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Professor Simon Chadwick looks at Russian entrepreneur's role in getting UCI to reform the sport

He may not possess the urbanity of Carlo Ancelotti, be owner of the world’s biggest sporting brand, or have Cristiano Ronaldo at his disposal, but Russian entrereneur Oleg Tinkov is intent on creating cycling’s equivalent of Real Madrid’s galacticos. At the same time, he is also set on becoming a poster boy for reform in the drug-tainted world of elite professional cycling.

Tinkov has been engaged in businesses ranging from electronics and frozen food, to brewing and credit cards. But he is probably best known for his sponsorship and ownership of professional cycling teams, most notably Tinkoff-Saxo. Reportedly worth US$1.4 billion, Tinkov is now seeking to use his wealth and influence to create the kind of sporting super team we are more used to seeing at venues like Madrid’s biggest football stadium.

The team already boasts a roster of some the sport’s biggest stars, including former Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. But he wants more; indeed, he has repeatedly cast covetous eyes at the sport’s star names including Chris Froome and Fabian Cancellera. Now Tinkov wants to extend his influence into the organisation and governance of cycling.

Mixing it up

The Russian believes that every top rider in cycling should ride in all of the sport’s major races, namely the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and Spain’s La Vuelta. To induce the riders, Tinkov has offered them €1 million euros. Tinkov’s ambitions go further still though: he wants to see more exciting races and a bigger sporting spectacle – achieved through initiatives such as shorter, faster stages and cameras on bikes.

Tinkov’s reformist zeal and commercial ambitions are both ironic and compelling. They are ironic in many ways; for instance, his cycling team is managed by former Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis, a man stripped of his 2006 Tour victory for doping offences and someone persistently dogged by suspicions of drug taking. Former professional rider Tyler Hamilton, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong, has gone as far as claiming Tinkov told his riders, “I do not care what you do, just do not get caught”. (Tinkov has responded by insisting he is “totally against doping”).

But the businessman does have an important point to make: cycling is in dire need of change. And it is a fact of which Tinkov, most professional teams, and governing body the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) are all acutely aware. Not only does the sport live with a legacy of transgression, but at its heart sits a business model that is overly reliant upon sponsorship revenue.

It is in this context that 11 professional cycling teams have recently announced a new initiative – Velon – designed to “make cycling better”. This is more UEFA Champions League than Real Madrid’s galacticos, although Tinkov’s team is one of the 11 involved. The premise of the organisation is interesting, obvious and inevitable: to make cycling a more attractive commercial proposition.

Win at all costs

Event ownership and governance in cycling have been problematic for some time; for instance, the sport’s biggest event – the Tour de France – is owned by a private family, not by the UCI. Furthermore, it’s main (albeit relatively modest) income streams come from sponsorship. Such events are free to view and merchandising business is limited. This is in stark contrast to, for example, the Champions League or, for that matter, Formula 1, the NBA or tennis’ Grand Slam events. Velon is an attempt to copy what those in other sports have been doing, in some cases for decades.

Yet critics are concerned that the last thing cycling needs is for money and yet more commercial influence to drive it. After all, one view is that this is what got the sport into trouble in the first place, prompting the “win at all costs” culture of drug-taking. Other critics are alternatively concerned that Velon is just another example of the industrial concentration and elitist development of sport that has recently led to the likes of Real dominating football and Red Bull monopolising the F1 World Championship. The suspicion is that, while Tinkov and those of his ilk make money, cycling as a whole will suffer.

But the initiative is about more than simply making money; there is no doubt that the residue of drug-taking needs to be eradicated and that the sport’s image and reputation must be managed more effectively. Velon’s emergence, allied to Tinkov’s comments, also raises important issues about more customer-focused events that provide a compelling spectacle without inducing their participants into ingesting illegal substances.

Hard slog

While Velon has the blessing of the UCI, it is not actually the governing body’s initiative and one therefore has to ask where the organisation can go now? Over the last two decades, the UCI has been something akin to the paternalistic guardian of a hugely dysfunctional family. In fact, claims have repeatedly been made that the UCI was complicit in perpetuating cycling’s drugs scandals, which reached its nadir as the Lance Armstrong case reached its denouement.

The election of new UCI president Brian Cookson in 2013 was meant to be the prompt for major reforms within the governing body and, indeed, in professional cycling as a whole. To some extent it has done this, leading to new doping regulations being introduced. The UCI also constituted the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC):

    … to investigate the problems that our sport has faced in recent years, notably the allegations – particularly damaging to our image – that the UCI was implicated in wrongdoing in the past.

However, the CIRC was supposed to have reported its findings by the end of last year, yet we are still waiting for them. While determining the right solutions for cycling’s malaise is imperative, as commercial and market forces have instigated their own changes it has rather cast the UCI as an organisation loitering with intent rather than actually enforcing rapid and much needed change.

Tinkov and Velon are therefore not simply entrepreneurs seeking a “fast buck” from the cycling business. They in effect represent a major challenge to the established order, not only driving the implementation of a new business model but also fundamentally threatening the sport’s long-established system of governance, the nature and format of events we are used to seeing in cycling, and the type of riders we are likely to see in the years ahead.

This article originally appeared on theconversation.com and is republished with kind permission under a Creative Commons licence.

This content has been added by a member of the road.cc staff

13 comments

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Nathan79 [40 posts] 4 years ago
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Does anyone else look at Tinkoff and think "Bond Villain" ? Even though I quite like him...

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ianrobo [1214 posts] 4 years ago
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I fear for the future if the likes of him are driving it. Firstly his star signing is of course an ex drugs cheat and the way he recovered after the TDF crash was 'amazing' .

Secondly cycling has no big TV revenues at all, Sky or any pay platform are not going to pay mega bucks for 6 hours coverage of a stage. I fear he wants to make the big tours into shorter quicker events when they should and have always been about endurance.

I have seen how rich billionaires have destroyed football in England and how by making a few mega rich clubs those of us who support the smaller clubs have really suffered. I love cycling because to a greater extent money is not the driving factor of the sport.

Why change it ?

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OnTheRopes [225 posts] 4 years ago
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ianrobo wrote:

I fear for the future if the likes of him are driving it. Firstly his star signing is of course an ex drugs cheat and the way he recovered after the TDF crash was 'amazing' .

Secondly cycling has no big TV revenues at all, Sky or any pay platform are not going to pay mega bucks for 6 hours coverage of a stage. I fear he wants to make the big tours into shorter quicker events when they should and have always been about endurance.

I have seen how rich billionaires have destroyed football in England and how by making a few mega rich clubs those of us who support the smaller clubs have really suffered. I love cycling because to a greater extent money is not the driving factor of the sport.

Why change it ?

Very well put.
There has been talk already of shorter stages and shorter Grand Tours to make it more 'appealing' for TV and the public.
Then there is http://www.velon.cc/ which wants to 'Make Cycling Better' but better for who? Interesting that none of the French teams have signed up to Velon
I do worry about this move to create a greater revenue from TV etc will end up like Premiership football, Moto GP etc

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Stumps [3493 posts] 4 years ago
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He can make cycling better by following Sky's principle of not hiring drug cheats, past or present. But then again he wouldn't have a team or management if he did that.

It seems that every month he spouts off about this, that and the other as though he wants to constantly be in the headlines and a finger in every pie.

He can bugger off and take his cheats with him.

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ianrobo [1214 posts] 4 years ago
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OnTheRopes wrote:

I do worry about this move to create a greater revenue from TV etc will end up like Premiership football, Moto GP etc

but who is going to pay for the greater TV revenue, I can not see anyone paying mega bucks at all. Eurosport gets the coverage because it is a niche market and Sky not interested because it would never make money for them at all.

This is where Velon/Tinkoff and others are so wrong to even try and base it on the premier league model.

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Liaman [68 posts] 4 years ago
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I agree that the UCI needs to gain ownership of the races on the world tour calendar, it would mean that much more of the revenue can stay "in house" and would hopefully mean that teams can receive more funding for their appearances at these races and will reduce the reliance on sponsorship somewhat.
I also believe that this could pave the way for a situation where the team has it's own finances that are separate from those of the sponsors, and the sponsors' money is more a contribution than total funding (much like kit sponsors in football).
Ultimately each team needs to be an entity in itself that the sponsors attach themselves to, rather than a collection of riders brought together by the sponsor that are then disbanded when the sponsor backs out.

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banzicyclist2 [299 posts] 4 years ago
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Yes first thing that came to mind was the next Bond film...... Err..... James Bond does cycling! Now that would be worth watching. I wonder what sort of gadgets he could have on his bike?

Bet that's got you thinking  4

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giobox [361 posts] 4 years ago
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OnTheRopes wrote:

[
Very well put.
There has been talk already of shorter stages and shorter Grand Tours to make it more 'appealing' for TV and the public.
Then there is http://www.velon.cc/ which wants to 'Make Cycling Better' but better for who? Interesting that none of the French teams have signed up to Velon
I do worry about this move to create a greater revenue from TV etc will end up like Premiership football, Moto GP etc

Its hard to see Velon as anything other than some kind of cycling industry insider joke. Other than 'lets put some cameras on bikes' what have they actually suggested thats workable? This isn't football; there is no spectator gate money to be shared amongst the teams. By most accounts the TV revenues that could be shared won't solve their problems either.

Sharing revenues also ignores some harsh realities of the pro race calendar. Many races in the calendar outside of the TdF are actually run at a loss by TdF owner ASO using the revenue from the TdF. Without these loss making races too there is no pro tour calendar.

Ignoring the Tour, the total revenues of the Giro and Vuelta are pretty pitiful in the grand scheme of things. Remember too that Velon are talking about splitting this already small pie 22 ways.

As ever, inrng.com has a brilliant analysis with some numbers to boot.

The real financial issue is the difficulties teams are having finding sponsors. The teams need to think harder about how they can offer value.

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ianrobo [1214 posts] 4 years ago
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excellent post and sponsors dropped off because of doping. The teams have to be honest if you employ the likes of Vino, Rijis and even Vaughters all with drug records then would I want to sponsor a sport with those ?

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patto583 [59 posts] 4 years ago
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Vino and Rijis are a nightmare publicity wise, Vaughters is nowhere near as toxic, he has made a name for himself as accepting the past and being against doping in the present.

Regardless of your personal opinion, Vaughters has created a niche that has to expand, we can't realistically hope to get rid of all of the people who have been involved in doping in the past, because the more you tout that tactic then the more people are going to keep it secret.

The Garmin/Slipstream business model seemed to be working ok, then the budgets went up a couple of years ago, now the teams are having to merge. We need more security for the teams, if for no other reason than to make the sport easier to follow. After all, can you name another sport where the biggest event of the year has 3 winners, and the same team might have different name the following year???

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ianrobo [1214 posts] 4 years ago
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Don't get me wrong, as mentioned before I am a Garmin fan and I like what Vaughters says and does.

However I am a cycling fan, do you think sponsors understand the nuances between them ?

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dafyddp [471 posts] 4 years ago
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I think he's right in some ways - cycling has to keep up with the spectator experience other sports enjoy, so on-bike and drone video should be more common. Likewise, we should stop thinking about big TV and realise that web and app-based services are getting very good at delivering niche content. A constant web-based video stream costs a fraction of the price of traditional broadcast and provides interesting and new advertising opps.

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ianrobo [1214 posts] 4 years ago
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thats fine and no one would disagree with that.

What I disagree with his apparent attempt to downgrade the grand tours somewhat.