Bjarne Riis believes he deserves another chance in professional cycling as he takes up the role of team manager and part owner of the NTT Pro Cycling team, promising he will never be involved in doping scandals and insisting: "I fail again, put me in jail."
Riis recently announced that he and business partners have acquired a 30 per cent stake in the NTT Pro Cycling team owned by Doug Ryder. He immediately travelled to a training camp in Spain and then on to the Tour Down Under in Australia.
On Thursday evening, he sat down with some of the media at the Australian race and, over a glass of wine, he spoke about the pain that doping had caused him and his family, the passion that has driven him back to professional cycling, and how he intends to help the NTT Pro Cycling team.
Riis is known to be surly, competitive, with a stare to match the strength of his long silences. Yet, after four years away from the WorldTour, like the quality red wines he likes to drink, Riis seems to have mellowed and softened, revealing a more sincere inner-self. Is this a new Riis that deserves another chance to show his true talents as a team manager?
He is convinced it is.
"I'm still in cycling because I've got the passion. I believe I can make a difference. Sitting at home on the sofa, watching cycling on television was frustrating for me," Riis said, revealing his long hours at home had left a dip in the couch and that his wife told him to ‘get off his ass’ and get to back to work.
"I believe I'm a good observer, I believe I have some tactical skills, I know that I can put a team together. I know what I want: that a team has to be a team. I've worked with the best and I feel I'm not done yet. I feel the energy I have and I feel I can give a lot."
UCI President David Lappartient made it clear in an interview at the Tour Down Under that Riis has every right to return to the sport, despite his doping past. The UCI's ethics rule stopping convicted dopers working in the sport only came into force in 2011 and cannot be applied retrospectively.
Riis was in charge of the CSC and Saxo Bank teams when a number of high-profile riders were caught in doping investigations. After a detailed investigation, Anti-Doping Denmark published a report in 2015 that suggested Riis was one of a number of Danish riders and staff that were complicit in a widespread doping operation that included relationships with Dr Eufamiano Fuentes and his blood doping programme based in Spain. However, the accusations referred to events outside the usual 10-year statute of limitations, also allowing Riis to return to professional cycling.
Riis admitted to doping during his career in 2007 and symbolically offered to give back the Tour de France yellow jersey he won in 1996. Riis has always denied that he knew of and encouraged doping during his time as a team manager, despite direct allegations from former riders Tyler Hamilton, Jörg Jaksche and Michael Rasmussen.
The years of accusations seem to have worn down Riis and even hurt him, so much so that he openly says he regrets what he did.
"I know where I am now and what I want to do. I have changed. That’s what I know, even if I know some people will say that I will never change," Riis said, speaking at length about the impact of his past on his personal life.
Rudy Pevenage recently published a book in Belgium revealing some of the details about his involvement in doping at Team Telekom and T-Mobile, where Riis raced alongside Jan Ullrich in the 1990s. Riis has no plans to read the book.
"I don’t want to be confronted with that part of my past, that dark side of my life - it hurts," he said.
"We will never go there again, so I don’t need to read all that stuff to be reminded of it. I’ve been there, I need to move forward in my life. My past has hurt me so much, so I need to protect myself and my family."
Riis insisted he has turned a page.
"I did, absolutely. I know that it [doping] would ruin cycling; it would ruin me and my family. And this is not the world that I want to be a part of. I’ve seen the price you have to pay for doping."
He insisted he would rather walk away from cycling than be involved in doping.
"Have I learnt from the past? Absolutely," he said.
"I've learnt that cycling doesn't need the shit of the past, that cycling is doing great without it. I'd stay home with my family if I was not confident that this was the right place to be.
"I can guarantee you 100 per cent that I would not be in cycling at this level if I was not sure cycling wasn't in a good place. I wouldn't spend one second in it, on a rider or team, if I had a bad feeling about it, that we were doing something wrong. Never, ever. I know that if something happens, it's going to hit me. So I told the riders at the camp not to dare to go there because I know who will be held responsible for it."
Riis has been criticised for showing little remorse, but he argues he has tried to help fight doping.
"I do whatever I can. I spent 700,000 euros to build the biological passport in 2006-2007. I made strict rules for my team, and that’s what I could do at that time. I believe I helped build the biological passport. Is that doing something for the sport?" he asked.
“Is it a good suggestion to say 'Bjarne, go away!' I don’t think so, because I have a good mindset. I have a strict mindset about that. Firm. So why shouldn’t I help?”
Yet, Riis was still attacked when he announced he was joining NTT Pro Cycling.
"In Denmark, it was actually okay, it was more international," he said. "Denmark wants this team and I believe they want me. Does that mean that everybody wants me? No, but I know that.
"I made that decision to be here and I have to focus on what I have to do, not on those few people who want me to go to hell. Otherwise my head will blow up. I believe this team needs me to be their leader, that’s going to be my first job and my first priority.
"Do I think about doing it right? No, because I know I will do it right. I will never make the same mistakes again, ever. That I know. And if I fail again, put me in jail. Promise me that."
Transforming NTT Pro Cycling
Riis revealed that Fabian Cancellara and BMC helped him secure his deal with Doug Ryder at NTT Pro Cycling, in which he bought 30 per cent of the South African team along with his wealthy Virtu Cycling business partners Lars Seier Christensen and Jan Bech Andersen. They are minority shareholders for now, but Riis makes it clear he will now be in charge of the sporting side of the team.
"I think we had a good feeling with Doug that he also wanted to take his team to the next level," Riis said.
"We share a lot of the same values, so we came together. It took time to decide things and the legal aspects are complex, too. We had to decide if we wanted to buy a little, half or everything. We figured out to do it like this. It includes me being involved in the sporting side and getting the team together and bringing a new vision and philosophy. I think this team needs a leader to take them to the next level and that's my job. I'm ready for that."
Riis praised many aspects of the current team but made it clear he will gradually apply his own philosophy.
"I have energy, I have a lot of stuff I want to do. I think there are many good things in place, now we have to agree how we can take it to the next level," he said, more at ease talking about bike racing and team management.
"People know that if I go into a project, it is to improve and progress. I think we don't need to hide that the team was not performing super well. We're making a plan now. It's a great challenge for me.
"Of course, I need time to figure things out, to get to know people and see how they work. I'm not in a rush; I know I can't change the team overnight. We'll take it step by step. I feel I have tons of things to bring to the team. I haven’t been at WorldTour level for a few years but I've been in cycling and spent a lot of time sat at home watching races and analysing, observing and thinking about how to do things better.
"You can’t do it overnight. It takes work and money to develop the team. It's not all going to happen this year; just making some progress would be a success. I think it's something you discuss with sponsors and ask where do we want to go? What are our ambitions and how fast can we go?
"I think an important thing is to understand where we are now. It's easy for me to say where we want to go - very easy - but if we don't know where we are, we're never going to find the right way to success."
Riis has already identified two areas he want to work on.
"I think this year I have two key values that I think are important: internal communication and teamwork. It's about how we do things and operate," he said.
"Those two things have always been big values on my two previous teams. They're important and its crucial we focus on them here. But first I need to get under people's skin and understand people and the current routines. I am watching what they do, and what the other teams are doing. I hope I can help bring this team up to a level that will be world-class - that’s our ambition."
"What I can guarantee is that we are going to be very creative, we're going to make exciting racing, not riding for second place."