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Riis makes discreet return to peloton with eye on WorldTour

Bjarne Riis returns to team management with Continental squad Virtu Pro – VeloConcept and Women's WorldTour team BMS Bir.

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Bjarne Riis returned to the peloton, but in an understated manner. On Thursday, the sometimes-controversial ex-pro Dane announced more moves in what’s been a long-anticipated comeback to cycling.

Rather than making a big splash with a high-profile, big-budget team, Riis is plotting his comeback via the side door. On Thursday, he and a longtime business partner announced they are taking over a third-tier men’s team and a Women’s WorldTour team for 2017. The idea? Return to the WorldTour, possibly as soon as 2018. First comes a feeder team and a women’s squad.

“It’s a first step,” Riis said in a press conference. “This is about being realistic. This fits in with the ambitions we have.”

Since being fired by Oleg Tinkov in 2015 from the team he sold to the Russian magnate in late 2013, the Dane has been plotting a comeback. Backed by longtime supporter Lars Seier Christensen (formerly of Saxo Bank), Riis is vowing to build a new business model for a cycling team that isn’t solely dependent on title sponsorship money.

On Thursday, he outlined the first steps of the project that include the UCI Continental team Virtu Pro – VeloConcept and the women’s World Tour team BMS Bir. Riis said the moves are part of a larger project to return to the highest level of the sport, perhaps as soon as 2018 with a WorldTour men’s team.

“We will continue to develop Danish cyclists on the male or female side,” Riis said. “This will give us a platform for moving forward.”

The 52-year-old Riis admitted he used the banned blood-booster EPO throughout much of his career, including victory in the Tour de France in 1996. After retiring in 2000, Riis took over a Danish team and eventually won the Tour with Carlos Sastre in 2008, and backed such riders as Fabian Cancellara, the Schleck brothers, Alberto Contador, and Ivan Basso.

Whether Riis and his backers build on the Virtu Pro team or create a new structure for a WorldTour entrée remains to be seen.

“There is pressure to get things moving,” Riis said of a possible 2018 WorldTour-level team. “We have interest from sponsors. We are working on a lot of possibilities.”

Riis’s comeback would create an even more competitive playing field at the WorldTour level of the sport. For 2017, the UCI eased off its suggestion of reducing the WorldTour field to from 18 to 17 teams in light of pressure from teams to keep the existing number. Two new teams are vying to be part of the top division in 2017: the Bahrain team and the revamped Lampre team under new Chinese ownership.