• Dreaming big... "I want to continue being an optimistic human being because otherwise what's the point?" (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Despite declaring "I don't want to do professional cycling any more", it wasn't long before Andy Rihs' infectious optimism saw him return - and Australian cycling fans can be ever thankful for it, writes Anthony Tan.
Cycling Central
20 Apr 2018 - 4:01 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2018 - 9:08 PM

There was a heck of a lot of hype leading to the first event of the 2010 ProTour (now called WorldTour), and BMC Racing Team owner Andy Rihs wanted to be a part of it.

After reaching what he thought was his apotheosis in cycling as team owner of Phonak, having won the 2006 Tour de France with Floyd Landis, only for the title to be taken away the following month, the ruddy-faced, normally jovial Swiss billionaire declared: "I don't want to do professional cycling any more."

"The short story is that we now had a team directly identified with the product and we saw the marketing potential. I'd say without the BMC bike I wouldn't have a team." - Andy Rihs, 2010

"I wasn't against cycling at all, but I certainly wasn't in the mood to continue (in professional cycling) at that time. I was really depressed about it," Rihs told me in a hour-long, no-question-is-off-limits interview prior to the start of that year's Tour Down Under.

But if you knew about him, even a little, you knew of his passion. He made his fortune from globalising his father's company - making what he believed to be the world's best hearing aids. Touching his ears, Rihs likened them to "the entrance" of one's world: "Eyes might separate things, but ears separate communication, and if you don't have that, you don't have quality of life," he said.

"So (there was) this need which could be improved by better technology, that was the challenge for me and my partners to go for that. I said: 'If we do it right – and we have to, we have to do it much better – then it will automatically become successful.' That was my model, and it was successful."

Last year the company previously known as Phonak, now called Sonova, was valued at US$8.3 billion, of which he owned a 3.5 per cent stake. (Read the Inner Ring article: The Wealthiest People in Pro Cycling

When he went from shareholder to owner in the space of two years, it was his intention to do the same to the BMC bicycle brand. "We can make bicycles much better," he said in 2000 when he assumed control of the company, boasting he wanted to make the "Porsche of race bikes", and immediately began work on a carbon production facility at their headquarters in Grenchen, Switzerland.

"He's number one in our team – the clear number one," Rihs told me – something that wasn't so obvious in Evans' final year with Belgian outfit Davitamon-Lotto.

The Phonak team became the means to "spread that reputation and idea around". Even after the doping scandal involving Landis, the Astana pro team used BMC bicycles; they also kept a US Continental team by the same name. But when Astana's marquee rider Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping at the 2007 Tour, "we retired again".

"We saw it was the wrong approach, just sponsoring with bikes because we had no impact on the direction (of the team). (The BMC team started) at a time when we were continuing developing the company. The short story is that we now had a team directly identified with the product and we saw the marketing potential. I'd say without the BMC bike I wouldn't have a team."

And so, in the midst of a global recession, while others contracted, sold out or closed shop, Rihs' ambitions grew. "We have to have a certain size to be part of the game," he told me after an off-season that saw BMC Racing sign Cadel Evans, George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan and Karsten Kroon, the former having won the world road championship the previous September and reaffirming his intention to win La Grande Boucle before too long.

"You can be a boutique (brand), that's fine. But to really be a world player with a global business you have to have a certain size and economy of scale. And we're working hard to get there, because then we can then afford the latest technology to make the bike much better – that we did in hearing aids, too."

They did not apply for a ProTour licence but at that point were invited to almost every race they wanted to be in; on March 31 that year, it was confirmed they were one of 22 squads going to the Tour.

Evans would don the fabled maillot jaune after eight stages. Yet it was ecstasy and agony, for a hairline fracture in his left elbow, the result of a crash the previous day, would just 24 hours later see him lose yellow and any chance of overall victory. Through blood, sweat and many tears, he fought on till Paris, if only to honour the man who finally gave him outright leadership and all the resources at his disposal to be the best he could be. ("He's number one in our team – the clear number one in our team," Rihs told me – something that wasn't so obvious in Evans' final year with Belgian outfit Davitamon-Lotto, when one of their own, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, began to come of age. "And we do everything we can to make him successful.")

Six days before Paris and ten days after the crash that destroyed his Tour campaign, I sat down with Evans at his team hotel on the outskirts of Pau. It was coming on 9pm. He looked tired. Actually, he looked wrecked. Wrecked, but not beaten.

Cycling world mourns loss of BMC owner Andy Rihs
Swiss businessman and BMC team owner Andy Rihs has died, aged 75, after a long illness.

"It's pretty uncomfortable and you can be as ambitious as you want, try and get in breakaways and whatever. But this is the third week of the Tour and if you’re not going good, you're not going good. So (the goal is) to finish but not (just) to finish, but to respect my team and all the work they've done and this whole project that we've had. In November last year, BMC going into the Tour de France was a bit of a... Not many people took us very seriously, but it worked out, I always believed in it, and thanks to the people that did believe in it."

He had something else to say.

"Y'know, some people have said we shouldn't have been invited to this Tour de France. I'm grateful to (race director) Christian (Prudhomme) for believing in us as well, and quitting isn't going to pay my respects."

If there's one thing about Evans, he's not a quitter. Neither was Rihs.

"I could (quit)... but people put so much into it, I wouldn't dare consider (quitting)."

By the time Evans made Paris he was close to an hour down on Alberto Contador, who, courtesy of a doping positive, would later cede victory to Andy Schleck. But he made it. He didn't quit.

It probably wasn't the right time to ask, but I did anyway. (I was concerned I wouldn't get another chance, which turned out to be the case.) How many more bona fide chances does he have left in him to win the Tour?

"Certainly, I think two or three... Conservatively, I'd say two. I think my results and world ranking leading into the Tour indicate that I'm still riding pretty well."

He needed only one.

Rihs had every reason not to return to cycling but heart ruled over his head. He told me in 2010: "You have to have open eyes and I want to continue being an optimistic human being because otherwise what's the point?"

Had he not come back, Australia would almost certainly have not witnessed its first, and still only, winner of the world's greatest bike race.

Merci, Andy. May you rest in peace.