour money in, I want to build it and not buy it. [That] would not be suave from the business point of view."
Tinkov's building philosophy paid off in the early season. As his higher profile signings such as Tyler Hamilton struggled to find enough form to finish with the main group, his young Russians quickly racked up the team's first wins. In February, Brutt claimed the squad's first stage victory as a Professional Continental team at the Tour de Langkawi before going on to take victory in Switzerland's GP Chiasso a month later. Meanwhile, Ignatiev snagged a victory in February's Trofeo Laigueglia and a stage in the Tour Méditerranéen. Ignatiev went on to win the prologue at the Netherlands Ster Elektrotoer.
The duo's ability to compete at the sport's top level will form the foundation of developing a ProTour-winning squad, according to Tinkov. "I think those guys will be ready by then ," noted Tinkov. "I think next year they will still be learning while we are building the team. Maybe in 2009 they will be ready for doing something more serious. I think by then the guys like Brutt, Ignatiev, Ivan Rovny and even [Evgeni] Petrov will be prepared."
With the teams biggest goal in the Giro d'Italia now done and dusted, it's time for the squad to move on to other season ambitions - namely the Eindhoven Team Time Trial. The squad, and Tinkov personally, has targeted this weekend's TTT as a must-have victory. "I think if we do not win this one it would be... It would be for me..." Tinkov said pausing, "a huge disaster."
While Tinkov is not one to put pressure on the riders, when it comes to this ProTour event, he feels he has the resources to get it done. "Ordinarily I don't put pressure on them," stated Tinkov. "I am in Moscow and most of them are in Tuscany. But if they don't win this race, I would be very, very down. They must win this time trial. If they don't, let's just say I will be de-motivated.
"It will be an all-Russian team there," he continued. "I think that the Russian school for the team time trial is the best in the world. Of course, it comes from the Soviet times, but it is still one of the best schools, and all of them know how to do it from the technical perspective. Therefore, they will be the most balanced team, plus I think the big teams are not motivated to send their best teams with the Tour de France shortly after. We will have a huge chance to win a ProTour race."
In addition to Brutt and Ignatiev's five victories, Daniele Contrini also took victory on the first stage of the Tour of Georgia and Jorg Jaksche won the Circuit de Lorraine. But the goal that Tinkov set early in the season of ten wins is missing one important part.
"When I talked to you at the beginning of this year, I said our goal was to win 10 races," he remembered. "I also noted that I wanted one of them to be a ProTour race."
It is hard to have any discussion about cycling with Operación Puerto coming up - especially when talking about the Tinkoff squad, which has two riders who have allegedly been linked to Eufemiano Fuentes. Although there is no concrete evidence for Tyler Hamilton or Jörg Jaksche, it is apparent that Tinkov is sick of dealing with riders who are the subject of doping investigations.
Tinkov doesn't even object to his own Puerto-linked riders being refused entry into the Tour de France. "I think that would be a good idea," he said. "If I don't put Jaksche and Tyler [Hamilton] in any of the ProTour races then why do others? I suspended them from the team. But why have the other teams not done the same? The UCI has to make this whole list of the riders available."
Tinkov's hiring of these two riders at the beginning of this season was controversial, but has since sidelined the duo, although Jaksche continues to race. Due to the legal and medical complexities of the cases and doping, respectively, there was no concrete information which led to Tinkov's benching of the riders. "How can I have something concrete? I can't have that, but I am just tired of this doping situation," he said, before going on to address why the suspended Jaksche is still racing. "It is a management decision. I don't want to see Hamilton, Jaksche, [Danilo] Hondo, or any guys with doping issues mentioned next to my name. However, the management sometimes does its own stuff. I was surprised to see Jaksche racing, [but] according to the UCI contract we can't fire him."
"Legally we can't fire these riders," reiterated Tinkov. "That is the crazy situation. I want to get rid of them and just have young Russians for next year and maybe two or three more Italians... we don't want to continue with this situation."
When it comes to Hamilton, Tinkov's stance is clear cut. "I don't want to see him in the team," explained Tinkov. "I want to fire him. That is it. To me he is fired. I don't know, with the legal perspective it is tricky. I am fed up with Hamilton's type of scandals."
At the time of hiring the riders, Tinkov explained that he felt they deserved a second chance. Six months later, the Russian's view on the matter has changed somewhat significantly. "I have to admit that I made a mistake," he confessed. "I believed in this guy and I tried to help him. However, more and more, with the development of the situation of [Ivan] Basso, and everybody else who starts to confess, I just realised that there was a case and then I decide that I don't want to deal with it anymore. I don't want to see Hondo, Jaksche and Tyler anymore in my team. That is it."
Keeping the wheels turning
To take his mind off the complex issues of cycling, Tinkov rides his bike and even raced up until last year. "The Giro got me so excited," he admitted. "Riding my bike and in the team car. We were on the small roads, the roads you never see when you are just driving."
Tinkov covered many of those kilometres through the Italian countryside on his bike, although probably not at the same speed as the professional peloton. "This year I did 1000 kilometres," he proudly reported. "Most of the time I would ride before the race, from the start to the feed zone or from the feed zone to the finish. Next year I hope to do 2000 kilometres. Last year I did around 20,000 kilometres in total but this year I have been much busier and I have only done only 1500 kilometres."
The squad has learned a lot and the team will be more balanced for next year's Giro, according to Tinkov. By 2009 he hopes to build the team's budget with either his own money or with funds from a secondary sponsor. "Either with or without I am going to go much bigger in 2009," he said. "The budget is secured at four million Euro. So, for next year it will be more or less the same budget, like this year. However, for 2009 we will be much more serious if we want to be one of the biggest teams in the world - with or without a secondary sponsor.
"Right now it is at four million. Maybe it is a little bit more," laughed Tinkov.