Oleg Tinkov has quickly become one of the most colourful figures in world cycling. The Russian owner of the Tinkoff-Saxo road cycling team is more Richard Branson than Roman Abramovich in his business career. He is a self-publicist and a scandaliser, but underneath the mischief-making lies a steely determination to improve his team and the sport as a whole.
By James Emmett
It’s fair to say that Oleg Tinkov is a polarising figure in cycling. The Russian, who upgraded his title sponsorship of the Danish Tinkoff-Saxo team to full ownership when he bought out previous owner Bjarne Riis for a reported fee of between €3 million and €5 million last year, is not shy when he has a microphone in front of his mouth, nor when he has a keyboard at his fingertips.
The owner of Tinkoff Bank, a Russian credit card company with an online retail deposits programme, Tinkov has deep pockets and an even deeper passion for cycling. With top-level road cycling’s business model still almost 100 per cent reliant on the benefaction of ‘sponsors’, his involvement in the sport is to be, and has been, welcomed. A talented sprint cyclist in his youth, Tinkov is knowledgeable about the sport and takes evident glee in being able to interact on an almost daily basis with cycling’s stars, both on his own team and others.
But to describe the Russian as outspoken probably wouldn’t do him justice. Both in his business career and now in cycling, he is propelled by the heady fuel of self-stirred controversy. In interviews, he seems to revel in speaking plainly – sometimes to the point of offence – and he clearly delights in using his Twitter account as a one-man platform to troll the world. Indeed, when the @olegtinkov handle appeared on the social media network in April 2009, it was derided for many months as a fake: it was too good to be true, many in cycling thought; beyond parody.
Senior figures across the cycling world respect Tinkov’s money, and his passion, but their advice for him, whether openly expressed or otherwise, is usually that he should keep his mouth shut. But he rarely follows that advice. Polemic draws attention, of course, and for a sport only just emerging from the spectre of Lance Armstrong, it is somehow refreshing to be getting worked up about slightly sillier controversies. That being said, he knows how to rein himself in when he wants to close an interview.
“To finish,” he says, having already spoken, uninterrupted, for some ten minutes, “and I think this is very good for the conclusion of your interview, a lot of people have criticised me for saying the team is my toy; a lot of riders and staff were angry with me, saying: ‘How can we perform or why would we go to your team if you say it’s a toy?’ That’s fair enough to say. But it does not mean that I cannot keep this toy for a long time. It could be a toy for ten years; it could be a toy forever. It could be for just a couple of years. I have no idea. Because it’s just a toy.”
The ‘toy controversy’ came about following an interview Tinkov gave to Gazzetta dello Sport in which he explained that he didn’t know how long he would be interested in running his own team. “Like a child, when you play with your toy maybe it stops being interesting,” he told the Italian sports daily. “Maybe I would have enough at the end of this year. I don't know.” As with many of Tinkov’s words, it’s difficult to discern whether or not they were said with tongue in cheek. In the same interview, conducted during the Giro d’Italia in mid-May, he suggested that he would try to find a legal mechanism to reduce his star rider Peter Sagan’s reported €4 million per season salary. That comment was itself a follow-up to previous jibes he had made at the Slovakian’s perceived poor form during the early season one-day races. In both cases, his words seem to have caused upset – not least among the 80 people employed by the Tinkoff-Saxo team.
Oleg Tinkov (front) celebrates Tinkoff -Saxo team’s victory in the 2015 Giro d’Italia, led by Alberto Contador (pictured here holding the trophy)
It’s tempting to conclude that mischief courses through Tinkov, undercutting almost every public utterance. His 40-minute interview with SportsPro – conducted in the wake of his other star rider Alberto Contador’s victory at the Giro this year – is punctuated by giggles and even, when he knows that what he’s said is particularly ridiculous, the odd cackle.
In this regard, he has form. Before Tinkoff Bank – and before his initial cycling outfit, Tinkoff Credit Systems, which ran for a year in 2007 before being subsumed by what is now the Russian top-level Katusha outfit – there was Tinkoff Brewery. Founded in St Petersburg in 1998 as an American-style brewpub, the franchise expanded, taking in more restaurants around Russia, evolving into the fourth largest independent brewery in Russia.
On the way to building Tinkoff into a genuine premium lager brand, all but inventing the market in Russia, Tinkoff Brewery provoked scandal with a raunchy television advert. Set to Nessun Dorma, and shot in lingering slow motion, two glamorous women go lingerie shopping together somewhere in Italy. Their endeavours lead to a passionate lesbian clinch, before the final shot of a bottle of Tinkoff beer, foaming up over the top.
“It's a fantasy, it's a peep show,” Tinkov told the New York Times at the time of the advert in 2004. “Men like that. We're going after a look like Polanski's Bitter Moon or Lolita, but in 30 seconds. No, really, people who are scandalised by this are stupid and narrow-minded.” And by the way, he concludes, no doubt before laughing, the two women “go home to their husbands, everything is fine”.
But the advert wasn’t just another piece of mischievous provocation. It fit entirely with what Tinkov was doing with his brand, capitalising on relatively fresh freedoms in Russia. The move to liberalism in cities like St Petersburg, at least among a certain element of society – the element that might like to buy premium lager – was expounded and exploited by Tinkov. An earlier ad, depicting a smiling man stretched out on a yacht between two naked women, one black and one white, under the slogan 'freedom of choice', had been banned. Liberalism to the point of irreverence was almost written explicitly into the company culture at Tinkoff Brewery, with its mission statement running: ‘Propagate liberal values and respect freedom of choice.’
“I don’t believe in the model where the sponsor puts in a lot of money and then some ex-sports director owns the team. Unfortunately, sponsorship is not as effective as ownership."
In 2005, a year after the lesbian controversy, Tinkov sold Tinkoff Brewery, and the rights to the Tinkoff lager brand name, to drinks giant InBev for €167 million. With Tinkov, where there is apparent mischief-making, often there is a steely business strategy, or at least sound commercial logic, lurking beneath.
So it is when he describes the Tinkoff-Saxo cycling team as his toy.
“I would like to say the team is my business, but I cannot,” he says, seeking to clarify his Gazzetta comments with SportsPro. “Because I’m just putting my money in every year and I have nothing. I have nothing in exchange except joy, fun, and excitement. Which means it’s my toy. It’s a hobby, if you wish. My real dream is that this hobby, this toy, can emerge as a business. I would be the happiest man on the earth if my hobby, which is a cycling team, becomes a business, becomes a point of income, becomes a business machine. I would be the happiest man in the world. But it’s up to the UCI and to the race organisers to make my dream come true.”
Of course, it’s not a point of income because Tinkov is both owner and sponsor. In the traditional model, an ex-rider or sporting director would own the team, fund it through a handful of sponsorship deals, and any money made beyond salary and bonus would come via dividend payments from surplus sponsorship cash each year. That is precisely the model that Tinkov’s predecessor Bjarne Riis was operating, and a large part of the reason why Tinkov bought him out and then terminated his contract earlier this year, dividing the Dane’s responsibilities among the existing sporting and management teams.
“The question of why I decided to buy the team is a very easy one to answer,” Tinkov says. “I don’t believe in the model where the sponsor puts in a lot of money and then some ex-sports director owns the team. Unfortunately, sponsorship is not as effective as ownership. What happens now when ex-riders or ex-sports directors own the team, basically they look after their own interests. They collect the money from the sponsors, then they buy the riders, they spend the money and they do this and that, but they want to make sure that at the end of the year one or two million is left over so they can take it as a profit.
“And then of course they pay dividends and they get this money into their pockets, which is fine, but in my opinion that’s cheating because cycling has no income. All of the money comes from the sponsor. If you have a budget of, say, €25 million, and then there’s €2 million left and you pay that out as a dividend, that means you didn’t buy enough good riders. That’s why for me it’s easier to own the staff once I’m paying them. I was a sponsor and then I understood that my money was not being used effectively or properly. I realised that I could be much more efficient and effective once I owned the structure.”
And then, with classic Tinkov timing, he adds: “Plus, it’s more fun, isn’t it?”
Tinkov takes a hands-on role at races, turning up to support his team – going so far as dying his hair pink to celebrate Contador’s Giro victory.
As a team owner, Tinkov believes it is his responsibility to ensure that every cent invested by his own company, as well as by co-title sponsor Saxo Bank and equipment sponsor Specialized, is invested in improving team performance. He understands the need for sponsors to drive value from their deals, and has fostered a good relationship with his counterparts at Saxo Bank to that end.
“I know some people might think there are issues because they were close with Bjarne Riis, but there is nothing,” he says, before detailing the large-scale hospitality activation activities he helped the Danish forex company undertake during the Giro. After Contador’s win, before going off for their own team dinner – the team and their families at Piazza Duomo in Milan, with “some bottles of champagne, some wine, and obviously some Russian vodka at the end” – Tinkov and his squad attended a Saxo Bank dinner event in Teatro Manzoni.
“It was huge,” says Tinkov. “About 500 people from Saxo Bank. Actually they used the Giro more than us, because they had three events, one each week, and we only had two. They brought a lot more people. We are B2C but they have a B2B business so they have partners, clients, etc. They have a lot of people they can bring. They really utilise cycling and I think for them it’s very important.”
Saxo Bank has sponsored the team, either as a sole or co-title sponsor, every year since 2008. Invariably, it sticks to one-year deals, which are renewed for the following year around about the time of the Tour de France each July. “That’s what they always do – fair enough,” says Tinkov, who is expecting another decision, one way or the other, from his Danish partners this July. “I personally would like to stay with them because they have done a lot for the team as a long-term sponsor and I have nothing against them.
“Obviously the Tour of Britain needs to be upscaled because as of now it’s sort of small and not many teams care about it. I think that’s a pity because British cycling culture is growing up dramatically."
“However, I understand there are some issues related to the Swiss franc, the terrible events with the currency earlier this year, and all the companies involved in forex lost a lot of money. I don’t know the numbers, but obviously Saxo Bank was under pressure as a result of the Swiss franc. It brought them a lot of issues. I think it’s more a financial decision for them now than anything else. We are ready for whichever decision. If they decide to leave, I would perfectly understand that. I just wish them the best and I would say, ‘Big thanks and goodbye.’”
Tinkov is speaking to SportsPro from his office at Tinkoff Bank in Moscow. He is a high-profile figure in cycling, but he insists he only spends around ten to 15 per cent of his time on the team. The rest is on the bank. “For June, I’m 100 per cent focused on the bank,” he says. “At the Giro I was there two weeks out of three, and I will be there for the Tour, so that means a lot, but I’m still working every morning and every evening. We’re an online bank, so I can do things on the computer!”
Not a man to stand still for long, Tinkov is currently working on the launch of an insurance company to sit adjacent to his credit card business, which has grown steadily to the point at which Tinkoff Bank now has five million customers. “It’s a B2C business, and all our clients are in Russia,” he explains. “However, we’re a publicly traded company on the London Stock Exchange and we’re also on the debt market, so we’re borrowing money through bonds and other debt mechanisms.”
From a B2B perspective, the European financial centres of London and Zurich, as well as New York and Boston in the US, are important for his business. “Those three countries are where all of the investors are sitting,” he says. “It’s important to broadcast my brand to them.” The Swiss Alps are well-worn cycling territory, but Tinkov would like to see the status of the Tour of Britain enhanced and a new top-level US race added to the cycling calendar. “Obviously the Tour of Britain needs to be upscaled because as of now it’s sort of small and not many teams care about it,” he says, “I think that’s a pity because British cycling culture is growing up dramatically. There are a lot of fans.
“We saw it in the last Tour de France in Hampshire or whatever it was called” – and, here, a knowing laugh. “There were millions of people out there.
“Actually I think this is one of the areas in which I can give compliments to the UCI,” he continues, praising the global governing bodies efforts to globalise the sport. “I think the calendar starts well in Australia, where it’s hot in January, and it’s a big country, a big economy. Then it goes to the Middle East. The Tour of Abu Dhabi is coming and we have Dubai, Qatar, Oman as well. I’m very happy with that. We’re also talking now about Turkey and Azerbaijan. I think cycling has become more and more global. We obviously miss a Tour of Russia. It needs to be done, but it’s not up to me.”
Bjarne Riis, former owner of Team Saxo Bank, in 2012, before he was bought out by Tinkov.
As Tinkov notes, for the wider development of the sport and its ancillary revenues, he must rely on the structures in which cycling operates. And although he is pleased with the efforts that the UCI and event organisers have made in spreading the sport far and wide in recent years, there are other areas of governance that don’t draw quite the same level of praise from the Russian.
Plans are afoot to reconfigure the top level of world cycling – the calendar and general structure – ahead of the 2017 season. Asked what that new configuration would look like if he was running the show, he pauses, before responding: “I haven’t thought about it. You’ve called me at the bank; I’m thinking about Tinkoff Bank. Once I’m at the race, I’m excited, but now I don’t think about cycling much. It’s not up to me to change the sport. I’m just one of many.”
Nevertheless, he does have one or two ideas. “I’m not shy to speak them out,” he says. “I don’t pretend that my ideas are always the best or the greatest, but I might be wrong!”
One of those ideas came to light at the climax of last year’s Vuelta a España, the third and final grand tour of the season, and a captivating race in 2014 that was won, ultimately, by Tinkov’s man Contador. On the podium, Tinkov asked Chris Froome, the 2013 Tour de France winner and the man Contador had just beaten into second place, whether he would consider a ‘Grand Tour Challenge’ against Contador and the other two feted grand tour riders of this era – Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana – with all four riders attempting all three major races. Nobody has ever won all three in a single season, and only nine riders – Contador among them – have won two.
Only a handful of riders, and certainly not contenders, even compete in all three of cycling’s major three-week annual races. It is an anachronism of the sport that Tinkov was eager to fix. According to the Russian, Froome responded to his question by saying that everything had a price. “How about €1 million?” the Russian replied.
That the proposition was not altogether shot down made it a tantalising prospect going into the 2015 season, but ultimately what would have been a Tinkov-inspired sports marketing coup did not come to fruition as Froome, Nibali and Quintana opted to aim their 2015 seasons at the Tour de France, leaving Contador, alone of the ‘Big Four’, to start the Giro.
“I’m a private individual, I’m a spectator, why is it my responsibility to oblige the riders? I think the UCI should be doing it, not me.”
“I wanted all of them to come,” says Tinkov now. “The best should compete against the best, and they have to be obliged. Since they are not obliged by any governing body, I tried to convince them through money – that was the idea. Who is the strongest cyclist of those? Tell me. We can’t tell because Froome, Quintana and Nibali should be fresh for the Tour and Alberto won’t. They’re not really comparable.
“I’m a private individual, I’m a spectator, why is it my responsibility to oblige the riders? I think the UCI should be doing it, not me.”
There are, of course, a number of other things Tinkov believes the UCI should be doing. “They are full of problems and full of mess, so it’s hard to pick one thing that’s wrong with the UCI,” he says. “It’s all wrong. They really need a revolution out there. They have a mess with the anti-doping system. They have a mess with the licensing system; they have a mess with the races; they have a mess with the rules – look at the red flag on the Giro last year where nobody understands what it means. You remember during Paris-Nice there was a crash with 3.4 kilometres to go and the time was neutralised, and at the Giro the crash was 3.2 kilometres to go and the time was not neutralised.”
Tinkov believes the UCI needs to focus on changing and clarifying its sporting rules, largely for the protection of riders. Here, he says he has an ally in Team Sky’s respected chief Sir Dave Brailsford. “I sat down with him for a coffee and a chat at the Giro,” recounts Tinkov, “and we agreed that there is so much that the UCI needs to do that they better start with something small.”
Tinkov’s proposal would see general classification riders on stage races protected at dangerous finales of sprint stages by having a commissar declare the stage as such beforehand, and introduce a time neutralisation at the five kilometres to go mark without exception – it is currently set at three kilometres to go, but only if there is an accident. “Another thing that could be done effectively quite fast is reduce the bunch,” he adds. “To reduce the number of riders in a team below nine is not feasible. Therefore we need to reduce the number of teams.
“Right now the roads are changing and we have more and more roundabouts, more and more speed bumps. To have 200 riders on the street is just unsafe. So we believe that instead of 22 teams it should be just 16, or 18 maximum. I do believe in the wild-card system. But it should be one wild card. So 17 so-called WorldTeams and one wild card. Or 16 plus two wild cards. I don’t see any reason for 22 teams. It’s 22 buses; it’s 44 cars. It’s a logistical nightmare for the race organisers; it’s a lot of expense with hotels and petrol. And cutting the teams down could be done quickly.
“I like soccer,” he continues. “It’s well commercialised and the systems work. Most successful soccer leagues have promotion and relegation and I believe that model could be applied in cycling. I think soccer is very healthy commercial enterprise.”
At this point, Tinkov checks himself, before adding a characteristic flourish.
“Unless you’re talking about Fifa, which is completely different. Fifa and the UCI, they’re both in Switzerland.” And here another crackling laugh. “I have no idea what’s going on there.”
The Tinkov way
Born in Siberia, and educated in St Petersburg, Oleg Tinkov realised he was unlikely to follow his father into the mining industry when he got a taste for business at a young age. He bought a batch of denim jeans at a market in Uzbekistan in the 1980s – while he was there for a cycling race – and sold them back in St Petersburg, where denim was rare, for far more than he bought them.
He dabbled further in the Soviet import market before starting a pelmeni business, manufacturing the Russian dumplings on a large scale before selling the fledgling business to a young oligarch – one Roman Abramovich. A trip to the US, some marketing classes at the University of California, Berkeley, and a friendship with an American who ran a Californian microbrewery saw him return to Russia to found Tinkoff Brewery in 1998. With almost €200 million in his pocket after selling the beer brand in 2005, Tinkov launched Tinkoff Credit Systems in 2007, and evolved the business to where it is today.
“What I like about myself, and when I look in the mirror I’m proud of myself, is that I’ve had five different businesses and they’ve had nothing to do with each other,” the Russian tells SportsPro. “Some people are actually really boring with what they do. They create something and then they sell it, and then they build something the same. For me that’s a sign of not being bright, and not being courageous enough. I am always doing something new.
“Some people are actually really boring with what they do. They create something and then they sell it, and then they build something the same. For me that’s a sign of not being bright, and not being courageous enough."
“Richard Branson did something like that – he tried to explore different areas. But his model is slightly different. He outsources 100 per cent. He never moves in an operational level. I do. First it was retail, then it was beer, then it was a frozen food company, which was the biggest in Russia, now it’s a bank and next I am going into insurance. Something new: I know it’s a big challenge, but that’s what thrills me. I create things from scratch. I’ve never been involved in privatisation; I’ve never been to the Kremlin to meet Putin; I don’t even know where the Kremlin is. When I sell something I move on and do something different. I think it’s really sexy.”
It’s fair to say that Tinkov enjoys the limelight, regularly appearing on the podium with his winning riders, and dying his hair pink in celebration of Contador’s Maglia Rosa general classification win at the Giro. This is not surprising given his predilection for (self-aware) bragging about his private jet and luxury Italian villa, and the fact that he is regularly front and centre in the marketing activities for his business endeavours. He is something of a business personality in Russia, where he has published books, his image emblazoned boldly on the cover, on how to get ahead in business.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, to find that Tinkov is trying to adopt some of the practices he uses in business for the running of his cycling team.
“Monday after the Giro we had a big meeting with all the sports directors and staff,” he explains. “We have that meeting twice a year and that was our first one of this year. That’s what I do in business. I try to apply a lot of things I do in business. It’s openness. It’s delegation. Cycling is a very weird community. They try to hire their relatives; there is a lot of loyalism and nepotism.
“That’s the most appropriate description of any European Continental team. They’re all about hiring someone they ‘trust’. They’re always saying, ‘We trust him,’ or, ‘We don’t trust him.’ Fuck off! I don’t want someone I trust, I just want someone professional and then I’ll trust him by default.
“I cannot brag and say I’m changing cycling. I’m not changing cycling. But if someone sees my ideas and wants to apply them, then that’s great, but there are not so many bright sport directors or managers in cycling, besides Dave Brailsford and maybe a guy from Orica Greenedge, someone from BMC. In fact some of the Anglo-Saxon teams are quite smart, but the rest of the guys are just worthless.
“I would be happy if my methods were adopted but it’s not my agenda to change cycling. I don’t care about impressing the cycling world. I want to change my team and build my own team. I definitely apply rules, techniques and ideas that I have in my business. A lot of them work, a lot of them don’t. But don’t forget I only bought the team just slightly over one year ago. It’s not long ago. With my CEO Stefano Feltrin, we make sure the team is more and more a business machine, rather than just a fun sports club.”
Brian Cookson swept to victory at the 2013 UCI presidential election on a ticket of change. Just over 18 months in, he reflects on a tenure that has been characterised by a landmark investigation into the sport’s recent past, and a consultative approach to leadership that should result in the rubber-stamping of structural reform at the top end of professional cycling.
By James Emmett
Brian Cookson’s presidential election victory in September 2013 ushered in a new era for cycling. The Briton, who defeated Irish incumbent Pat McQuaid in a vote at the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) Congress in Italy that year, moved from his British Cycling base in Manchester to the global governing body’s headquarters in Switzerland and began his process of change immediately.
Under his reign, his manifesto had decreed, the UCI would become a more professional and more transparent organisation, and, in order to rid the sport of its doping demons, cycling’s chequered recent past would be confronted head-on.
First on Cookson’s to-do list was to bring in some key allies. He appointed his trusted lieutenant, British Cycling’s policy and legal affairs director Martin Gibbs, as the UCI’s new director general; retained the services of Vero Communications, the agency that had masterminded his presidential campaign; and smoothed the way for key UCI employees to get onboard or ship out.
“The hard decisions were taken right at the start,” says Cookson, reflecting on the first 18 months of his presidency in an April interview with *SportsPro*. “We changed the director general and we changed the legal counsel straight away. In the first week. From that, other things flowed. We had some adjustments, some new appointments, some people have been promoted within the organisation. We’ve brought in some good new people. Seb [Gillot, who joined from boxing’s global governing body as head of communications in April 2014] is one of them, of course.
“This strange thing I read the other day about a climate of fear within the organisation – I don’t think that’s true. After I’ve gone you can ask Seb if it is! In any organisation, in an 18-month/two-year period, you get some natural turnover. When you have a change of leadership at the top of the organisation, that process is accelerated. And people would have been surprised if we hadn’t brought in new people in new positions.”
The “strange thing” Cookson had read was in fact a letter to the UCI management committee, published in full by a Belgian newspaper, from former UCI president Hein Verbruggen. Unhappy with the findings of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report – an investigation launched by Cookson into cycling’s nefarious recent history – Verbruggen believes that Cookson is on something of a witch hunt.
The CIRC report – compiled by an independent three-man commission – found no evidence to prove that the UCI had deliberately covered up a positive test from Lance Armstrong at the 2001 Tour de Suisse in exchange for a financial donation from the American. However, it did condemn Verbruggen, who was president of the UCI from 1991 to 2005 and retains honorary presidency today, and his leadership, citing numerous examples that prove that Armstrong benefitted from the preferential treatment from the UCI.
At the time of writing, Verbruggen is believed to be considering legal action against the UCI, and the words of his April letter were certainly incendiary. ‘It is well known that the atmosphere in the UCI offices is at an all-time low; that there is a climate of fear,’ Verbruggen wrote, adding that ‘the UCI's image at the level of the Professional Teams and Organizers has seriously been damaged over the past 19 months as a result of a Cookson policy that drifts from left to right and is characterized by a total lack of decisions. I have been told by a number of you that also the Board is only too aware of this.’
For his part, Cookson refuses to be drawn into a public slanging match. ‘I think Mr Verbruggen's letter speaks for itself,’ he said in a statement at the time. ‘Those who have read the CIRC report will understand where the UCI went wrong in the past, including the conflicts it needlessly got into and which seriously damaged its credibility. I was elected to change the way the UCI conducts itself and I won't be drawn into this kind of public conflict.’
During this interview, the only reference Cookson will make to Verbruggen’s complaint is in his description of the letter as a “strange thing.”
He is, however, certainly prepared to defend the credibility of the CIRC report, which is a landmark of his presidency so far. The 228-page dossier was compiled on the back of findings made by Dr Dick Marty, a former Swiss state prosecutor; Ulrich Haas, an expert in anti-doping laws; and Peter Nicholson, a former military officer who specialises in criminal investigations. The commission conducted a 13-month investigation, which was funded by the UCI, and undertook 174 interviews with UCI personnel, teams, federations, doctors, riders and former riders, sponsors, event organisers and journalists. The dossier was published in its entirety in March and stirred headlines, not least through the words of one anonymous interviewee who claimed that 90 per cent of the current professional peloton is still doping.
UCI president Brian Cookson, pictured at the SportAccord Convention in Sochi on Tuesday 21st April.
“I think there are some things in the report that people aren’t happy with; some things that people are happy with,” Cookson reflects. “On balance, it’s an independent report; it demonstrates that we absolutely lived up to the commitment that we publish what they gave us. We haven’t – I haven’t – interfered in any way at all.
“When I look at it, I think there are things that many of us wish it hadn’t said – for instance, the quote about 90 per cent of cyclists still doping. But I think to be fair to the authors, they put that in a context quite clearly, but when the media picked up on it they didn’t put it in any sort of context. That’s part of the rationale of the doper – I’m still doing it because they’re all still doing it as well. I think we can all of us put that in context but I think we’d all have preferred if that wasn’t there or if it had been attributed.
“But even if the figure was ten or 20 per cent, there’s still 20 guys lining up at the Tour de France who are doping, and that’s still far too many. What’s really interesting is that this is not a problem that’s gone away. It’s changed and morphed into something else. It’s gone underground. I’m convinced that there are a large number of riders now competing cleanly and within the rules. But equally I’m convinced that there are a given number – I don’t know how many – who are trying to fly lower under the radar. The current situation, set out in the CIRC report, is that it is now possible to win the biggest races without doping, and there is evidence for that.
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there still doping,” he adds. “There are. But we’re catching them, and where we’re not catching them, we’re lowering the possibility of them having a major influence on events. I read things on the internet with people making all sorts of bizarre accusations, but I don’t think there are miraculous new substances or methods out there that aren’t detectable. I think the kinds of things that worry me more are the old methods, and the old practitioners of those methods who have gone underground.”
Cookson is talking to SportsPro at the SportAccord Convention in Sochi in April. Marius Vizer, then president of SportAccord, had just stirred up a major controversy in the world of global sports politics by attacking International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach in his opening address, two days before this interview takes place. Cookson can empathise with Bach. The Briton has been on the sharp end of Vizer’s tongue before. In an interview with the Press Association at the SportsPro Live conference in March 2014, Cookson had suggested that one idea to free up some space in the Summer Olympic Games programme would be to move some indoor summer sports – and he name-checked track cycling and judo as two of them – to the winter version in the interests of balance. Vizer, who is also president of the International Judo Federation (IJF), was not amused.
“We will try to have a structure that defends the heritage but that seeks new opportunities in new territories where the economy is strong enough and people are interested.”
“I have always admired British humour and I can say now that certainly the UCI president is not lacking it,” Vizer said. “As a new president of an international federation, I wish Mr Cookson good luck and I am available anytime to support him in better understanding the world sports movement and in avoiding press communications at times when he actually does not have any message to transmit.”
Cookson has clearly learned from that exchange. Despite the schadenfreude he’d be forgiven for feeling, he does not give in to the temptation to feed Vizer’s advice back to him via this interview. “I don’t want to get into a spat with Mr Vizer,” he says. “The Olympic movement has gone through a process for Agenda 2020. The federations were involved. Some people might not like some of the outcomes from it but I think to force that kind of confrontation is not the best way forward.
“Within the Olympic movement there are problems of capacity, numbers and costs. Those can’t be resolved by dispute; they have to be addressed by discussion, debate and consensus building. Sometimes we have to give a little to gain a little. There’s no reason why SportAccord can’t be anything other than a collaborative association of international federations, working to the mutual benefit of Olympic and non-Olympic sports. But if the president of SportAccord wants to have a fight with the president of the IOC, that’s just not going to help anybody.”
Management via consensus-building – straightforward diplomacy – is ingrained in Cookson’s leadership style. It represents something of a change from his predecessors in the UCI’s top job. Verbruggen and McQuaid were both enormously respected figures in Olympic circles, but they tended to exercise their power more absolutely than Cookson now does within the cycling world. As a consequence, Cookson’s tenure so far has not been characterised by the type of public spats that pockmarked the reigns of those before him.
This type of approach, favouring compromise over dictatorship, has won Cookson support across many facets of cycling’s mish-mash group of stakeholders – riders, teams, sponsors, broadcasters, fans, and event organisers.
Serge Arsenault is one such stakeholder. Arsenault is the owner of Groupe Serdy, the organisation that runs the only two North American races – the GP Cyclistes Montreal and Quebec – currently on the top-level WorldTour calendar. A veteran race organiser, and a broadcaster and broadcast executive by trade, Arsenault has played a key role in a set of discussions that should lead to the reform of the professional road cycling circuit, its team structure and global calendar. Instigated by McQuaid, these discussions have dragged on into Cookson’s presidency, and have struggled with numerous setbacks as each stakeholder group attempts to look after its own interests.
Although precise details of the discussions have never been published, a new WorldTour calendar has been imagined, with two races never held at the same time, and cycling’s three three-week grand tours cut down in size.
The number and size of the WorldTour teams – currently 18 teams with a squad limit of 30 riders – is also expected to change. A salary cap and serious rule changes in the interests of rider safety are also understood to have been discussed.
Former UCI president Hein Verbruggen has claimed a ‘climate of fear’ is developing within the body.
Through the fug of the setbacks and the squabbling, Arsenault believes there is a clear end in sight to the debate, and is confident Cookson and the UCI will be in a position to roll out changes well in advance of the 2017 season for which they are slated.
“Mr Cookson and Martin Gibbs understand what is going on,” Arsenault says. “We have to think about what cycling needs, and if we succeed in bringing the cycling world where it should be then everyone will benefit – riders, teams, UCI, even the Tour de France.
“We won’t change the order of things. Wimbledon will always be Wimbledon. The Monaco Grand Prix will always be the Monaco Grand Prix. I fully agree with that. We need that. But we need the full collaboration with an open mind of ASO. And I believe they will collaborate. I have lots of confidence in these people. No-one will win on every little aspect of what they would like to have. That’s normal. I’m sure that by 2017 the reform will be in place. It’s maybe cycling’s last chance to be where it belongs. We are all business people.
“The next three months will be really, really important. By the next world championships in Richmond, USA, I believe most of the big issues will be solved. We have to do it. We have to stop competing between ourselves. Our real competitors are the other sports that take airtime and sponsors.”
Cookson, too, is aware that the time for talking is almost over. “We’re looking at something that is less restrictive than the first set of proposals that go back to before my presidency,” he explains. “I can’t really say any more than that, but I’m hoping that by early June we’ll have agreed with the Pro Cycling Council and the stakeholders group and that by the end of June we’ll have cleared it with the management committee and we’ll hopefully make some sort of announcement around Tour de France time about the future for 2017 and beyond.
“We’ve done a lot of talking here,” he adds, explaining the delays, “and I was very anxious to avoid getting into a conflict situation again between ASO and the teams, between ASO and the UCI, etc. So we’ve had people round the table; we’ve had our so-called stakeholders meetings at different levels, different frequencies. I think we’re close to something that’s going to be acceptable and take the sport forward in a way that’s going to be – to use one of my favourite words – sustainable, and builds the economy. It won’t be as radical as some of the proposals that have been tabled by various individuals.
“I just think those kind of ‘closed league’ ideas of ‘let’s make everything a similar format of three or four-day races’; I think those kind of ideas would destroy cycling. Cycling is not Formula One; it doesn’t take place on a circuit at a certain time. The beauty of cycling is its geography, its heritage, its history. To simply say we want the best riders riding against each other every weekend is a nonsense because the best riders in the cobbled classics are not even the same as the best riders in the hilly classics, who aren’t generally the same riders as the best riders for the grand tours.
“Yes, we want the best teams riding against each other week in, week out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the best riders. I don’t accept this idea that everything has to be dumbed down so that Joe Bloggs wherever can switch on his telly and understand what’s going on. The beauty of sports is the heritage, it is that it takes some understanding; it’s why tennis takes place on grass and clay, and has a bizarre scoring system. So what? That’s what makes it interesting to watch sport, to be a supporter of a particular sport.
“I grew up in the north of England; we read magazines back then, way before the internet, and we’d just look at the pictures of the Alps and the Pyrenees and go, ‘Wow – these guys are like mythical heroes!’ To me, that’s the beauty of a sport like cycling. It takes place in astonishing environments – whether it’s the Alps, the Pyrenees or the cobbles of northern France and Belgium. We don’t want to destroy that.
“We will try to have a structure that defends the heritage but that seeks new opportunities in new territories where the economy is strong enough and people are interested. We’ve seen some of that. You’ve seen the Tour Down Under, you’ve seen the events in the Gulf; there’s a sequence of events in North America. I think we can build on those; I think we can still go back to China at some point, and the rest of Asia, to try to help them.
“As there are challenges in some economies, there are opportunities in others. If we are going to make our sport strong financially so that teams can be more sustainable and the riders – male and female – can be paid properly then we have to do that, but not at the price of destroying our own beautiful heritage.”
Women of the road
Whether by accident or design, the first 18 months of Brian Cookson’s presidency have coincided with a surge in the opportunities available to top-level female cyclists. Last year saw the inaugural editions of the Women’s Tour of Britain, and La Course by Le Tour de France, both of them high-profile events in their own right.
Tangentially, there has also been a shift of attitude towards the chauvinistic trappings that have historically come with cycling events. An advert – featuring a cyclist’s hands reaching to pinch a woman’s rear – for this year’s E3 Harelbeke race, a WorldTour event in Belgium, was roundly condemned. So too was the ill-judged podium ceremony at the Lotto Cycling Cup, a women’s race in the same country, which saw the winners of the race flanked by four bikini-clad ‘podium girls’.
“One of the things I was very keen to do as quickly as possible was to put women’s cycling in the hands of women who knew what was needed – with some men as well, of course,” explains Cookson. “We established a women’s commission. We have now the first female vice president of the UCI in Tracey Gaudry, and we have at least one woman on every specialist discipline at the UCI. They’re not there as token women, they’re there because they’re knowledgeable, they’re expert and they contribute.
“We’ve made investments in broadcasting the Women’s World Cup on our YouTube channel; we’re helping event promoters by looking at flexibility in the calendar – and I think already in the first year women’s cycling has developed very strongly. Some great events came along like La Course and the women’s tour in Britain. All of those things are coming together really well.
“So we’re helping the sport grow. We’re looking at restructuring the calendar, allowing it to grow incrementally, in a sustainable way. And I think we’ll have something in a couple of years that’s the equivalent of the WorldTour for women – a combination of one day races and stage races. And I think we can then look at having a different structure for the teams; encouraging a more professionalism, more sponsorship, and get ourselves into a situation where we can make sure that more women are paid properly for their endeavours.”
The Germans are back
Midway through the 2014 Tour de France, the second-tier NetApp-Endura team announced it had signed a new title sponsor. Bavarian firm Bora – a manufacturer of cooktops and cooktop extractor systems which distributes its products in 18 European countries, plus Australia and New Zealand – had signed a five-year contract, marking the first time since 2010 that a German professional team has had a German title sponsor.
As of the beginning of 2015, the team has been known as Bora-Argon 18. Willi Bruckbauer, the founder and chief executive of Bora, explained the thinking behind the deal.
Why sign a title sponsorship deal with a cycling team?
I founded the company in 2007, so we’ve had only seven years. We produce cook tops and down-draft systems, nothing else. At the moment we have a product that everyone needs to create a kitchen. Our down-draft systems are better than every competitor’s, especially in the markets of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands; there, we have almost every premium kitchen dealer using Bora more or less daily.
But we don’t have awareness in the market. We’d like to go B2C and to do that we need awareness. I think it’s easier to get awareness with a cycling team than in normal TV commercials. It’s too expensive for us. I checked three different offers. One offer was football, the second offer was winter sport and the third offer was a cycling team. There was a really big gap and the best offer was a cycling team. Football was the lowest on value for money – one to four. Skiing was next. And then cycling. If you spend €1 then you get €10 back in media value.
How much is the deal worth?
Contracts are between two people only and Ralph Denk, the owner of the team, is one of my best friends. We are a small, young, healthy company, but we are not a rich company. The money we invested in cycling is not a problem for us. It’s a good investment and we made a contract for five years. Five years as number one sponsor of the team.
There is an escalator in the contract. I always say it’s between €1 million and €10 million per year, but it’s much closer to €1 million!
Willi Bruckbauer, the founder and chief executive of Bora, a manufacturer of cooktops and cooktop extractor systems.
Media value is important to you, but how else will you activate?
We’re investing more than the budget for the team for the activation. We’re doing a lot of hospitality. We were a smaller sponsor of the team in the past, and we visited the last three years the Tour of Flanders in Belgium. We visited the Vuelta in Barcelona. We visited Paris for the last stage of the Tour. We’ve been to the training camp in Majorca twice with 30 to 50 of our dealers.
We do sales training, product training, and then in the morning we do cycling tours with all 50 dealers and the riders. We’ve booked 100 places in the Tour de France this year. Just across the finish line. We’ll do the same three days of sales training and product training, and do the cycling tour only with the dealers. The baby has to walk before it can run. The first step we will go just with our dealers. The dealers are duplicators – less expensive than end customers.
We have also invested in a Bora cooking truck. It’s the best cooking truck in the peloton. It’s a 40-tonne truck with the trailer. It’s the largest one. In the front we changed the trailer for a glass cube with a Bora kitchen in it. At the big cycling races we’ll take our chef, who cooks for our team. My idea was to create every cooking truck for every WorldTour team with Bora. But it was too late for most teams when we made the offer. But I think next year we will try to have every cooking truck for every WorldTour and ProContinental team with Bora.
You are the first German title sponsor in cycling for four years. Is the sport’s reputation softening in Germany?
Cycling is still a little toxic, not only in Germany and Austria. I’m not sure if the riders were the problem, or the team staff and fixers, or the sponsors.
The sponsors now have another function. It’s not just important to us to win, to win, to win. A successful day in the group can create more brand awareness than one winning sprint, for example. Ralph’s been leading professional cycling teams for more than ten years. He had the world number one mountain biking team for six years, and then he changed to road racing.
He has never had one case of positive doping in his team. He has always stated his philosophy. It is very good to win, but not at any price. If there’s any structured doping programme, we can leave our contract. And also if there are more than three doping cases, it’s allowed for us to go.
Back-to-back one-day races in Quebec City and Montreal have been popular fixtures on the top-level road cycling calendar since 2010. With a new deal securing the future of the events until 2019, organiser Serge Arsenault believes his is a model the rest of the cycling world should heed.
The Grands Prix Cyclistes Québec and Montréal (GPCQM) is a cycling double-header that takes place each year in September. The only North American fixtures on the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) top-tier WorldTour calendar, the one-day races, which take place two days apart from one another, have been held annually since 2010.
Run on loops of street circuits in the heart of Quebec City and then Montreal, the events typically attract hundreds of thousands of people to the side of the roads, and, in Montreal in particular, the list of previous winners is impressive. The Montreal circuit – which takes in 17 laps, each featuring three challenging climbs, and a total cumulative climb of around 4,000 metres, similar to that faced by riders on a mountain stage of the Tour de France – has been conquered by the likes of Simon Gerrans, Peter Sagan, and Rui Costa – all of them household names in the world of cycling.
The nature of the racing and the position of the races in the calendar, in early-to-mid-September, have marked the double-header out as a key preparation point ahead of cycling’s annual road world championships, which take place a week or so after the events each year.
Simon Gerrans, the winner in Quebec in 2012 and champion of both GPQCM races in 2014
Despite the arduous travel involved for the Europe-based elite of cycling, the riders, by and large, have developed a fondness for the Canadian outpost.
It is a fondness that Serge Arsenault, president of the GPCQM, is proud to have inculcated. “The Montreal and Quebec races are now what we call the riders’ races,” says Arsenault. “They feel at home and quite well.”
Arsenault explains that a top-level race organised outside cycling’s European heartland costs the organisers as much as 400 per cent more to put on. That’s because in order to guarantee a quality field, the organisers have to guarantee a happy field. To do that, they must stump up for flights, transfers and accommodation for the athletes and their support teams, even before race organisation and television production has been taken into account.
In Canada, the teams – 18 of them compete in each of the races – are lodged at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City before transferring to the equally plush Delta Montreal. The teams are looked after, the quality of the organisation is high and so too – crucially as far as Arsenault is concerned – is the quality of the television production.
Sold or distributed to 130 countries around the world, Arsenault’s in-house television production for each race takes up a sizeable chunk of his annual budget of between CAN$7 million and CAN$8 million.
A former sports broadcaster and television executive, Arsenault knows of what he speaks when it comes to television production. The Serdy Group itself is centred on a network TV business, and Arsenault and his team were previously responsible for producing Tour de France coverage in Canada.
“Being a TV guy myself, I believe that we have a tremendous product on TV,” he says. “We have a collaboration with cameramen from the Tour de France, and we have local producers who are used to producing the Formula One with Bernie Ecclestone. The bill is CAN$1.5 million if you want to do something OK.
Serge Arsenault, president of the GPCQM, has organised cycling races in every decade since the 80s
“We pushed very hard so that cycling could jump into the modern era in terms of technology. If you take Formula One, sometimes you can have 90 minutes with not much going on. They’re just going round the circuit. But the fact that they embrace new technology and they invent so many things, the spectators look at it on TV and they’re captivated. The product has to be good. And we believe ours is.”
In fact, the parallels with Formula One run deep. Organisers of the Canadian Grand Prix struck a CAN$187 million deal with Formula One last year. That deal will see a Formula One race continue to take place at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal every year until at least 2024. Such is the unilateral support for the event that funding for the deal was drawn from the Montreal tourist board as well as both the provincial and state governments.
That belief at several layers of government in the power of sporting events extends to Arsenault’s cycling operation, too. “The first priority for most organisers is finance, and to make sure the budget will be OK,” Arsenault explains. “Fortunately we have full support there. We have two cities – Quebec and Montreal. We have the Quebec government, and the Canadian government – equal partners in the Grand Prix. They finance approximately 50 per cent of the costs. The other 50 per cent are private enterprise – local sponsors.”
The peloton rides into the final straight of the 2014 Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, in the picturesque surroundings of Quebec City, Canada
Aresenault recently struck a deal with all his stakeholders that sees funding for the two races secure until after the 2019 edition. “That’s a tremendous weight off our shoulders,” he admits. “Now we can concentrate on the public, now we can concentrate on pleasing the riders so that when they’re here they’ll be treated as top, global athletes, which is what they are.”
With the future of his events secure, Arsenault has another goal in mind in the more immediate future. The Canadian has been around cycling for some time. Before the 2010 launch of the GP Cyclistes Quebec and Montreal, he organised the Grand Prix Cycliste des Amériques from 1988 to 1992 and the Tour Cycliste Trans-Canada in 1999.
He was forced to shut down the former after it was bunted out of its position in the cycling calendar, forcing it to compete, ultimately unsuccessfully, with American football and hockey in the cluttered North American sports media market.
The UCI is preparing to put the finishing touches to a number of reform packages that look set to transform the WorldTour calendar from the 2017 season, and Arsenault has been playing a key role in the multiple stakeholder focus groups and discussions that will inform those changes. Unsurprisingly, he believes the ongoing success of the races in Quebec and Montreal should form something of a blueprint for change as the UCI endeavours to elevate the sport to the top tier. Although his stance is firm – he believes his own races need to stay in their current position in the calendar, and retain their current top-level status in order to survive – he recognises that compromise is needed across the board. “Everyone will have to understand that we are in a process of negotiation and compromise and concession are inevitable,” he says. “You cannot win everything you want. It’s certain that everyone staying with their own positions won’t be a solution.
“We will have to find a solution to respect everyone’s needs. Cycling is not the property of the organiser, or of the teams, or of the UCI: it’s the property of all the stakeholders. We have to have an agreement.”