Friday Group Ride #43

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?”

Apparently not.

“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.

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  1. 68GT

    Like you, on the one hand I am mystified, and on the other I’m not. I’ve had personal experience working with a racing team (motor not bike) where from the outside we were perceived as the best, but on the inside we were in many ways utterly dysfunctional. So, I can fully appreciate the circumstances on the inside are very obviously not what we see on the outside.

    What seems to speak volumes is that the Luxembourg Project is in fact the CSC/Saxo team in nearly every way, except Riis. That speaks volumes.

  2. James

    I always had the impression that Bjarne always thought of himself as the indispensable one instead of the riders. That, plus the bit with Cancellara, probably gets a little old for the riders despite all of the winning. And remember how he treated Sastre a couple of years ago…

  3. johnny appleseed

    andy schleck is just pissed Riis kicked him out for drinkin cold beer during a tour. It aint the TDF, or the Giro, its the Vuelta for crying out loud. Who won that this year? You can only be a peckerhead director (or boss, in the “corporate” world for so long before the sour attitude overshadows the wins (or profit). Nobody wants to work for a jerk. But, taking a step back…I don’t know Riis personally, or any rider on Saxo bank, etc. So to be honest, i really don’t know what the hale i’m talking about.

  4. fausto

    Great questions. Outside of J(i am suspended over jerseys) Bruyneel, how many other DS have won the TDF lately? For Luxembourg, you have to look at Cervelo (Sastre) and Sky (Wiggo) and realize it takes a lot to get the first season and high expectations of the super team off to a great Grand Tour start. Chuck D say’s “don’t believe the hype”. Is it the money, the dope show, the control? He has developed his share of rookies, resurected old careers and won almost everything. Makes no sense. There are plenty of DS who have never delivered anything big, have tainted pasts like BR, doesn’t make sense he is that much a bad guy they all bail now. What does Bobby Julich have to say, he was the one person that got himself fired some how?

  5. CBxl

    I have also been wondering about this. What it probably boils down to is that Riis is probably not a very pleasant guy to work for. He is good, no doubt about it, but if you don’t like his style, it must be very difficult to be under his orders.

    On the other hand, it takes some courage to leave his team, in view of his qualities. And when you are two brothers, leaving together, that helps. The others just had to follow.

    Another more worrying possibility would be that Riis does not allow doping (or rather enough doping) for A.Schleck to win the tour. And the brothers left to do it their own way.

  6. sophrosune

    There was a documentary that chronicled a year in the life of the then CSC team. There were bits of Riis denigrating Sastre that I found shocking at the time I saw it. Riis must have qualities that make him successful; it’s not all just dumb luck. But he strikes me as a jackass as well (this is often the case with successful people) and I’m sure he just alientated everyone, and maybe most importantly Kim Andersen.

  7. randomactsofcycling

    Like sophrosune, I think you can learn a lot from the CSC Documentary. What I learned is that Bjarne doesn’t care if his riders like him or not. He wants results and he knows how to get them.
    I have been a part of a few different sporting teams that have differing rapport with their Manager/Coach. Sometimes when there is an almost universal dislike of the Manager, the team actually unites even tighter.
    What I think has happened as Saxo is a) the top riders have decided that it’s actually not Riis that is making them win, it is all down to them, b) some of the older generation (O’Grady, Voight) probably didn’t get the money they were looking for because Riis couldn’t guarantee a sponsor until too late and c)some of the Team Management got sick of General Riis and thought it was time to take on something bigger.
    Bjarne will more than likely have a great couple of seasons over the next few years. There will be less expectation to win now that his best riders have left.

  8. Grejsdal

    The answer to the Q is Kim Andersen. If you follow his Career and read various Interviews with Riders, he is the one who was close to the Schlecks, Fuglesang etc, not Riis who -after the doping disclosure stepped back to a more General Manager like function. He is also to a large extent the Tactical Mastermind behind many of the moves attributed to Riis. He has also lived in Luxemburg for the last 20 Years or so and build the close local relations, that are behind the new Project. In terms of why he left and the project wasn’t setup with Riis. I haven’t seen a clear explanation beyond a fundamental desire to run his own shop.

  9. gusc

    hey robot,

    wasn’t sean yates who said that riis is a bit difficult to get on with? the rule of the iron fist is just as steely as the riders’ will. eventually, folks get tired and move on. but everything we say and write here are *pure*, semi-unsubstantiated conjectures. we don’t and won’t ever know what really goes on on the nitty gritty, everyday operation of a super pro team. and i believe that the doping thing may not even be an issue as kim andersen also partook on the hot stuff back in the day. so boo to riis. i just hope that at some point a retired rider will offer a tell-all or at least have a candid conversation with a blog/newspaper/tv show. i for one am extremely curious about the goings-on of super teams.

    but as per the usual, very good piece.

  10. Joel

    As others have mentioned, if you want to learn about BR, watch the CSC documentary. It is a fascinating movie. BR does come across as a jerk at times, particularly in how he treats Sastre. The movie also made me a Sastre fan.

  11. 68GT

    The documentary on CSC is called “Overcoming.” The scene that has been referred to in this thread is where Sastre is complaining of pain in his glutes. Riis essentially tells him that he can either ride, or call it a day, but at that moment, while in the middle of group training session, there’s isn’t much he can do. Riis is being both blunt and truthful. He doesn’t coddle riders and if that makes him a jerk, one can’t argue with the results. To Riis’ credit, the following day he does indulge Sastre and changes the schedule to offer a more traditional day of training rather than his more systematic approach.

  12. David A

    Would Riis had kicked Schleck out if it had been a warm beer??? Just read the history of PRO team directors, most of them where part nut case- part shady business dealer. What about DeGribaldy, director for SEM, Sean Kelly’s team who would take food out of the riders mouths and hands if it was something he thought was not PRO at the dinner table.

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