ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — A repentant Bjarne Riis says he’s a changed man and vows never to repeat the mistakes of his scandal-tainted past.
Yet as he eases back into the peloton following a nearly five-year absence, doubts about his past hang over him as he promises to play within the rules.
“I will never do these mistakes again, ever,” Riis said. “And if I fail, put me in jail.”
After buying a 30-percent share of NTT Pro Cycling, the 55-year-old Dane returns as sport manager with ambitious plans to revive the team with deep South African roots.
Yet he’s facing stiff headwinds from vocal critics and fans that suggest he doesn’t deserve a place in the modern peloton. Comment boards and social media are alight with criticism in the wake of the return of one of the most notorious figures of the EPO era.
Riis said he feels the sting, but insists he’s on the right path as he takes over the reins of the WorldTour team.
“I did [change], absolutely,” Riis said. “I know [a doping scandal] would ruin cycling, it would ruin me, my family. And this is not the world that I want to be a part of. I’ve seen the price you have to pay.”
The visceral reaction to Riis’s comeback reveals he remains one of the most divisive figures in the peloton. Those close to him say he’s promised to work ethically and that he brings a stubborn approach to tactics and teamwork.
Yet for his critics, that’s not enough. For many who endured decades of doping scandals, oftentimes with Riis at the center of them both as a racer and a sport director, seeing the imposing Dane back in the paddock is too much.
“I see the criticism. Does it hurt me? Of course. I’m human,” Riis said. “If you think I’m going to just throw bad shit on the table, then I think you’ve misunderstood me. … If you really know me, you know I’ve been through a lot, for many years.”
Riis sat down with a handful of journalists, including VeloNews, for an hour-long interview that delved into his notorious past and his promises of a clean future.
Riis has been a dominant figure across professionally cycling for decades, first as a racer in the 1980s and 1990s, and later as manager and owner of CSC and Saxo Bank. He sold out to Russian magnate and abruptly left the team in 2015. Since then, Riis and his partners have been looking for sponsors to create a new Danish WorldTour team. When those efforts ran out of steam, they searched out opportunities among current teams.
They found a willing partner in NTT, formerly Dimension Data. Douglas Ryder, founder of the South African team, bought into Riis’s proposal, and the deal was confirmed in early January just in time for the 2020 racing season.
Riis certainly comes loaded with baggage. The Dane admitted he won the 1996 Tour de France while taking EPO and other performance-enhancing products. His legacy as a sport director and manager is equally controversial. Some might laud Riis’s acumen to build a team and liven up tactics, yet former riders have been linked to doping scandals, ranging from allegations leveled by Tyler Hamilton to Ivan Basso’s role in the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal.
Riis testily says he changed his ways long ago, and bristled at suggestions that he’s incapable of guiding a team without resorting to cheating.
“I’ve made mistakes and I’ve admitted it, I’ve said sorry. And I’d say sorry again if needed,” he said. “I also think that I have to move on. I’m not hiding. Can I run away from the past? I can’t. Have I learned from the past? Absolutely.”
A contrite Riis said he’s turned the page on what he called a “dark side” of his life and says that he understands more than anyone the devastating fallout of doping.
“If something happens I know where it’s going to hit — me. I know who will be held responsible for it,” he said. “I would not live in that world anymore. That world hurt me so much in my life and caused me so many problems.”
This week, UCI president David Lappartient said there is nothing in the rulebook to keep Riis out of the sport. The Frenchman said he believes Riis will follow the rules and adhere to the anti-doping stance embraced by NTT founder Douglas Ryder.
Riis takes over the helm of the sporting side of the team after the squad languished near the bottom of the team rankings. Riis has ambitious plans to revive the team and build it into a WorldTour challenger over the next few years.
Despite the critics and doubts, Riis is determined to roll up his sleeves and get to work. After being on the sidelines for five years, Riis is ready to impose himself again on cycling.
So why is he back? Riis said he simply loves bike racing and couldn’t stand sitting on the couch while watching races unfold without him.
“I’m still in cycling because I’ve got the passion,” he said. “Sitting at home on the sofa watching cycling on television was frustrating for me. I believe I have some tactical skills. I know I can pull a team together. I feel I’m not done yet. I feel the energy I have and I feel I can give a lot. I don’t believe I have things to prove.”