Is Bjarne Riis Cashing Out?

Doug Pensinger

Long-time manager/owner allegedly selling Saxo-Tinkoff to Tinkoff

Reports abound that Oleg Tinkoff, the Russian beer mogul who has financed cycling teams for much of the past decade, is ready to purchase the Saxo-Tinkoff team from former/defrocked Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis, reducing the Dane to a managerial role. According to reports, sourced by Feltet.dk to Matthew Brammeier, a friend of Saxo-Tinkoff rider Nic Roche, Tinkoff has been with the team at a training camp in the Canary Islands, and negotiations have been ongoing with Riis over sale of the team. Further confirmation is limited to that there will be some sort of a press conference Monday, with Riis confirming the appointment but Tinkoff denying it, for now.

If true, this transaction would reunite the two principal directors of the existing team, who seemed forever on the verge of a nasty breakup. Tinkoff's outspoken nature suggested much dissatisfaction with the team's poor season, though the comments could be viewed differently: maybe TInkoff just likes to speak his mind, and anyway the team definitely had a poor season. So perhaps the conflict was never what it appeared to be. Certainly a continuing relationship would suggest that the problems weren't so great, or not beyond what 6 million Euros could solve.

More significantly, however, is the potential end of Bjarne Riis as a team owner and builder. Whatever you might think of his racing career, he has done a remarkable job building teams and bringing Denmark into the top level of cycling. After purchasing Team Home Jack & Jones, a small Danish squad, he secured the sponsorship of CSC, an American IT services corporation, and gradually raised the team to the highest heights in the sport, winning numerous classics starting in 2003, the Giro d'Italia in '06 and the Tour de France in '08. They won a second Tour (eventually) when Andy Schleck was awarded the 2010 title, and Alberto Contador helped Riis complete his grand tour trilogy with a Vuelta a Espana win in 2012.

Riis' teams were dogged with doping controversies, as was Riis himself, as Ivan Basso was eventually forced from the sport following Operacion Puerto, after Riis had raised him to a leadership role. Tyler Hamilton was another, more egregious example, and certainly Riis' earliest teams consisted largely, if not entirely, of riders playing the game. This eventually led to sponsorship problems: as CSC's involvement came to a natural end, Riis had endless difficulty selling himself and his brand to a successor. Saxo Bank came along, but secondary sponsors have been harder to secure. IT Factory came along, but someone promptly ran off with the money. Sungard Financial Services stepped in briefly. Only with Tinkoff, a vanity sponsor with no brand to protect, did that secondary sponsor seem stable, but the title sponsor was continually threatening to walk.

But Riis had other impacts that were far more positive. While his initial effect -- raising the profile of overlooked riders like Bobby Julich -- can now be seen in a different light, there is no doubting the on-the-road tactical excellence Riis often deployed. Carlos Sastre's victory in the 2008 Tour will go down as a shining example of teamwork, with the Schleck Brothers working the front of the pack for more than two weeks before Sastre was set free on Alpe d'Huez to take the stage and the maillot jaune from a helpless Cadel Evans. Riis the Rehabilitator was on display again when Nick Nuyens took a surprising Ronde van Vlaanderen victory in 2011. And Riis the team-builder will long be associated with the teams of the mid-2000s, built around the Schlecks, Fabian Cancellara, Jens Voigt, Matti Breschel, and Chris Anker Sorensen.

Lately, the Saxo project has been built around Alberto Contador, though with less than expected results, ultimately. Contador immediately won a Giro d'Italia in 2011, but with a possible suspension from the bizarre Clenbuterol positive hanging over his head Contador was forced to rush into the Giro, compromising his form for the Tour de France, where he ended up fifth overall. He sat out in 2012 and was poor in 2013. NIcolas Roche, Rafal Majka and Roman Kreuziger all provided the team with reasons to hope for better years, however, forming a new nucleus behind the 30-year-old Contador.

For Tinkoff, he could finally realize his goal of a World Tour license by this purchase. He previously financed the Tinkoff Credit Systems team, a continental squad with mostly Russian and Italian riders in 2006-07, which achieved modest results. Teams don't just materialize very well, and Tinkoff's interest in the top level showed with his sponsorship of the Riis project starting in 2012. Inheriting a meticulously built squad of this nature would be a different experience.

For Riis, the endless search for a sponsor would finally be over. Not only would it cease to be his responsibility, but as manager he wouldn't have to worry about where the checks came from, assuming Tinkoff meets the financial requirements and brings a more stable element to the team than he has so far. It's possible the marriage could fail, if Tinkoff continues confronting riders and second-guessing the team from his ownership position. Tinkoff, while very rich, only brings university-level racing experience to the conduct of the sport.

Then there are questions as to what it means to Danish cycling. The country has continued to produce solid young talent, and having a flagship team meant someone to root for, and a likely landing place for many of the top homegrown riders. Now, with a Russian in charge, that tie may be severed. Time will tell.

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