As former owner Bjarne Riis and new owner Oleg Tinkoff celebrated the agreement in early December that saw the Danish cycling team Team Tinkoff-Saxo (TTS) pass into Russian hands, critics were quick to lament the absence of any domestic teams competing in the UCI World Tour in 2014.
A number of detractors have suggested the sale will have a detrimental effect on Danish cycling, mostly because TTS will no longer be focusing on Danish talent, but instead look to Russia for development opportunities.
And those fears did not abate in late December when TTS signed the two Russian riders Ivan Rovny and Nikolay Trusov to long-term contracts. It conveyed that Tinkoff might be pulling more strings since both riders have previously raced for his former team, Tinkoff Restaurants.
Riis, who remains the team manager, had admitted earlier in the month that some Danish talents had been given a chance based on their nationality, although he promised that he would continue to look their way, providing that they were talented enough.
Start of a slippery slope?
Ole Kristensen, the editor of cycling magazine Cykelmagasinet, told The Copenhagen Post that Riis’s team has been integral to the development of talent within Danish cycling and contended that the impact of the ownership change wouldn’t be immediate with Riis staying on as team manager, but that changes down the road are inevitable.
“Oleg Tinkoff is definitely going to want a more Russian influence on the team, and that will definitely decrease the chances of young Danish riders like Michael Valgren Andersen, who is joining the team in 2014, making the team as Bjarne’s influence deteriorates,” said Kristensen.
“And who knows if Bjarne wants to be part of the team when his contract expires in three years’ time?”
If they’re good enough …
But Lars Bonde, the sporting head of the national cycling union Danmarks Cykle Union (DCU), isn’t concerned that Denmark will no longer have a team participating in the World Tour. There are still a lot of Danes with TTS and there are other opportunities for Danish riders to reach the top of the sport.
“Many of our best young riders are good enough to be picked up by other teams. Lasse Norman signed for Garmin this year, and last year Sebastian Lander moved to BMC,” Bonde told Ekstra Bladet tabloid.
“We have also begun co-operating with Argos-Shimano in a relationship that is much tighter than anything we’ve ever had with Bjarne Riis.”
Bonde went on to admit that there would be changes now there wasn’t a domestic team driving the interest in the sport in Denmark, but argued that it was up to the riders themselves to do that, as they had done in the past.
Riis not the beginning …
And Bonde has a point. Before Riis established his first team, Team Home-Jack & Jones, back in 1998, interest in the sport was already at a high. Kim Andersen became the first Dane to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France in 1983 and he was followed by riders like Jørgen Pedersen, Rolf Sørensen, Bo Hamburger and Riis himself when he became the first Dane to win Le Tour in 1996.
But there is no doubt that the sport was given a significant boost in Denmark when Riis created teams that could compete for titles, which culminated in 2008 when Spain’s Carlos Sastre finished on top of the podium for Team CSC in the Tour de France.
But he might be the end
Kristensen said that change may not happen for a few years. “There is disappointment that Bjarne doesn’t own the team anymore, but I think that it is still primarily seen as a Danish team,” he said.
“The head office is still going to be in Denmark, Bjarne continuing on as team manager will have an impact in Denmark, and a large number of the riders are Danish so they will still be popular among the Danish fans for the next two three years.”
According to Kristensen, the real concern from a Danish perspective is that Tinkoff will gradually phase the Danish element out of the club, and that keeping Riis on for a few years will only serve to make that transition a little smoother for the Danish public to digest.
Secondary sponsor Saxo Bank looks set to continue on for another year, but it is unknown how long it will choose to stay involved now that the team is owned by a Russian. Furthermore, Tinkoff has the finances to sponsor the team without Saxo Bank, but it is not known yet whether he will choose to do so.
For the foreseeable future, TTS won’t be immediately affected by the change, Kristensen said, aside from the small change to the team’s name – Tinkoff and Saxo have switched places to become Team Tinkoff-Saxo.
On track for a good season
“The team is the same, the riders are the same, the set-up is the same and Bjarne is still leading the team. They are going to be a good team. They will finish top ten in all the grand tours and challenge for podium places,” Kristensen said. “They will do the same as this year, but probably a bit better because riders like Roman Kreuziger and Nicolas Roche are more integrated into the team.”
Looking ahead, the season promises to offer continued drama behind the scenes – last Friday a documentary aired about Riis that claimed he suffered from depression early in 2013.
And it all starts on Sunday January 19 when the TTS riders suit up in Australia for the first World Tour race of 2014, the Santos Tour Down Under in Adelaide.
The team’s line up for the race – which takes place from January 19-26 – features seasoned veteran Nicki Sørensen, Trusov (Russia), Christopher Juul Jensen (Denmark), Michael Kolar (Slovakia) and two Australians, Jay McCarthy and Rory Sutherland.
The final rider will be youngster Michael Valgren Andersen (Denmark) – the two-time winner of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege under-23 edition – who will be making his professional debut for the team.