How Trump, Putin, and the Oligarchs Took Over Professional Cycling
There is Team Sky (€35m) with Rupert Murdoch’s son, James Murdoch’s family’s vast media wealth. There’s Katusha (€30m) whose founders and board of directors is a who’s who of sanctioned Russian billionaire oligarchs. There’s BMC whose Andy Rihs spun his billion dollar hearing aid company into dozens of ventures, including beautiful, shining bicycles.
There’s Tinkoff (€25m), whose beer-brewing billionaire namesake, Oleg Tinkoff, claims he “bought” Contador and rents massive villas for each stage of the Tour de France. And finally there’s Astana (€20m), President and billionaire Nursultan Nazarbayev’s team which is more like a personal azure-blue Bugatti that he loans to former pro rider and now manager, Alexander Vinokourov. Actually, all of these owners have Bugattis (Igor Makarov, the founder, creator, and owner behind Katusha had his Bugatti painted the same color as his daughters eyes).
Within the last seven years, cycling budgets have risen from an average of 8.8 million euros to 14.5 million or sixty percent . While this jump is, in the short-term, good for the sport, in the long term, as Oleg Tinkov complains, the model of professional teams and cycling is unsustainable. In true oligarch-style, Tinkoff shouts, who cares about those socialist European grandmothers getting to watch the Tour de France every summer, the fans, not the team owners should be paying more!
But Tinkoff, while brash, isn’t the only wealthy ex-Soviet in cycling. What stands out from these team-owning billionaires is that three of the top five teams with the highest budgets were funded and created by oligarchs (Tinkov adamantly denies he’s an oligarch although his business relied heavily on buying up old Soviet architecture at discount prices). So, why oligarchs? Why Russians or, as in the case of Astana, old Soviet politburo? The answer is surprisingly simple.
Back when the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin and the KGB, were selling off resources to the highest bidder. One of the most-prized resources they had were highly-trained, Olympic-medal athletes. The KGB started Sovintersport, which served as a sort of talent agency. Putin’s friend, Sergey Chemezov, bought the Italian team Alfa Lum, gutted it, and filled it with his own Soviet riders. Instead of selling it off, however, Chemezov stayed on with the team, much like a newly-minted multi-millionaire falls in love with his first pure-breed race horse. Chemezerov developed his cyclist-export business for years and as his wealth grew, so did his team. Now, as owner of Katusha, Chemezerov is in the import and export business, exporting Russian amateurs while importing professionals like Joaquim Rodriquez, Alexander Kristoff, and Alberto Losada.
Chemezerov already had a stake in the race, but why did oligarchs like Tinkoff and Nazarbayev also become team owners? There’s no storied cycling history in Russia like there is in Italy or France. The Russians have only entered the professional cycling game in the last twenty years. Yet, the oligarchs seemed to love buying and selling riders as if they were their own fantasy team.
Cycling has never been a sport for the puritans. Some of the greatest Belgian riders, former couriers in the Nazi-resistance, bet against themselves, drank copious amounts of beer, popped amphetamines, zig-zagged toward the finish line. The mafia is regularly accused of tipping the Giro with stories of Italian press helicopters swooping in low and blowing back underdogs on the brink of breaking bookie’s odds. Corrupt oligarchs seem like the next logical corruption. But there’s something more than just gambling, doping, or money-laundering that attracted the Russians. Owning a cycling team has a boutique air coupled with the cache of real wealth.
For as long as the Tour de France has been around, corporate sponsorship has paid the bills. Peugeot sponsored some of the first champions. Jacques Anquetil rode for Ford.
It wasn’t until the mid-sixties that the corporations got into the game. At first the businessmen were innocuous, but by the end of the eighties, the corporations were bringing their accountants who were more devoted to numbers and stats instead of grit and grace. By 2000, cycling legend and coach Jan Raas complained in disgust that Rabobank was little more than “a bankers team.” But Rabobank wasn’t the only one. Kim Fournais and Lars Seier Christensen of Saxo Bank were stepping into the professional cycling arena as was Pedro Delgado’s Banesto, a Spanish bank, and Ag2R, a pension management firm. And don’t forget what graced the yellow jersey for many, many years, but none other than one of France’s biggest banks, Crédit Lyonnais.
The bankers narrow-mindedness squashed much of the sport to little more than raw numbers, each rider reduced to power outputs and sprinting or climbing points. Just like the industrial revolution savaged the American midwest, leaving a trail of meth and dope addicts in its wake, the shareholders pushed a working-class peloton into a blood-bagging and EPO fueled race to the bottom. The riders already grueling schedules were now measured and calculated to the very last kilometer, then tagged for quotas. If quotas weren’t met, according to the testimony of the Festina trial in October of 2000, then drugs were administered. Suddenly, one of the few sports that gave the amateur and spectator a feeling of spiritual purity, was wheezing like a rust-belt junkie. The riders themselves had indeed become little more than pure-breed horses.
Strangely, the first step from corporate to oligarch came twenty years ago when a blonde casino-owner and American-style oligarch, a man by the name of Donald Trump, rounded out a half-decade of billion dollar losses with a bike race, one of his many now-notorious 1990 tax write-offs. It was brilliant in a way. He invested minimally, ($750,000), received endless promotion (close to 4.5 million), and wrote off all tangible losses so as to reduce the income tax he’d have to pay.
The Tour de Trump was one of the first American races to bring some of the biggest European cyclists to America. It wasn’t only the 7-11 team, but Panasonic, PDM, and Lotto. Sergey Chemezov was showcasing his top athletes. Russian amateurs made their debut in the Tour de Trump. Viatcheslav Ekimov was one of those amateurs. He shined on the first stage and after the race was bought by Panasonic for half-a-million dollars.
During the race, Trump was everywhere. In the stands, flying over in a helicopter, meeting riders. By some estimates his cavalcade and entourage stretched almost a hundred cars deep. After the races, Trump held lavish parties on his yachts or in his hotels. In the morning he showed up to the start half dazed, with a new woman, and rumors began to circulate that he was having an affair with Marla Maples. But there was also something different about his presence. No longer was the race about the sunburnt spectators waiting hours by the road to cheer on their favorite rider. It was also about the spectators glimpsing the man in charge, the puppeteer pulling all the strings, a man who watched regally over his race like a king at a jousting match.
Up until then, American cycling clubs had been trying for years to get European cycling professionals to come over and race in the United States. The biggest American race until the Tour de Trump was the Red Zinger and the Coors Classic which saw the likes of Bernard Hinault, Raul Alcala, but mostly B-list European riders. Then, this man, this future Republican presidential nominee, this man called Trump appeared with his money and his name, signed television rights, and turned an obscure sport, at least in American’s eyes, into one of his many massive branding operations.
This was his first attempt at throwing a cycling race, yet Trump had Tour de France winners like LeMond and Tour of Italy winner Andy Hampsten, storming through the East Coast, chasing a bright pink jersey the tycoon’s name emblazoned across the front (a jersey that bled a sickly-flesh-rose color when washed or became wet with sweat).
The Tour de Trump was pure ego and brash. It was the 1990’s and oligarch’s were still coming to power, but there is little doubt that Tinkoff, Chemezerov, and Makarov, all budding oligarchs and cycling enthusiasts, admired Trump’s performance and realized that the impossible, with enough money, was possible.
Igor Makarov, owner of Katusha, has three yachts, one which is the listed in the top fifty best personal yachts ever constructed. Makarov also has two planes larger than most presidential jets. Makarov’s also on the UCI committee, overseeing all the Grand Tours. He’s been close to Katusha’s main subsidizer, Chemezerov, for decades. Just three years ago, according to Forbes magazine, Chemezerov bought Makarov’s company, ITERA, for billions. You could say, Chemezerov, Makarov, Ekimov have been together since the Iron Curtain fell.
A decade ago, Donald Trump met Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong at a fundraiser. Trump’s fundraisers were shiny, posh affairs, and this one was in Manhattan. Armstrong shook hands with the Don, they chatted about exercise regimes, then the future 7-time Tour de France winner jumped in a helicopter, then a Concorde, then to the Alps for training. When he stepped off the plane, the man who met Armstrong in France was Viatcheslav Ekimov. Ekimov had been one of those ex-Soviet, highly talented Russian amateurs who debuted at the Tour de Trump. In fact, Ekimov had won the very first stage of the first Tour de Trump. During Armstrong’s post-retirement, Ekimov was assisting Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong’s coach. By some reports, they were inseparable. Today Ekimov is general manager of Katusha.
When the power plays orchestrated by Lance Armstrong and his coach, Johann Bruyneel were introduced at the turn of the millennium, professional cycling had became its own special multi-headed monster. Bulging with steroid-schizophrenic competitions, the governing body, the UCI, cracked down haphazardly, was accused by the Sunday Times and other outlets of accepting bribes.
Through it all, Bruyneel and Armstrong were inseparable. Bruyneel and Ekimov were inseparable. The triad ruled cycling with an iron fist. When Bruyneel was in charge of Astana, the team that helped Armstrong return from retirement in 2009, he even tried to have Vinokourov permanently excised, like a tumor. The transcripts of Vinokourov’s lawsuit against Bruyneel’s Luxembourg holding company records the ruthlessness of this fight.
Putin has always been a backer of Katusha, topping the management with Viatcheslav Ekimov. Stefano Feltrin, who was the general manager until Ekimov arrived, even admitted that Putin signed off on the project. “He stays informed on what’s happening with the team.”
The Cycling Independent Reform Committee has since said that Lance Armstrong had the UCI on his side. Ekimov once worked for Armstrong and Bruyneel, but now works for Makarov. Makarov and Chemezerov are business partners. There is little doubt that Chemezerov signed off, thirty years ago, on sending the amateur Ekimov to the United States, debuting in his first professional race, the Tour de Trump, and taking a percentage when the young Soviet signed later that year with Panasonic for a cool half-million.
When Putin first annexed the Crimea, Oleg Tinkov, one of Russia’s oligarch’s and cycling biggest spenders Tweeted his desire to colonize, “I want to buy myself a villa in Alushta (Crimea) with Cyprus trees and a swimming pool. Send offers… Obviously in rubles.”
No team owner is more like Donald Trump than Oleg Tinkoff. He is known for Instagramming shirtless after offering to buy Sagan if he gets a thousand retweets and signing Contador for a few thousand more. He has his soigneur pour buckets of water, roadside, after he takes a long ride, all to remind him of his grittier days growing up in Siberia. He called Obama a monkey. He side-stepped his own banking conglomerate lawyers to strong-arm a man who had brilliantly rewritten the terms of agreement on his banking contract to give himself an unlimited credit card. He made his money off beer and restaurants, but now is trying to get a credit card system, much like Capital One, off the ground. Tinkoff’s the kind of man you despise, but after a week watching the Tour de France, his name is nonetheless burned into your skull.
He loves giving the middle-finger in public. His ads are peep-shows of half-naked women kissing. In any given BBC interview, he’ll display all the swagger and arrogance of a punk rocker. His hair changes with the Grand Tour. Every time Sagan’s in his green jersey, it’s rumored that he paints his Bugatti the same color. If anyone epitomizes the standard set by Trump, offending, shocking, maddening, boasting, bragging, never backing away from it is Oleg Tinkoff. He loves his midnight Twitter spats from John Vaughters to anonymous cycling trolls.
Typical for Oleg Tinkoff, he had had a good-bye party to mark his end in professional cycling. Contador, Tinkoff’s prize rider, was noticeably absent. They had been fighting as of late, and afterward, to the press, like a juvenile, Tinkoff bad-mouthed Contador. The Russian said no one liked the Spaniard, that Trek was making a huge mistake by signing him, and that he hadn’t wanted the Tour de France winner to come to his farewell party anyway. He concluded his rant by saying that the rider never drank and was morally too strict. It seemed petty and insecure for Tinkoff to talk so disparagingly, especially from a man who bought Sagan a Porsche on top of a 5 million-dollar contract.
But just like the American presidential race will never quite be the same after Donald Trump, neither will cycling once Tinkoff is gone. He revived a circus-like feel to cycling, something more reminiscent of the old days when Belgians fought with riders of the French fans threw nails on the road. When Sagan won and rode around, doing wheelies after a win, it was never surprising to see Oleg Tinkoff in the background, cheering.
73 year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, the long-time president and ruler of Kazakhstan, is ranked as being in the top ten richest world leaders. He’s considered a billionaire and his shell-companies show up in the Panama Papers repeatedly, suggesting he has even more.
Nazarbayev tries to keep a low profile, but his ex son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, wrote a book telling how the family acts as any other oligarch family would, lavishly, decadently, attending cycling races with the same flare as Trump and Tinkoff. Nazarbayev has three daughters who are all billionaires in their own right.
Nazarbayev spends millions each year on the country’s image. When the film Borat was released, he hired a top international PR company to counteract the negative impact of the fictional character.
Wrestling and cycling are his joys. His team, Astana, has a total of 8 Grand Tour wins, mostly due to Contador and Nibali. But unlike Tinkoff, Makarov, and Chemezerov, Nazarbayev has not only one, but two yellow jerseys on his office wall, two Tour wins, making him the most successful oligarch-owner in cycling.
But he has also used professional cycling for what the sport is so good at. The shining new city of Astana, buried deep in the middle of Kazakhstan, is now a household name in Europe and abroad.