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ADELAIDE, Australia (CT) — Bjarne Riis is back, wandering the halls of the Hilton Adelaide, slipping between cars at Tour Down Under start lines, smiling for cameras and shaking hands and running a WorldTour team. He’s different, he says. So is cycling. And he’s sorry. And we can trust him.
“If I fail again, throw me in jail,” he said, earnestly, to a gaggle of reporters in Australia.
Last year, Riis and his longtime business partners Lars Seier Christensen and Jan Bech Andersen announced that their Virtu Cycling project had taken a 30% stake in the WorldTour team NTT, and that Riis would be the team’s new manager. His job, quite simply, is to make what has been one of the worst-performing teams in cycling into something closer to CSC or Tinkoff, the successful (if sometimes dubious) programs to which he previously lent his particular brand of expertise. His challenge is to convince a skeptical public that he can do so without the illicit methods he has admitted using himself and which he willfully ignored when used by others.
The hand-wringing surrounding the return of a man known colloquially as Mr. 60% for his drug-fueled mid-90s hematocrit levels is as vigorous as expected. Riis seems to care deeply about this reaction, while also ignoring it. He claims he is a changed man.
“I’m still in cycling because I’ve got the passion,” he said. “I believe I can make a difference. Sitting at home on the sofa watching cycling on television was frustrating for me. I believe I’m a good observer, I believe I have some tactical skills. I know I can put a team together.
“I see the criticism. Does it hurt me? Of course. I’m human. I’m happy to invite my critics for a coffee or glass of wine, or give it time to understand what I do and who I am.”
“I’ve made mistakes and I’ve admitted it, I’ve said sorry,” he added. “And I’d say sorry again if needed.”
There is nothing in the UCI’s rulebook to prevent Riis from returning to cycling, with or without apologies. He is not banned for life. “He has a right to come back,” said David Lappartient, the UCI president, to a separate gaggle of reporters here in Adelaide. “He recognized some wrongdoing when he was a rider, in 2007. The limit that was put by the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency was the 1st of July, 2011.”
Riis used the roundtable session in Adelaide to make a case not only for a cleaner Bjarne, but for a cleaner cycling. He seems aware that the two arguments are one and the same; that the former can’t exist without the latter, and vice versa.
He wouldn’t have come back if cycling was still as dirty as the old days, he said. “I wouldn’t spend one second in it, on a rider or team if I had a bad feeling about it, that we were doing something wrong. Never ever. If something happens I know where it’s going to hit: me. So I told them not to dare to go there because I know who will be held responsible for it.”
These promises are prerequisites to any former doper’s attempted return to grace. They are expected, uncreative, and only mildly convincing. They are predicated on a change within Riis that we can not see or confirm. But there is only so much wringing of hands about cycling’s past that one can do before blisters begin to form. And then callouses. At which point it is more informative to ask Riis about what he plans to do with his new team, which last year ranked a woeful 22nd in the UCI’s team rankings, behind such powerhouses as Wanty-Gobert.
Talks of a relationship began at last year’s Tour de France, where Riis sat down with team GM Doug Ryder, who stays on in that role this year. Fabian Cancellara and his relationship with the team’s bike sponsor BMC served as something of a matchmaker. Riis and his pair of wealthy Danish business backers had been looking for a way into the WorldTour for years, and Ryder offered a path toward that goal that didn’t come with the commitment of full team ownership. It also took a team with a highly moral, charitable mission and meshed it with a man who would have made WADA’s mid-90’s Wanted posters, if WADA made such things.
“We share a lot of the same values, so we came together,” Riis said. “It took time to decide things and the legal aspects are complex, too. We had to decide if we wanted to buy a little, half, or everything. We figured out to do it like this and start to do the right thing. It includes me being involved in the sporting side and getting the team together and bringing a new vision and philosophy.”
“I think we don’t need to hide that the team was not performing super well,” he added. “We’re making a plan now. It’s a great challenge for me.”
Riis trotted out the usual platitudes about teamwork and communication, but platitudes are not necessarily untruths, and it would be foolish to write off his ability to foster a successful team environment. For all the opinions of his personal past, there is no question that the teams he’s managed have functioned smoothly, by cycling standards, and performed well as a unit. He even managed to keep Tinkoff largely cohesive despite a team owner of notorious eccentricity.
“I had my teams before, we didn’t have the biggest budgets, but we were successful because we worked as a team,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to focus on. If you’re not sitting together in the peloton, how can you communicate? All these small details, I am aware of [them]. That doesn’t mean you don’t go to a climb and do your efforts, but you wait for everyone at the top and you go together. When you stop for a pee, you stop together. That’s creating a mentality and philosophy, and this is where I am strong.”
Cycling fans are owed numerous apologies, and rarely get them, so it’s somewhat refreshing that Riis offers a few of his own. But those apologies are for his past, not his present. He won’t apologize for coming back, no matter how we feel about it.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m here, I’m willing to talk, but at a certain point, we need to get to work. That’s why I’m here.”