Riis Blazing Trails with Value-Based Racing
By Andrew Hood
Bjarne Riis is not one of the easiest interviews for a cycling hack.
Often times the 1996 Tour de France winner will reply with a “baagh,” a shrug of his shoulders and a concise, six-syllable answer. That’s followed by an awkward silence while the interviewer scrambles to think of another question to ask the interviewee.
But when you catch Riis in a good mood, which has happened a lot lately with Team CSC’s early season success, he gives thoughtful answers to thoughtful questions.
Riis, after all, actually has some interesting things to say.
The 41-year-old Dane is a man on a mission, committed to changing cycling’s “old-school” mentality and replace it with a unique vision based on a combination of values and results.
For Riis, winning a bike race without the ethics to back it up is an empty victory.
“We have a foundation that we built on our values,” Riis says. “We know what it means and we live with it. It’s easy to have values, but it’s another thing to actually live with them.”
Riis’s principles are drilled into the rider’s heads from the first day they join the team. Just moments after winning Paris-Nice, Bobby Julich rattled off Riis’s golden rules to a Danish television reporter who queried about the unique nature of Team CSC.
“We all believe in Bjarne and what he’s doing with this team,” Julich said. “This team has values: teamwork, communication, commitment, loyalty and respect. This team sticks together and fights.”
Julich wonderfully summed up Riis’s mantra. The Great Dane wants more than to win bicycle races. He wants to change the face modern cycling.
“This is my life. This is my project of life,” Riis says. “To change this old-school cycling world, it’s tough.”
Riis, now into his fifth year behind the wheel at Team CSC, infuses his riders with his philosophy over a slow, patient process. The most obvious step of this integration is Team CSC’s now-legendary survival boot camp organized in December when riders and staff endure 48 hours of pure Hell.
For Riis, watching his star riders jump off cliffs, swim in the ocean at night, climb walls and sleep alone in the woods is the best way to see “what’s inside.”
“I want their reactions when they’re tired, really tired, not sleeping for two days, walking for miles,” Riis explains. “Then you see how they react, who is getting negative, who is positive, who is taking control, who is taking responsibility for the team. Those parameters are exactly what we see in a big race, in the Tour de France.”
But the boot camp is just the beginning. Two more training camps – this time on the bicycle – held during two weeks in January and another two weeks in February sets the bar even higher. There, Riis puts the values on the line in a series of unexpected drills.
Riis recounts a typical exercise during the team’s January training camp: “I told them in the radio, ‘Okay guys, as quickly as possible, divide into three groups and start riding as quickly as possible.’ Then I look to see how fast they are breaking into the group and how fast they can start riding. So when we get into a race, then they are used to going fast in a decisive moment.”
That’s just how Team CSC won last year’s Paris-Nice and this year’s Tour of Qatar. In both races, Team CSC sensed an opportunity in strong crosswinds, quickly organized an attack and caught the field off-guard.
Riis says all the hard work and preparation pays dividends in the big races.
He looks no further than the past two Tours, first when Tyler Hamilton broke his shoulder in 2003 and then in 2004, when the team was racked with injuries, crashes and the disturbing news that the mother of star rider Ivan Basso was sick with cancer.
“We could have easily lost Tyler or Ivan, but we didn’t. When we have something, we stick together then fight,” Riis says. “We are trained in extreme situations, so we become a better team when we are faced with these situations. Take teams like Euskaltel, they lose the leader, and the rest of year there’s no team anymore. What would happen if U.S. Postal loses Armstrong?”
Riis admits his style is over the top for some – “No team is doing what we’re doing. This is our thing. Even if they tried to do it, probably wouldn’t be able to do it.” – and others shrug it off as militaristic eccentricity.
Riders are fiercely loyal to Riis. Julich called him a “second father” while Basso turned down million-dollar contracts after winning a stage and finishing third in last year’s Tour to stay with Riis.
“I think very highly of him. He listens to me, he watches me, he takes me to his house for four or five days a week,” Basso says. “For a rider like me, it’s important that you have someone in confidence. He feels like family. When I have a problem, I talk with Bjarne.”
That loyalty works both ways. Riis gives everything to his team, reportedly even dipping into his own savings to cover some of the team’s expenses. (“What I could if I had the budget of T-Mobile,” Riis laments).
For Riis, it’s all about building leaders and riders who aren’t afraid to take responsibility; qualities that Riis believes are fundamental to success.
“I want to give responsibility to all these guys. I want to give them something that they can take with them the rest of their lives, a lifestyle, a mentality,” Riis says. “I think it’s very important for someone to take responsibility for their own life.”
Riis was beaming like a proud father when he watched Julich, points-jersey winner Jens Voigt and then the entire team standing atop the Paris-Nice podium. Team CSC dominated the very first ProTour race and it meant the world to Riis.
But don’t confuse Riis’s touchy-feely values-based racing as a substitution for ambition. After knocking on the door in the past few Tours, Riis said he wants a major victory.
“Now it’s time for one of the big ones,” he says.
Nine syllables. Okay, next question, er, um …