Bjarne Riis: Learning from the past

An interview with Bjarne Riis, March 11, 2009

Following his retirement in 1999, Bjarne Riis undertook the unenviable task of building an outfit that would go on to become one of the world's best squads. In part two of this interview, Kirsten Robbins discovers how he used lessons learnt as a rider to make a successful team tick for most of the past decade. (See also part one)

Saxo Bank is renowned for its two core values: teamwork and a structured training regimen. Bjarne Riis, owner and team manager, has used his previous experiences as a pro rider to instill a basic set of values within the squad. The structured atmosphere at Saxo Bank stems from Riis' time spent with one of the peloton's 'thinkers', Laurent Fignon, and from the rigid fundamentals of training devised by his father, Preben Riis.

"I was riding for Fignon and that was something incredibly special for me," said Riis who made a household name for himself working for Frenchman in the early 1990s. "That's why people knew me. It was a fantastic thing. I learned many things but mainly I learned how to be a leader, how to take responsibility. The amount of teamwork on my team now is directly related to the kind of work Fignon needed from me when I was working for him."

His project to build a cycling team began in 1999 after retiring from pro racing, although his original intent was to step far away from the sport. An opportunity to take part in the creation of a professional team arose in the form of Professional Cycling Denmark (PCD), however. The team underwent a number of incarnations and became the world-renowned Team CSC - now Saxo Bank - beginning in 2003.

"I didn't know exactly what to do but I knew I wanted to manage a team differently from what I had been used to."

Riis wanted to transcend what he had experienced at Systeme U, Gewiss-Ballan and Telekom with his new squad. "In my racing career I saw many fantastic things but also many bad things go on too, especially in the area of coaching and teamwork. These are two things that we really focus on here [at Saxo Bank]. I think we have done things to really try and change cycling and we have done that within this team. We have a lot of very strong fundamentals here."

According to Riis, his domestique years taught him everything he needed to know in becoming a leader for Team Telekom and in his 1996 Tour de France victory. He then passed these skills along to his riders at Saxo Bank.

"I think I was one of the strongest and most loyal helpers that you could ever have," Riis said. "Today it is so easy for me to see and feel when someone works in the right way for a teammate, the captain or their leader. I see immediately if they try to escape or cheat because I was there and I know exactly what it takes to be a good domestique. I know what kind of support a leader needs in a race."

Riis' template for success began even earlier, however. Through an interval programme designed by his late father, Riis began structured training at the age of eight. He developed his athleticism by spending long hours in the saddle and using training methods foreign to most cyclists in that time. He now uses the same method to train his riders at Saxo Bank.

"I learned this kind of structure from my father. I don't know how he knew this kind of training but he was always giving me intervals and this is what I do with my team."

Riis' 30 years in cycling have led to the development of a philosophy that allows for mistakes as part of the learning curve. "I have two boxes," Riis explains. "I separate all my life experiences into the good things and the bad. The good I use for doing the right things and the bad I look at and remember how not to do something.

"But you have to make mistakes. If you're willing to take risks than you are willing to try possibilities - you develop."

He hopes that every rider will get the best out of riding under his wing, to take what they have learned and apply the team's fundamentals to their lives after cycling. "Here they become something and they get something they can't get anywhere else," Riis said. "I really believe that. There is only one team like this one. Many try to copy us, the things we do, the training or whatever. That's great. But they will never become Saxo Bank."

Saxo Bank's module for teamwork

The 2009 Saxo Bank season started with the notorious survival camp. Each year, the team headed by Riis builds team work skills ahead of the road season using military style training regimen. This year's camp was held in Denmark and ran for ten days, with the survival test between three to five days.

Former paratrooper Bjarne Christiansen tapped into each rider's mental and physical ability by assigning military-like activities. This year, the team underwent an attack and hostage scenario, a night-navigation through the Danish Sea and a test served under difficult conditions.

"We teach values in a way that maybe some people laugh at," Riis said. "We are probably the only team in the world that works with a strong set of values. It doesn't mean things run smooth all the time for us. We struggle as any other team. Like normal life, we are fighting and going through tough times together. But I also see that our philosophy, our structure and our values works for us. It helps us to come through crisis and hard times because we have someone to lean on."

Saxo Bank's teamwork module incorporates values of respect, loyalty, communication and commitment. The riders utilize these tools to help them achieve goals as a team. "We communicate a lot, we talk a lot and have meetings," Riis said. "We are not only on our bikes training hard. It's important for me that they work together as a team and they really show teamwork. That they move together as a team. Together we are strong, alone we are nothing."

Saxo Bank has a long list of talented riders who shine on the podium week in and week out, born leaders. Riders like the former world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara, Classics talent Stuart O'Grady, and the young GC contenders, brothers Frank and Andy Schleck.

Drawing on his days as Fignon's domestique, Riis says, "If you are not good enough to win, then you have to put yourself in a position where they cannot win without you.

"I rode my ass off for Fignon and I had it in my head that I could never win like that myself, at least back then, but I was going to make damn sure that he couldn't ride without me and that the team will always needed me. If my riders think like that, or any rider, they will always have a job."

2009 Tour de France

Saxo Bank will start this year's Tour de France short one key rider, defending champion Carlos Sastre. The Spaniard left the then CSC team after a seven years and will compete in this year's event with his new Cervelo TestTeam. There has been much speculation as to why Sastre left the team, but Riis preferred not to discuss the matter.

"Carlos was a big part of what has happened in our team's development over the years," Riis said. "In the end he won the Tour with the team, that is a very big thing. That was good for everybody and we really couldn't ask for more from one rider. However, if you're not a part of the team, then you don't share what the team has and I think that's normal. Our relationship may not be as it was but that has a reason and I believe it should stay between Carlos and me."

The Saxo Bank roster will be similar to last year, minus Sastre. The team will focus on leaders Fränk and Andy Schleck for the overall, and possibly Matti Breschel, third place at the Varese world championships, Gustav Larsson and Chris Sørenson. "I will say that mostly we are building up around the same team as last year," Riis said. "I have them in mind for the Tour but anything can happen. We say it might be them right now but nobody is for sure. You have to earn it."

Last year, Astana was not invited to compete in the Tour de France after its involvement in doping scandal during the 2007 season. Johan Bruyneel took over and transformed the the Kazakhstan-based team however, it was forced to watch the race from the sidelines despite carrying the defending champion Alberto Contador and podium finisher Levi Leipheimer.

This year Astana is expected to bring a powerful team that may include Contador, Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden along with seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.

Riis knows the team's work has been cut out for it. "Astana probably has the strongest team and on paper. No matter what, they will be strong, no doubt about it," he says. "They will be the team to beat.

Of course, it will be important to see how this Lance thing will unfold. It will be interesting to follow. I think we need to watch him and see how he is racing throughout the year, which will help us make a plan. I think it’s going to be a fun race."

Riis' biggest problem however, is selecting riders from a team of plenty. "I was really surprised and happy that our plan actually worked out last year. It doesn't happen often when the rest want to destroy your plan - it's a battle."

For a team that trains with military precision, that's the impetus to get stuck in. "If you want to win the Tour you need to beat those who are there in that moment. We need to do the best for us, not for anybody else - for the team."

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