Let’s do something a little different this week. Let’s start with the question: What the hell is wrong with Bjarne Riis?
It is entirely possible that, having read the question first, you already have some thoughts percolating in your head. The bald-pated Dane inspires reactions. It’s what he does. For those who don’t have any preconceived notions, allow me to elaborate a little.
No one in pro cycling has had the up and down year that Bjarne Riis has. On the up side, his riders won the Dwars door Vlaanderen (Breschel), the E3 Prijs, Paris-Roubaix, and Ronde von Vlaanderen (Cancellara), Stage 8 of the Giro (Anker Sorensen), finished second in the Tour de France (A. Schleck), won the Tour du Suisse (F. Schleck), four Tour stages (Cancellara 2x, A. Shleck 2x), as well as high placings in big races from the beginning to the end of the season. Saxo Bank finished the season as the top-ranked UCI ProTour team, and they deserved it.
My erstwhile editor, Padraig, had this to say: “Normally riders flood into a team ranked at the top of the UCI standings, not flee it. For all the talk of team unity that Riis’ wintertime team-building expeditions have legendarily engendered, that currency seems to have run out. I can think of only one other occasion in history where a rider at the top of his game—Fabian Cancellara—has walked away from the director who led him to the podium and that was Miguel Indurain’s departure from Banesto following team directors’ (José Miguel Echavarri and Eusebio Unzue) insistence that he ride the 1995 Tour of Spain when he said he wanted to rest. In an eerie echo, following Cancellara’s win at Roubaix, Riis suggested that Cancellara keep going with an eye to Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold. Cancellara flat-out refused.”
In fact, it’s not just Cancellara walking away. They’ve all sodded off to Luxembourg to join “The Team with No Sponsor,” the Schlecks, Jens Voigt, and more.
Padraig said, “Perhaps a bigger question isn’t why the riders are leaving. It’s why this Luxembourg sponsor wasn’t united with Riis. Someone there wants a team, and Riis needed a sponsor when that began brewing. No less than seven of Riis’ best riders are leaving the team for the Luxembourg project … when does a rider decide that the sponsor is more important than the director? By now doesn’t everyone understand that money can’t buy victory?”
“The biggest question of all,” says Padraig, “is what riders see when they look at Bjarne Riis. As cycling fans, we see what seems to be a very gifted team director. For a rider like Andy Schleck to believe he could better achieve his goals elsewhere, surely he can’t see the Bjarne Riis we see. Just what does he see?”
These are good questions, but they might not still be worth asking given that Saxo Bank reupped with Riis after he was able to replace his Tour contender, Schleck the younger, with the current Tour champion, Alberto Contador. But then, just when you thought the cat had landed on its feet, Contador got busted for doping, dragging the whole stinking project back down into the crapper.
I’m not exactly sure who is left at the Riis Racing Offices at his point. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Bjarne himself was considering a move, such has been the turnover. If it’s just Riis and Contador, should they maybe change their name to Team Pariah?
For a guy who has been so good at putting his riders on podiums for the last decade, Riis is suddenly the boss no one wants to ride for. What is going on? He has always had a reputation for being overly serious, and his management style has been characterized as “corporate,” with all the positive and negative connotations that word inspires, but the guy wins. He is tactically brilliant, and his legendary obsession with the latest technology has meant that riders like Cancellara have benefited enormously from riding the best bicycles available for any conditions Mother Nature can contrive.