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In a candid interview with NBC Sports on Thursday, following Stage 6 of the Tour de France, Tinkoff team owner Oleg Tinkov shared his views on a variety of topics that included Peter Sagan’s run in the maillot jaune, the reason Movistar upped the pace on the final climb of Col de Font De Cère into Le Lioran on Stage 5, and what he sees as the failed business model of professional cycling.
Speaking with NBC commentators Paul Burmeister, Bob Roll, and Christian Vande Velde, the 48-year-old Russian billionaire said that Movistar deliberately attacked on Col de Font De Cère to take advantage of Alberto Contador’s injuries. “[Valverde] is jealous. He did it specifically,” Tinkov said.
He also said that ASO, rather than the UCI, should run professional cycling, and that an American business model was needed to save the sport, as Europeans “don’t know how to do business.”
Over a 12-minute interview Tinkov said a lot, really. Rather than try to summarize, we present you a transcription of his NBC interview, below.
NBC: What are your thoughts on Peter Sagan’s performance, and what he’s done at this race?
Oleg Tinkov: Obviously it’s been a great performance from Peter, as always. He’s been three days in yellow. So far the most at this Tour. He lost green, but not the battle. We know that Cavendish won’t finish the Tour anyway, because he’s going to prepare for the Olympics. I still believe Peter can win the green jersey, and one or two stages, maybe.
NBC: Is that a gut feeling, that Cavendish won’t finish the Tour, or is that a fact?
Oleg Tinkov: I think it’s very logical, isn’t it? He needs to prepare for the track, for the Olympics. I don’t see that he finishes the Tour. Let’s say I will be very surprised if he finishes the Tour. Plus, it’s very hard for him, the third week.
NBC: How is Alberto recovering from his crashes?
Oleg Tinkov: All the answers will be tomorrow, on the Col d’Aspin. It’s not such hard climb, I climbed it myself a couple of days ago. But it’s still a Category 1 climb. We’ll see the answers. He’s recovering, but he’s still in pain. I believe, and this is what the doctors are saying, if it were any other rider, he would be an abandon. But Alberto is so strong, mentally. He really impresses me, how he fights. He fell on his right side, then he fell on his left side. I saw him nude, he’s basically all black and blue. He’s in pain. We will see.
NBC: You’re planning on leaving the sport next year, but you did say that if Peter wins two more stages, you will stay in the sport. Is this true?
Oleg Tinkov: Let’s see. Let’s see Peter win two more stages, then I will decide. We have to see how it goes. But it’s definitely a very exciting last year for me. We are the best team. We have the world champion’s jersey. We have been three days in the yellow jersey. We won the Tour of Flanders. I think it’s a great way to stop. I believe it’s good to stop on the top.
NBC: Do you have any melancholy about leaving the sport of cycling at this point?
Oleg Tinkov: Definitely, I do. But it’s a business, right? It’s a very expensive business to be in, and to have a team like I have — let’s call it a super team. Only three or four teams can afford it. It’s a budget of $20M plus. Of course I have a different feeling, inside of my soul. We Russians are famous for this. If you read Dostoyevsky, you know how we are fighting inside ourselves. We are not as rational as Anglo-Saxons. We are always trying to dig inside our own soul. I definitely don’t sleep very well with this, but it is rational. I am paying $20M a year, and that is a lot of money for our bank. Nevertheless, Tinkoff Bank is the biggest online bank in the world, with five million clients, but we still don’t make enough money to support the team. The problem of the sport is that there is no sustainable model; there is not any other income. So of course I have to leave.
NBC: You’ve criticized the UCI many times. What would be the ideal way, in a perfect world, that the UCI would run the sport?
Oleg Tinkov: In a perfect world, I don’t see the UCI at all in this game. I think they should run the Olympics, the world championships, and maybe some youth sports. Professional cycling should be run by ASO. They have to buy RCS, and they have to create the league, like basketball has, like football — that’s the way. ASO should sell TV rights high, to NBC, Sky, et cetera, and pay some money out of that to the teams. That’s how I see it.
Before that happens, it will be cause after cause. This year two teams are leaving, next year another two. That’s not a sustainable model. The riders are under stress; I know, because I have 27 riders looking for contracts. I know it’s not easy for them. They’re definitely not going to sign for this [same] money. Of course Peter is different, but the rest, they probably will sign for less. The staff is nervous. I see it as a really painful situation in cycling. Those poor people fight year after year for a contract for the next year. It’s not healthy. It’s not a sustainable model.
With cycling you have millions and millions of people watching, it could be a very good business. Now, it’s not even a business, it’s just a nightmare.
NBC: If and when you do step down, do you anticipate having that voice heard, to try and make those improvements?
Oleg Tinkov: I have my own business, to run the bank. This is amy hobby. I’m not interested to do anything with the sport. There should be some kind of hedge fund as well. It’s up to them to create the system. I believe that American money needs to be involved here. I don’t think Europeans can do it; they are really shallow on the business. They don’t know how to do business. I’m sorry, but that’s what it is. They don’t understand the business model. They don’t understand how it works. They do like their mom or dad used to do. Italians, French, or Spanish, they’re not going to do it. I believe there should be an American hedge fund that should come in and structure this the way that the NBA or British football league is structured.
NBC: Looking at the Stage 6 finish, what do you have to add to how Mark Cavendish won the sprint?
Oleg Tinkov: Cav obviously surprised all of us. He just lost the sprint at the British national championships, to our guy, Adam Blythe from Tinkoff, he won by two bike lengths. And now, at the Tour de France, Cavendish is super powerful. He’s definitely the strongest, as you can see. To out sprint a powerful machine like Kittel, and on a straight, that [shows] how strong he is. It’s really surprising for me to see, and it shows that Cav is still there. Some people had started to write him off early. It’s a big surprise, three wins, and he beat Kittel in a straight. It’s very strange to me. Congratulations to Mark.
NBC: Tell us what you’ve seen with Alberto on Stage 5. Do you think the attack from Bardet, Valverde, and Quintana was a premeditated attack on Alberto, because of his injuries?
Oleg Tinkov: Unfortunately, it definitely was. I asked Alberto, why do you think Movistar was so hard on you? You’ve been racing with Valverde since you were youths, since you were teenagers. This was all about Movistar putting Alberto into pain. I asked, why would they do it, if he is sort of your friend, if you are both Spanish? And he said that’s why, because we are both Spanish. He said it’s because [Contador] is dominating the Spanish media; because [Contador] has one million followers, and [Valverde] has 200,000 followers. He is jealous. He did it specifically. That’s what Alberto said.
It’s a big pity, in this sport. There’s not only a lack of money, there is also a lot of jealousy and so on. That’s really stupid, what Movistar did. That was not gentleman’s sort of… because Sky did really well. I talked to Chris [Froome] and I asked ‘Will you go hard tomorrow?’ And he said no, no because Alberto is in pain. There should be fair play to me. But there is not, because they are Spanish, and they compete with each other. Maybe Italians, too. That’s a mess. His answer actually put me into shock. They’re always jealous. Movistar has a big team, but the Spanish media is all about Alberto Contador, for his aggressive style of racing. Because he wins much more. I think Movistar just put him on the sword yesterday.
Partially I think this is also about the sustainability of the contract, again. They need to sign the contract, Valverde is out of contract this year; it’s just mess after mess.
NBC: What does Alberto tell you about how he’s feeling?
Oleg Tinkov: He’s feeling better and better every day. The real answer will come in Andorra. I believe he came in the top shape. He won the mountain time trial in the Dauphine, and I think he was one of two top contenders, with Froome. Now, it is different. He is saying he is getting better and better every day.
NBC: Is there a Plan B on your team if he can’t be at his best?
Oleg Tinkov: vWe have to decide day by day. If Alberto cannot go for GC, we probably should run for the stages. In the Alps there are a lot of opportunities for Alberto to show up and win one, two stages. We have to see. We cannot make a strategy now. Everything is speculation. We don’t know how he’ll feel. He doesn’t know how he feels. This morning, he told me ‘I am better.’ But what does that mean? We’ll see.