Love him or loathe him, Oleg Tinkov will be missed in cycling when he departs at the end of 2016, or at least his passion for cycling and his willingness to pump money into the sport will, according to Velon CEO Graham Bartlett.
The Russian millionaire has divided opinion during his tenure as a team owner, first with Tinkoff Credit Systems and more recently with the Tinkoff team. It’s not just the fans whose feathers he ruffles either, its fellow team owners, rival sponsors and even the sport’s governing body the UCI.
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As one of the founding members of Velon, the Tinkoff team will be missed by the organisation if, as is likely, it folds at the end of the season. Speaking to Cycling Weekly, Bartlett explained how the organisation is pushing for similar reforms in the sport that Tinkov has been calling for for years.
While some sponsors are pulling out of cycling because of the numerous drug scandals seen in the past decade, others, like Tinkov, simply no longer see any financial benefits of supporting cycling in its current form.
“However you view Oleg Tinkov as a person, you cannot see [his departure] as anything but bad for cycling,” Bartlett says.
“Here’s somebody who’s made an enormous amount of investment in cycling who’s now leaving the sport. How could anybody view that other than that’s bad?
“Personally, I’m very sorry to see [him pull his investment] and I think the sport needs to look long and hard at itself and say, ‘why is that happening?’
“And this is not the first time this has happened. You can go back to HTC, you got back to other teams that were there and are now not there – it’s incredibly damaging to the riders – what happens to those riders when that team folds?
“These people, they’ve got families, they’ve got mortgages, what happens if that can’t continue? The staff, the people that work there – it’s just wrong.”
According to Tinkov himself, he has spent over €60m on supporting cycling over the past decade. The economic situation in Russia has forced Tinkov, who has reportedly seen his wealth drop from $1.4bn to $500m during the recent global recession, to reassess his sponsorship commitments.
But another key factor in his departure is his opinion that no-one in cycling wants to work with his ideas of how to improve the business model of the sport.
Bartlett agrees that the business model of cycling is not sustainable. Sponsors like Tinkov put money into the sport and don’t necessarily see a return on that investment. After all, not all sponsors are in love with the sport of cycling as much as Oleg Tinkov – many of them are investing purely for business.
“I think it’s incredibly difficult to have a sporting business model whereby you rely upon somebody to constantly put money in and not give them any opportunity to [work on it as] a long-term investment,” he says
“That needs to change and I completely agree with the comments Oleg has made about that. They are essential to why Velon was created – to change that business model and [I believe] we can.
“I think it will come too late for Mr Tinkov but we’ve got to carry on that work because we’ve got to believe that eventually, one day, we will fix it.”
Cycling is pretty unique in the way it attracts money. Unlike sports like football, the vast majority of spectators at a cycling race will not have paid money to be there. Some won’t invest in the sport at the merchandise stalls, or in the town or city that the race passes through in the bars and cafes.
Towns pay significant sums of money to host the start or finish of a stage of the Tour de France, but much of that money goes towards staging the race in the first place. For every big race like the Tour de France, which probably makes a fair amount of money each year, there are dozens of races that struggle to break even.
The fact that the system is so fragmented is one of the main problems with cycling’s long-term stability, according to Velon, and Bartlett is keen to bring all interested parties towards one common position to work together on making the sport a more viable business investment.
Bartlett says: “If you look at models in other sports you see a joined-up business plan across the board that benefits each of the different stakeholders. That means they’ve all got a common interest to drive the sport forward.
“In cycling, you’ve got an incredibly fragmented structure where they do not link up together and that stops the sport from moving forward both from a business, but also from a fan perspective.
“Why has there not been the investment in technology in cycling? The answer to that, to me, is very, very clear – cycling is fragmented.
“If one team said, ‘we’re going to take this on,’ or one rider said, ‘I’m going to take this on and do it,’ he couldn’t do it. If one organiser said, ‘I’m going to take this on and do it,’ it’s very, very hard.
“What it needs is for the whole sport to say, ‘this is how we’re going to do it, we’ll all take it on.’
“But to do that you need to have a common position to make it work and that’s what we want bring about.”