Vélo Files: Riis – Shaman or Charlatan?

Anthony Tan

Road, Blog, Anthony Tan, Bjaarn Riis, doping, US Postal, Saxo-Tinkoff, Tyler Hamilton, The Secret Race
Part of the problem or the solution: Bjaarn Riis (Getty Images)
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As far as Anthony Tan is concerned, Bjarne Riis, one of the sport’s most polarising figures, still needs to come clean. The only question is, will he?

For most of his career, Riis was a decent racer: solid, but rarely a contender in the big races. Then, in 1993, at twenty-seven, he went from average to incredible.It’s unsurprising that as the years progress, moving ever closer into decade number four, my body does strange things it never did before (recently, I’ve noticed that if I pick up anything weighing more than five kilos off the ground, I grunt as if embarking on a clean-and-jerk).

Thankfully, though, my mind and memory are still as sharp as a Tour de France saboteur’s tack. And in the vocation I’ve chosen for myself, that’s infinitely more important.

In light of his confession eleven years after the fact that he used banned substances to win the 1996 Tour de France, the above quote by Tyler Hamilton is unremarkable in itself.

On May 25, 2007, following the confessions of former Telekom teammates Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Udo Bölts, Rolf Aldag, Erik Zabel, Brian Holm and two former team doctors, Riis, ‘The Eagle from Herning’, finally caved in, admitting to procuring and using EPO, growth hormone and cortisone for five years, from 1993 to 1998, including during the ‘96 Tour.

“I have taken EPO,” he said in a press conference in Copenhagen that day. “It was a part of everyday life as a rider.”

Was he a worthy Tour de France winner, somebody asked him? “No,” he said, “I am not.”

“I did things that I shouldn’t have and I have regretted that ever since. Those were mistakes that I take the full responsibility for and I don’t have anyone to blame but myself. I am a lot wiser now, both in my personal and in my professional life.”

But then this: “I’m proud of my results even though they were not completely honest.”

If someone wanted to take his maillot jaune away from him, they could, he said at the time. “My jersey is in a cardboard box. They are welcome to come and get it. I have my memories for myself.”

November 4 this year, when Cycling Central host Mike Tomalaris interviewed recently retired Team Saxo-Tinkoff senior sports director Bradley McGee, he asked the staunch anti-doping advocate whether it was difficult to work under a confessed doper.

“Actually, au contraire – it was easy. For me, I worked with Bjarne because he was a confessed doper,” McGee replied.

“I’ve been in the European professional scene since ’98. I know a lot of people, you know a lot of teams, you know how they work; you have your feelings. And, when I decided to stop racing, it was because I had the opportunity to work for Bjarne as a (sports) director.

“He cleaned out his skeletons out of his cupboard on the doping issue, and he was really pragmatic in moving forward. He brought in internal testing measures, which basically led to what we have now with the blood profiling measures (i.e., the biological passport) on a wider international basis. And he was vocal on a daily basis to the team in general, to individuals, to his personnel – anti-doping. I can vouch for the time I spent with Bjarne that it was a very healthy place to work, and it’s something I’m very proud of.”

All his skeletons, Brad?

On August 31, 2001, a few weeks after Hamilton – fresh off helping Lance Armstrong win a third consecutive Tour – signed a lucrative contract to leave US Postal and join Team CSC-Tiscali as team leader, he found himself sitting opposite Riis at the Dane’s opulent villa in Tuscany.

“Bjarne was vastly impressed with Lance’s and Postal’s strength,” recalled Hamilton, “and now, as he leaned ever closer to me, he was hungry for the details. Names, numbers, techniques – what methods did we use?”

Hamilton, for reasons unbeknown to him at the time, lied. Nothing special, he told Riis. EPO. Testosterone. Cortisone. Actovegin. Some guys liked growth hormone. Other than that, nothing special, he reiterated.

“Bjarne leaned back in his chair. Took a sip of wine.”

‘Have you ever tried a transfusion, Tyler?’

“I shook my head. Bjarne’s blue eyes lit up.”

‘Oh, you need to do it. You will like it.’

“Okay, I said. Sounds good.”

Bjarne knew Tyler would like it because he loved it.

In the ’96 Tour Riis told Hamilton he’d planned and taken three transfusions: one before the race began and then on each of the two rest days. He explained how unlike EPO, which provided a slow increase in haematocrit (the volume of red blood cells, expressed as a percentage), a blood transfusion would create an instant three percent boost in power.

“They were like a fountain of youth,” Hamilton said. “Best of all, in this new age of the EPO test, they were undetectable, 100 percent safe – if you did them properly.”

In his 2007 confession, as far as I can recall, Riis never mentioned anything about blood transfusions. Unquestionably, above anything else he used and abused, the key to his pyrrhic Tour victory.

After Hamilton agreed to the crooked practice of blood doping, he said, “Bjarne gave me the phone number of the man who would define my life for the next few years: Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.”

Riis, in his 2007 confession or since, has never mentioned Fuentes – ‘Señor Siberia’, I now call him, having read ‘The Secret Race’ – either.

Last week, when Saxo-Tinkoff’s other Aussie sports director, Nick Gates, announced he too was moving on, he, like McGee, was effusive in his praise of Riis, saying he was “great for the sport”.


 I’ve spoken to him a number of times the past decade, and I’ve conversed with many – current and former riders and staff, journalists, UCI and anti-doping officials, and sport scientists – about him. It seems that when it comes to Bjarne Riis, everyone has an opinion, and no one sits on the fence: they either swear by him or swear about him. Shaman to some – charlatan to others.

In his final question to McGee, Tomalaris asked if he thought more confessions would be forthcoming.

“What the powers to be put in place right now is very important to answer that question. Because as it is right now is a witch-hunt, it’s like an inquisition, and anyone that pops their head up right now can expect to be burned at the stake. So why would they?

“We need to know the truth, we need to move forward,” McGee underlined.

“And that’s not going to happen unless these people that may have something to say can see a process forward, and a process that would see them stay in the sport in some way.”

As far as I’m concerned, Riis needs to offer more than just his mea culpa from five years ago.

“We all make mistakes. I think my biggest mistake was to let my ambition get the better of me,” he said in 2007. “I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed people. To those for whom I was a hero, I’m sorry. They’ll have to find new heroes now.”

If he’s to continue as a team owner, responsible for the lives of our current and future generations of cyclists, we need to see full disclosure from him. He’s pocketed millions of Euros from cheating himself, and helping others to cheat; it’s the least he can do.

Said McGee: “Of course it’s going to come back. As much we will fight against it, we have to be ready and prepared that it’s going to come back. And that’s why the prevention measures have to be picked up, and we have to include them in our daily representation as sportsmen.”

So long as he’s prepared to tell all I’m okay with Riis – and any others who wish to come forth – receiving complete immunity.

So, Bjarne… Do you want to be part of the solution or part of the problem?


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