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Bjarne Riis returns to pro cycling as NTT-Virtu merger confirmed

The 1996 Tour winner returns to pro cycling, baggage and all, saying he's long turned the page on his past connections to doping.

Bjarne Riis, who won the 1996 Tour de France and later admitted to doping, is back.

After being out of the WorldTour as a manager since 2015, the 55-year-old Dane and two other partners are new part-owners of the holding company behind NTT Pro Cycling. In a press conference Wednesday, Riis confirmed will assume the role as sport manager and will run the performance side of the team, effective immediately.

“Together, I believe we can take the team to the next level and make it a team that everybody – riders and staff – want to be a part of,” Riis said Wednesday. “This is a long-term project and the goal is to win big races. I’m excited for the future.”

Riis’s return is headline news in Denmark, where he remains as one the nation’s top sporting figures despite his sometimes controversial past. The press conference was broadcast live on national TV, and newspapers ran update blogs with quotes and reactions to Riis’s return.

“People are calling it a comeback,” Riis told reporters. “But I don’t feel that way. I never went away.”

As a rider, he became the first Dane to win the Tour in 1996, a victory that came at the height of the EPO era. He later admitted after his racing career ended that he used the banned blood booster and other doping products. He remains the official winner of the 1996 Tour, though an asterisk has been placed next to his name.

Riis returns with Team NTT after the program merged with his backer, Virtu cycling. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

After retiring in 2000, Riis transitioned into sport director, team manager and owner, running the CSC team in the early 2000s. Several riders from those teams were also linked to doping scandals, including Tyler Hamilton and Ivan Basso. Riis later sold his license to Oleg Tinkov, and left the team acrimoniously in 2015. Since then, he formed Virtu Cycling with Danish partners, and they’ve run women’s and development teams as they searched sponsorship partners for a new WorldTour team.

Despite his continued popularity at home, Riis is often dogged by his divisive past, and the issue was not ignored Wednesday during a press conference. Danish newspaper BT first reported news of the merger Tuesday, and reporters were keen to press Riis. Riis vows that he’s changed his ways, and that he long ago turned the page on his illicit past.

“I think it’s something I’ve sufficiently talked about,” Riis said of his doping transgressions. “I know I have made mistakes. I have admitted and apologized for that. I also believe that those who know me also know what I stand for and what my attitude is. It is something that I always have to live and I also know that I am not going to please everyone. I am well aware of that.”

During the press conference, a question to Riis about his doping past was cut off by partner Lars Seier Christensen, a Danish businessman and investor who’s worked with Riis for more than a decade.

“I have worked with Bjarne Riis since 2008. Since then I have spent [millions of dollars] on cycling. Back then, Bjarne and I had some deep conversations about the past,” Seier Christensen told journalists. “Now, 12 years later, we can see that there has not been a single case on our watch. I really think it’s a little unfair.”

NTT principal Douglas Ryder, who also attended the press conference, said he expressed his confidence in Riis, adding he had no misgivings about a merger.

“Bjarne has learned from his mistakes,” Ryder told journalists. “He is another human being because of that, and I think he can give the team a lot. We all learn from our mistakes and it is a very positive step for our cycling team and for Bjarne that he has come on board.”

Neither side wanted to reveal details of how the merger negotiations unfolded. Ryder said he first got to know Riis in 2015, and the pair stayed in touch over the years. Riis and his partners have been poking around for years to try to find a new Danish sponsor to start a new WorldTour project, with the idea to have a team in time for the start of the 2021 Tour in Copenhagen. At some point, the two parties came together. BT reported there were some final-hour glitches, but the deal was pushed across the line. Riis and his partners, via Virtu Cycling, take over one-third of the business.

Officials from Virtu Cycling confirmed the group was also looking at a possible merger with other WorldTour teams, but settled on Ryder’s NTT team, which raced under Dimension Data last year and emerged as Africa’s first WorldTour team, with its roots dating back to 2008.

“I have always admired Bjarne,” Ryder said. “I am glad that he chose us over other partners they were considering.”

The team’s license will remain registered in South Africa, and Riis and Ryder agreed the team will have retain its African roots with a growing Danish presence.

Riis isn’t wasting any time, and he will travel Thursday to Spain to join NTT staffers and riders. For now, the sponsor title remains NTT, with the hopes of bringing on Danish partners. Also joining as sport director Lars Michaelsen, a former race who’s worked with Astana the past several seasons.