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Opinion: Karma come, karma go

Do you believe in karma? If you do, is this what’s happening to Riis Cycling and Saxo Bank right now?

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Over the years, partly by accident, partly by design, Riis has cultivated an air of mystery. He could be a deeply complex man, imbued with near mystical, quasi-shamanic motivational abilities; or a charlatan, cycling’s idiot savant who has made a virtue out of saying little, perhaps simply because he has little to say – and plenty to hide.
– Excerpt from Bad Blood: The Secret Life of the Tour de France

Do you believe in karma? If you do, is this what’s happening to Riis Cycling and Saxo Bank right now?

As an impressionable young athlete, I would imagine it would be very easy to be beguiled by Bjarne Riis. He speaks not with the mellifluous, clipped tone of Phil Liggett but in a deep drone that, depending on who you ask, can tranquilize or hypnotize. And what comes out of his mouth ranges from shamanic to satanic, again depending on who you speak to.

When Jeremy Whittle, the author of Bad Blood, was traveling in a car with Riis at a pre-season training camp at the start of the 2006 season, he caught a glimpse of that “mystical, quasi-shamanic” talk: “Gentlemen, spin the legs. Transform the power of yesterday into the power of today. Always make sure you keep a good rhythm.”

If any of my editors told me to transform the power of yesterday into the power of today, I’d probably assume they were smoking something funny.

I thought of Riis not because of the situation he finds himself in as a consequence of Alberto Contador’s back-dated two-year suspension, but from an article Gerard Cromwell penned about Richie Porte, who, Sunday in Portugal, won the Volta ao Algarve in emphatic fashion.

One of Porte’s trainers and former professional, Bobby Julich, said: “It really hurt me to watch him (Porte) last year (…) it really pained me to see where he was mentally.”

According to Julich, riding in support of Contador last year was detrimental to Porte’s development. “I don’t think Richie really was the top priority,” he said. “It’s obvious if you have a guy like Alberto on your team, you will be second fiddle. It was unfortunate but I think he learned a lot. I know he learned a lot from Bjarne (Riis) but something went wrong and he slipped through the cracks last year.”

I, for one, thought it strange to send a second-year pro, even one as precocious as Porte, into riding back-to-back Grand Tours (and the two hardest) at the undying service of a leader. It’s hardly a surprise the Tasmanian experienced a lackluster season in 2011 and came out feeling like a horse half-flogged to death.

“We’re here to pick him up. We’ve got a couple of years together with him and we’re gonna get him in good nick and go from there,” said Julich.

No doubt, 27-year-old Porte has bounced back already.

I don’t think I’ve witnessed as mesmerizing a display of teamwork as the one shown by Team Sky on Stage 3 of Algarve since the Lance Armstrong-US Postal/Discovery days, when, at the Tour de France, the ‘Blue train’ rode imperiously and relentlessly at the head of the race till only the strongest remained, before he had dealt his killer blow to further demoralize the opposition.

It appears the best thing that happened to Team Sky was their ordinary inaugural season. As team leader Bradley Wiggins told Procycling magazine in October 2010, “We had our heads up our arses over the Tour de France… We were trying to be too smart about it, too pompous in many ways.”

Wiggins also had this to say about the 2010 Tour to sportsvibe.co.uk: “I fell on my arse. It was horrendous in every department and it got worse as each day passed by having to face the media and explain what had gone wrong on a daily basis. I couldn’t wait for the Tour end to be honest, but for the wrong reasons. In hindsight I was insecure about my job – after all, I’d joined a new team for a lot of money and a great degree of expectation. I also came into the Tour with major doubts that I kept to myself because I knew, deep down, I was not in the right shape.”

Just look at Wiggo and the team now.

Okay, $47.5 million worth of sponsorship from BSkyB (guaranteed each year till at least 2013) no doubt helps. But Team Sky has learned the hard way: simplifying things that need not be complicated or over-thought, throwing out any deadwood, improving in every aspect, and augmenting its arsenal with the addition of world champion Mark Cavendish.

So far they appear to work seamlessly, if the racing at Algarve is anything to go by. It appeared to be a pre-Tour dress rehearsal, only the performance was as good as the night of the show.

Cavendish, who was racing in Oman, said he’s already at Tour de France-weight. Wiggins does not look far off, remarking he is “way ahead” of where he was last year. Barring the misfortune he suffered last July, it leaves me thinking it will be him, not Andy Schleck, that will prove to be defending champion Cadel Evans’ greatest nemesis.

I’m already salivating at the prospect: one super team against another. Two super riders pitted against each other. Last man standing wins. Pugilism on wheels, if you like.

Meanwhile, the future of Saxo Bank and its remaining 28 contracted riders in the WorldTour is left in risky limbo.

On Friday February 10, the UCI issued a press release to say at the Professional Cycling Council (PCC) meeting held in Geneva, “the UCI will today ask its Licence Commission to issue a ruling on whether the Saxo Bank team should retain its place in the UCI WorldTour.

“If the points obtained by Alberto Contador, representing approximately 68% of the Saxo Bank-Sungard team’s total points, are disregarded, his team would no longer be considered to fulfill the sporting criterion required for the UCI WorldTour.”

In the UCI Regulations, Section 2.15.040 (2), ‘Withdrawal of the licence’, it states:

The licence commission may withdraw the licence in the following cases:

2. If the information taken into account in granting the licence or the registration of the UCI ProTeam has changed such that the issue conditions are no longer fulfilled, or the commission considers that the new situation does not justify the issue of a licence or registration.

At face value, the removal of Contador from the team means Saxo Bank no longer meets its sporting criteria qualification under which it was granted a 2011 ProTeam license – which, by logic, means they no longer have a place in the WorldTour.

I have kindly asked the UCI for an update. At the time of filing this story, I am yet to receive a response.


Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned… More than a dozen Grand Tours and countless Classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Follow him on Twitter: @anthony_tan