If the Spring Classics showed one thing, it is that you can take the best riders out of Saxo Bank, but the tactical nous remains with Bjarne Riis, writes Anthony Tan.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM




"It's easier to criticise than to say, 'We switched teams for the sake of money'."

-
Chris Anker Sørensen in December last year, defending his boss Bjarne
Riis in the wake of the Saxo Bank exodus, and the criticism that
followed from its former riders


Following last
year's Tour de France, it was almost as if The Goodship Saxo Bank was a
vessel aflame: the 'jump ship' directive was a mutinous one, and
appeared to have come from a number of senior members who once pledged
loyalty to their former captain with blood.

By the end of the
season, despite team owner Bjarne Riis securing another year's lifeline
from his incumbent title sponsor, no less than eight men had evacuated,
their destination a new superliner called Leopard-Trek.

Fabian
Cancellara, Jakob Fuglsang, Dominic Klemme, Anders Lund, Stuart O'Grady,
Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck and Jens Voigt were those that departed,
and to rub salt into the already gorged wound of the bald-headed
Scandinavian, who, like Lance Armstrong, was brought up by his mother in
the aftermath of his parents' separation, two of his former employees,
Kim Andersen (Leopard-Trek team manager) and Brian Nygaard (general
manager), would be directing the highfalutin nouveau show on cycling's
Broadway.

Before the 2011 season had even turned a pedal, pundits
had already written off Riis and his enviably successful though
esoteric modus operandi. Especially after his star signing that was to
be his Tour de France trump card, Alberto Contador, discovered last
September he'd tested positive for clenbuterol on a test done on that
Tour's second rest day in Pau, the Spaniard's fate now resting with the
Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The octet that left Riis, along
with Andersen and Nygaard, thought they could do better without Bjarne.
And they, like Flavio Becca, the billionaire businessman behind the
Leopard-Trek venture, believed above all, money could talk. Apart from
securing some of the world's best riders, like Team Sky, the big budget,
James Murdoch-backed venture before them that completely underwhelmed
all and sundry last season, they spared no expense on anything and
everything else, turning up to races with perhaps the ultimate status
symbol that signifies one's 'made it': in a Mercedes-Benz.

But if the Spring Classics are anything to go by, Leopard-Trek has much to learn.

In
all the major events contested – Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders,
Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège –
they didn't live up to their hype, despite having the strongest rider in
two of the aforementioned six races, and last Sunday in L-B-L,
possessing the numerical advantage when, fifteen kilometres from the
finish in Ans, the Schleck brothers were up against Walloon wunderkind
Philippe Gilbert.

Gilbert was clearly the strongest – but for the
Schlecks simply to tow the Omega Pharma-Lotto captain to the finish,
only for it to end lugubriously as millions around the world watched an
almost comical 'sprint' finish, would Riis have allowed such a thing?
Surely not.

The brothers Schleck were beaten before the finish
line, anyway. As Gilbert rode up the final categorised climb of the Côte
de Saint-Nicolas, a 1.2km hill averaging 8.3 percent, on the front and
unafraid, his companions' dignity hanging on by a thread, he had already
beaten them: psychological warfare is not the Schlecks' forte.

Which
is why Riis was so vital to their success: his guru-like,
quasi-shamanic motivational abilities and paternalistic treatment of his
riders instilling confidence in those who appear to be, but on the
inside, are fragile as bone china.

For me, talking to him is
exasperating. Monosyballic conversation is de rigeur; take this extract
of an exchange I had with him at this year's Tour Down Under:

Me: How difficult has this period been for you, not knowing whether you have an outright leader on this team?

Riis: Oh… I think we have known for quite a while now, so… we know the situation.

Me: What have you told the team?

Riis: Well… I told them the facts, you know… I think the only thing we can deal with is the facts.

Me: Do you see Alberto racing with you this season?

Riis: That's a question I can't answer.

Me: Is Richie Porte ready to step into a leadership role, do you think?

Riis:
Well… it's not just something you do. Let's wait and see... I mean, the
season has barely started yet, so… there's still some decisions to be
made.

Me: I understand you've made some peace with some of the
riders that left your team to go to Leopard-Trek. Are you Feeling more
comfortable about the Schlecks and O'Grady leaving?

Riis: Listen, ah… I don't need to go into this.


Journalists pull their hair out talking to him. But with his riders, now that's something else.

At a January 2006 training camp, on the slopes of the Monte Serra in Lucca, Italy, Procycling
magazine founder Jeremy Whittle was sitting in the car next to Riis. As
his riders continued their efforts up the 6.4km climb, he told him in
dulcet tones: "Gentlemen, spin the legs. Transform the power of
yesterday into the power of today."

Fourteen of his riders had
ridden a timed test and finished within fifty seconds of each other.
This was less a team of stars than a star team.

Had his then
protégé-turned-that year's Giro d'Italia champion (Riis taught "a timid
Basso first how to swim and then how to win", wrote Whittle) not found
himself embroiled in Operación Puerto, Riis may well have been
the first director to win the Tour in the era after Lance Armstrong's
first retirement. Instead, after dodging that curveball, he had to wait
another two years before his then rider Carlos Sastre and he took that
honour in 2008, to the detriment of Cadel Evans.

Riis still holds
the record for the Monte Serra climb, set in 1996: the year he won his
EPO-fuelled Tour de France, for which he confessed to eleven years too
late.

Perhaps that's why I continue to struggle with my view of
him. Because, despite the humility and gravitas with which he delivered
his confessional, he nevertheless had the gall to say that day, "I'm
proud of my results even though they were not completely honest. I'm
coming out today to secure the right future for the sport."

His
last words appeared to indicate he was more interested in keeping his
sponsors than coming to terms with his past transgressions and seeking
repentance.

Still, as Riis said so himself, "Cycling needs me." And so do the Schlecks, it seems.

Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_tan