Bjarne Riis is never one not to speak his mind.
The NTT Pro Cycling manager called out rival Dave Brailsford for being “selfish” following comments that the British manager would sideline Team Ineos during the Tour de France if he felt there were insufficient measures taken to protect riders.
Speaking to journalists on Thursday, the Danish manager said cycling needs to stand united to survive the coronavirus epidemic and work for the common interests of the sport if health authorities give the green light to race a rescheduled Tour, set to begin in late August.
“I think the UCI, the teams, [and] the riders should stick together, and do what is best for cycling and not just individuals,” Riis said. “I was not very happy about his comments because I think [they were] selfish. It is not about what is best for them and what they think; it is about what is best for our sport.”
The comments reveal what could be a growing fracture within the WorldTour as the sport tries to resume racing after an unprecedented stop of racing since mid-March.
Earlier this month, Brailsford told The Guardian he would consider withdrawing the powerful team from the Tour and other races if he felt conditions were not sufficiently safe to consider resuming racing.
Riis countered that cycling should take its cues from appropriate health authorities and government officials, and act as a unified body among the top teams.
“It’s not up to him to decide,” Riis continued. “Now is the moment cycling should stick together by doing the right thing and not thinking of yourself in terms of what is best for your team, but what is best for the sport.”
The question of safety will only grow as the UCI tries to revive the racing calendar, with competition returning as early as August. A final calendar has yet to be determined, but key stakeholders have mapped out a revised calendar that could see the Tour de France and the other grand tours packed into three months of racing.
In March, as the growing coronavirus crisis tightened its grip across Europe, Team Ineos was among several teams that opted to sideline its racing program as conditions worsened. Ineos did not start Paris-Nice, the final WorldTour event that was held before much of Europe went into lockdown conditions.
Riis said he would defer to the UCI, and Tour organizers ASO, if the Tour is green-lighted by French health authorities.
“I cannot imagine [Tour director] Christian Prudhomme would want to start the Tour not feeling it is safe,” Riis said. “I trust these people to take the right decision. We should follow that. I disagree with Dave Brailsford when he said we should decide if it’s safe or not.”
NTT Pro Cycling was among teams who sent riders to Paris-Nice, which ended one stage early. Riis said Paris-Nice provided a glimpse of what a modified version of the Tour might look like if it starts under conditions of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think Paris-Nice was an excellent test for doing that,” Riis said. “We learned a lot from Paris-Nice, that it was possible to do a race like that. We hope there will be spectators [at the Tour], but if they won’t allow that, they have to do it in a different way and we saw that it was possible.”
Riis reiterated how important it is for cycling to have the Tour de France and other races resume before the season is out. As countries such as France, Italy and Spain start the process of easing restrictions, many are hopeful the peloton will be racing before the year is out.
“I think the most important thing is that we’re able to race,” he said. “Our team is ready to race whenever we need to race.”