Bjarne Riis has told Cyclingnews that he is happier after selling his team to Oleg Tinkov for a reported €6 million and that he has every right to remain within the sport despite an ongoing doping investigation in his native Denmark.
The Dane admitted that he suffered with depression in 2013 after accusations in his team of doping remerged and Anti-Doping Denmark began a detailed investigation into his past.
The results of the investigation are still not known and Riis could be banned from working in cycling in the future, perhaps for life. For now, however, he is keen to enjoy working with his Tinkoff-Saxo riders as they target victory at the Tour de France with Alberto Contador.
"I'm very happy about having sold the team to Oleg. The more time that goes by, the happier I become and the more I realise it was the right decision," Riis told Cyclingnews at the Tinkoff-Saxo training camp in Gran Canaria.
"It wasn't an easy decision because I made this team, it's my baby. But after all that has happened, it's important what I feel. At the end of the day I need to feel good about things. From the day I took the decision with my wife to sell the team, I felt a lot better. It was a long process and we talked a lot. She could see that I needed to do it, she could she it was the best thing for me."
Tinkov reportedly paid Riis €6 million for the team and is paying him €1 million a year to manage the sporting side. Riis said that he isn't driven by money but by personal ambition and determination.
"It had to be the right thing for me. We're not talking about money but about principle," he said.
"Oleg has been great. He's surprised me a lot during the process of buying the team. He was very professional and very serious. That was important for me. I know he will keep the team in the right way.
"It's important we have the same ambitions. It might mean we clash a little bit but that's okay. We have different characters but that doesn't mean we can't work well together. We've got a lot of respect for each other.
"I've also got the responsibility of keeping him happy as a team owner. It's his team now but I made it. If I didn’t care and had made the wrong decision, I wouldn't be here. But I want to make this team one of the best teams in the world."
Riis defended his right to stay at the helm of Tinkoff-Saxo team despite the ongoing investigation by Anti-Doping Denmark stemming, which is believed to have gained momentum thanks to evidence provided by Riis’ former rider, Michael Rasmussen.
The accusations from former riders are serious and come after Riis has already confessed to doping during his own racing career. He tries to avoid the subject and only talks to Danish media about cycling, but the risk of a life-time ban remains.
"My answer is the same as ever: there's an investigation going on and I've nothing else to add to it," he said bluntly.
Riis was willing to respond to several other direct questions, making it clear he has no plans to quit the sport or run away from the accusations and criticism.
"It's not something I'm thinking about. Of course they write about it all the time in the Danish media but I'm not obsessed about it," Riis said, believing he has the right to stay in cycling and be part of its future.
"People always have different opinions on things. But I honestly think I've done good things for the sport over the years. And I still want to continue to do that. I've made a lot of mistakes but I don’t see why I can't continue if I'm willing to do things in a good way," he said.
"I still have a lot of ambition to create a good and healthy cycling. I'm still in cycling, good or bad, knowing I'll get a lot of shit for staying. But that's my choice. I think I have a lot of good to give to cycling and this team. I want to appreciate that with people who will let me do it in peace."
Riis refused to reveal what he and the Tinkoff-Saxo team are doing to create "a good and healthy team". There doesn’t seem to be a zero-tolerance policy like at Team Sky but instead a philosophy of giving people a second chance as long as they are open and honest in the future.
"I know I do the right stuff and so I don’t think I need to respond to you about that. It’s up to people to decide if they want to trust me or not,” he said.
"I don’t set the rules and people have the right to their opinions. I can't change their minds. I also have the right to do what I want to do and decide how I want to do it. I don’t need to be dictated to on how to live my life."
With Tinkov assuming control of the business, Riis can now concentrate on running the sporting aspects of the team. He undoubtedly has a talented pool of riders at his disposal with Contador, Nicolas Roche and Roman Kreuziger all able to lead in grand tours. Despite no major rider signings in the off-season – not to mention the possible loss of Michael Rogers through suspension – Riis believes he has the squad to once again challenge for major honours.
"Every year is different, with new riders coming in and others going out. That's how it is and the team has adapted well. I think we have a good core group again and it’s also the group that leads the philosophy of the team,” he said.
“To have a good team you need a leader, to show the way. I'm not the owner anymore but I'm still a leader. It's still my job to put the plans together and get the riders to perform.”
Question marks remain over Alberto Contador, however, as the Spaniard failed to win a stage race last year for the first time in several seasons. His only win came in a stage of the Tour de San Luis in January and he was a distant fourth at the Tour de France, despite attempting to animate the race on several occasions. Riis believes that Contador, the only rider in the current peloton to have won all three grand tours, can regain his top form in 2014.
"I hope so and I think so. I like what I see. I can see that he's very concentrated and focused, that he's working hard and doing the right things. We've improved some things and we have a good set up around him," Riis said.
“It's very important that he wants to be back and he has a chance to get back to his best. Time will time. But I'm confident. If he's as strong as I think he will be, he's one of a few riders who has a great chance to take on Chris Froome, who is now the rider to beat.
“We're working on being strong. Let’s hope it works. I think it'd be good for the sport if Alberto gets back to a good level.”
If Contador is to return to his former levels and regain the yellow jersey at the Tour, he must defeat Chris Froome in July. The Sky leader’s star has risen dramatically since his Tour debut in 2008 and he thoroughly outclassed his rivals – Contador included – last year.
“We don’t know how Froome will be this year. We'll see how we get to the Tour,” Riis said. “We have to focus on ourselves, on being as strong as possible. I believe in Alberto. I can see the potential is still there and that he can fight for victory.”
Strengthening the team
Although confident that Rafal Majka and Nicolas Roche can build on the strides they made in 2013 at this year’s Giro d’Italia, Riis is aware of the need to continue to strengthen the team around Contador.
“I'd like make the team stronger but that will happen in the coming years,” he said. “I still think we still have one of the strongest teams in the peloton: we will be good in the spring, we will have a good team in the Giro with Rafal Majka and Nico Roche. We'll be strong for the Tour, obviously, and for the Vuelta.
“Hopefully we win a little bit more than last year and then build it up the year after that. It's important to win. We need to win and be strong. I'm convinced the mentality of the team will remain even if I'm no longer the team owner.”
Ultimately, however, Riis knows that much of the responsibility at Tinkoff-Saxo rests on the shoulders of Alberto Contador, who will have to carry the fight to Froome and Sky in July. “If Alberto is back to his best, then he'll win races,” Riis said.