Bjarne Riis: Making cycling better

Saxo Bank manager on blood profiling, nurturing young talent and post-ban comebacks

Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis believes that the team can develop its younger riders and that the biological passport is a useful tool when it comes to signing riders. Riis, who is stepping up his search for a sponsor after it was confirmed that Saxo Bank would pull out of the sport at the end of the year, also credited his progressive methods with laying the foundation of the International Cycling Union's (UCI) biological passport. The Dane also put forward his stance on riders coming back from suspensions.

Riis was speaking at the team's recent training camp in Fuerteventura as his riders built up for their 2010 seasons.

"I'm proud of being in cycling. It's my life. I feel obligated to give back. The sport gave me so much," said Riis. "We get so much criticism but what do they do about it to make the sport better? We do things to make it better. If you want to be allowed to criticise it's because you know better. Then come up with solutions. Otherwise shut up and let us do our jobs because we try to make it a better cycling and we're doing that."

When asked about his critics and sections of the media, Riis was resolute: "A lot don't understand me or don't want to understand me. I do my job and do what I think I should do. I can't please them all but I figured that out a long time ago."

Recruiting based on blood profiles, instinct

In 2009 Riis's team ended its association with Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard. He had pioneered the squad's regime of blood profiling and Riis credited his work for creating the building the building block behind the UCI's biological passport, which opened its first doping cases in 2009. Damsgaard had always said that once the passport was in place he would step away from working closely with Riis's team.

"I think we showed the way by building our system with Rasmus and I think you can say that because of that we have the biological passport," he said. "It's a copy of what we did. Maybe ours was a little better but we did it in a way that we thought was the best but definitely the passport is a good thing. I won't say it's optimal but it's the best we have and it's definitely good."

Riis added that the passport data were used when signing riders, although it wasn't a mandatory part of his selection process. Instead, his gut instinct and his experience were crucial factors in not only determining a rider's honesty but also his potential and fit within the team. "We analyse the results when we sign riders but it depends on how far we go back. If I feel it's necessary, then we go back. It's just a tool. It doesn't absolutely make riders innocent but we still see that there are riders who cheat and who think they can come around it. It's just a tool but it's good to have.

"When you hire a rider it's a lot about gut feeling and if you use that and your common sense you're right most of the time," he added. "Sometimes you're wrong. You never know. My experience, it helps me. Not always but sometimes. I stick to my instincts. That doesn't mean they're always right."

Young talents coming up

Riis' instincts have drawn in a crop of young talent for this season, led by the likes of Richie Porte and Laurent Didier. The team manager is also expecting second-year professionals Dominic Klemme and Jacob Fuglsang to step up.

"I can't tell you where they can develop," Riis said when asked about Porte and Didier. "It's too early to say. They have talent but we have to work with them and then we can see which direction they go in. I think Didier can do okay. He finished his university studies last year so he's not really ridden that many kilometres. It's going to take him up to another level. I don't think we've seen his true potential or strength yet."

Porte signed after a stellar 2009 in which he won a time trial in the baby Giro, along with a string of other good performances, and only turned to cycling three years ago. Riis believes that the Australian houses raw talent that sets him apart.

"He's very young but I think he's an obvious talent who is good at time trialing and climbing," he said. "He has so much to learn. He's very green but give him a couple of years he might step into the scene."

Riis rode for Toshiba in his early days as a professional and at the age of 24 was dropped by the team and told he did not have a future in the sport. That harsh treatment at the hands of director sportif Yves Hezard scared Riis and it's something that he's not eager to repeat as he tries to nurture the talent he has attracted.

"We take good care of them. That's really important," said Riis. "When I was a young pro my teams didn't really take good care of me like they should. These are things we do differently here. We follow them, give them a good structure and training and that's what they need to develop. That the most important thing we can do."

Second chances

One rider that Riis won't be looking to nurture though is Riccardo Riccò, who is set to make a comeback to racing in March after a ban. Riis, who is no stranger to controversy and admitted to taking erythropoietin (EPO) and other products in 2007, believes that the Italian deserves a second chance but that he wouldn't thrive in Saxo Bank's current set up.

"I don't think that he's the first rider on my list because he has a personality that might not fit into my team, but apart from that he had his ban and I think he and everybody should have a second chance to come back and prove that he's okay. Like some of the other guys, like Ivan Basso," he said.

Asked what he thought of Riccò's apparent lack of remorse, Basso's unwillingness to criticise and David Millar, who works with World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and has an outspoken stance on doping, the Dane had strong beliefs. "Ivan made a mistake, how can he then criticise other riders? I don't see the difference," said Riis. "Everyone makes Millar out to be a god but he should pay as the rest of us. They're in the same category.

"Ivan might be a different personality. Maybe he doesn't have the same need to speak up about others. It's bullshit; just because you shout out about other people doesn't make you less wrong than another guy. It doesn't make sense," he added.

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