Blazin' Saddles

Lampre lifeline for Horner as twit Tinkov dreams big

An intriguing week in the world of cycling is topped by news that fashion crime Lampre-Merida are favourites to fill their Michele Scarponi-shaped void by signing a man eight years the Italian veteran's senior.

They say the colour pink takes years off your life - and Chris Horner will certainly hope so when the American Vuelta winner, 42, finally ends his World Tour exile by signing for Lampre-Merida.

According to "an anonymous source close to the situation" (whose hidden name in such scenarios usually ends up being the same as the byline underneath the story header) the Horner-to-Lampre deal is "essentially 100 per cent done".

Not so, says Lampre directeur sportif Brent Copeland, who claims that - while Horner's new agent, Baden Cooke, has been on the phone to discuss a potential move - "we're not the only ones who were contacted".

A cursory glance down Cooke's phone records will show that Horner has also been recommended to Domino's Pizza, the Samaritans and Team Europcar (whose manager Jean Rene Bernaudeau refused to "sell our soul").

Currently on holiday in Australia along with around 300 other figures in the cycling community, Bruno Vicino, also directeur sportif at Lampre, confirmed that nothing had been confirmed, but "some negotiating" had taken place. "There is some interest from the team to sign an American," he added. "I'll give you a clue: it's not the guy with a handicap of nine - but he's the same age."

Earlier in the week, it seemed like Cooke and Horner had really been scraping the barrel, what with an approach to the Danish Continental squad of Michael Rasmussen fame, Christina Watches, as well as provincial Spanish Pro Conti outfit Caja Rural-Seguros.

One team who could step into the fold is BMC, who this week learnt that their Italian classics and injury table specialist Alessandro Ballan had been dished out a two-year ban following the Mantova anti-doping inquiry.

In the simmering doping melting pot only known to pro cycling, the blood transfusion that Ballan allegedly underwent in the spring of 2009 coincided with the time the former world champion rode for... Lampre.

With Tejay van Garderen and Cadel Evans misfiring in Grand Tours last year, Horner could be a short-term fix for Andy Rihs' spotless Swiss-based, US-funded outfit. Sources close to the team have even made the suggestion that Horner's presence will reinvigorate Evans, who will no longer feel like the old man of BMC. And with Horner and Evans likely to undergo different programmes for the 2014 season, a second chairlift will not have to be added to the BMC bus.

One team Horner will certainly not be joining is Tinkoff-Saxo - at least, not if new owner Oleg Tinkov has any say in the matter (which, er, he does; he has the only say in all matters).

In an illuminating interview with Cyclingnews the Russian billionaire Twitter personality spoke of his "passion" for cycling and his expectations for the new season now he's been upgraded from sponsor to team owner.

Despite claiming Bjarne Riis was "one of the best, if not the best sports director in the world," Tinkov conceded that 2014 would be a transitional year. In something of a backhanded compliment, he added: "The team was built by Bjarne but we've got some very good riders."

In scenes that will alarm Amnesty International, Tinkov said that he was a "hostage" to the current line-up, which couldn't change overnight. "I don't think people should judge on 2014 but on what we do in 2015," he said. "The team is going to be very different in 2015. With better riders. Everything should be top, top, top."

One rider who thinks the team is fine just as it is now, thanks very much, is none other than Tinkov-Saxo leading star, Alberto Contador, who perhaps tellingly left the team's Gran Canaria training camp the day before Tinkov arrived to meet his riders and staff.

Speaking to Eurosport from the Canaries, the two-time Tour winner said: "I believe that our team is at the same level as Sky - in fact, I'd dare to say that we were better during the 2013 Tour de France. I couldn't have had a better team behind me."

Sadly, Tinkov does not agree.

When asked who he would sign were he to come across a genie in a bottle, Tinkov displayed the kind of mathematical skills that have seen him rise to figurehead status at one of Russia's top banking corporations.

"If I had three wishes to make the dream team I would sign Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome."

Tinkov agreed that having the top two riders in the Tour de France - "Contador is the only rider who can challenge Froome" - could be problematic. "It would be up to them to fight it out," he said - echoing a course of action that Sky may well follow when Bradley Wiggins is reunited with his former super-domestique this July.

Regarding his much publicised spat with Contador in the wake of the Spaniard's fourth-place finish in last summer's Tour, Tinkov said the pair had buried the hatchet. "We're friends but not close friends," he elaborated.

Tinkov played down Contador's early departure from Gran Canaria, claiming his leader had a specific training programme to follow and that the pair had "swapped several SMS messages" instead.

Blazin' Saddles reckons the messages went a little bit like this:

- Hi Oleg. When are you arriving at the camp?

- Good morning, Alberto. I'll be there on Wednesday. Tell me, what are the s**** on the beach like? Good enough bums for Sagan to pinch?

[Alberto quickly changes Thursday flight for Tuesday and reschedules meeting with Fernando Alonso]

- That's a shame. I am leaving the day before you arrive. I have a criterium in Pinto. Lots of Chinese holidaymakers on the beach...

- Ah, the Chinese... so rich but lacking in style. They bore me. They stay in the hotels but it's the Russians who own the resorts.

- Whatever you say, Oleg. Adios.

An interview with Oleg Tinkov wouldn't be an interview with Oleg Tinkov if he weren't to throw away a few journalistic titbits dressed up as scoops. And the manically-haired tycoon - looking more like the crazed Doc Brown from the Back To The Future franchise as the days go by - didn't let the public down.

Not only did he go on the record that Tinkoff-Saxo were applying for a licence to race under the Russian flag, he also stressed the team's good ethics by claiming they turned down recruiting certain riders during the off-season.

"We have zero-tolerance against doping now. We tried to sign some riders who were on the market but when we looked at their biological passport our doctors told us not to sign them."

(Well, at least they're better at than Sky at something.)

With such a statement in mind, it's clear that in Oleg's world, it's not only social media that can be employed for "provocation, fun and entertainment". His handling of the real media is right up there too.

Follow Blazin' Saddles on Twitter @saddleblaze