Blazin' Saddles

Bjarne beefed up for Tour

Former Tour de France champion and Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis came to London last week to promote the launch of his autobiography, 'Riis: Stages in Light and Dark'.

Not only did Saddles attend the jolly occasion at the Sigma Sports cycle shop in Kingston, your favourite crass bike blogger also did his best serious reporter impression with an exclusive 30 minute TV interview for Eurosport, which is set to be cut up into bite-size chunks for our coverage of the Tour de France this summer.

Riis's book — a best-seller in both Denmark and Germany — is an open, warts-and-all tale of one dogged and determined man's climb to the top of his sporting ladder and his well-documented fall from grace when, 11 years after winning the Tour, Riis called together a press conference and admitted to using EPO during the crowning glory of his career.

The candid nature of the book — which also deals with Riis's childhood, his rise through the ranks alongside Laurent Fignon on the Super-U team, and a catalogue of personal issues such as the breakdown of his first marriage — meant that doping was not a white elephant in the room as a chatty (yet often deadpan, stern and taciturn) Riis took questions from the floor from members of the pubic on a warm Wednesday evening.

When Riis's book was first released in Denmark back in 2010, the Danish newspaper Politiken said: "It is very rare to find such a well told and honest biography as this one, where the main character fearlessly sacrifices himself."

What makes the candour all the more remarkable is that the author is not someone who has disappeared from the sport; Riis is still a key figure in cycling — the driving force behind the careers of both Schleck brothers, not to mention the staunchest defenders of the out-of-favour Alberto Contador.

As the journalist and author Jeremy Whittle states, Riis is "one of cycling's most influential personalities".

Which was precisely why the floor held its collective breath when, towards the end of the Q&A, Riis (who by now had lost the nervous demeanour with which he started the event) was asked how he had managed to transform himself from a stage hunter to a GC rider back in the mid-90s.

"I trained differently and much harder," Riis began with a straight and considered face. "I lost a lot of kilos. I got older and stronger in my head." He was just teasing us, surely. Then the punchline: "And, yeah, there was the EPO."

Riis, who stressed early on in the night that his book would not have been possible without his "fortunate" confession in 2007, elaborated on "a decision that would change my life forever".

"As a young rider at the time, [doping] was part of the history. But it was very difficult to take the decision. I mean, the first time I took an injection of vitamins took ages. That was a hard decision — and it wasn't even doping. I sat there for hours before I did it. It was the first step to something else.

"At the time it's hard because you think 'it's life, it's a part of the culture, everyone's doing it'. And after while you think it's just natural and you don't think that it's wrong. But by then it's too late. That's how it was.

"Of course now I look back and see it was a bad decision. But at that time I probably thought I didn't have any other choice. If I wanted to be at the top, I realised that this was what I had to do."

Riis's doping may have culminated in the super-drug du jour, EPO, but before that the big Dane was on a cocktail of cortisone injections (for his limbs and muscles) and Prozac (for his battle with depression). The whole thing sounds pretty sordid and desperate — and you have to praise Riis for getting it all down on paper and then discussing it so openly.

But there is a catch. Does Riis actually go far enough? Praising his candour is like celebrating a turd for being brown — and we all know that the colour of faeces is only half the story. The book is superb — but it's what Riis doesn't say that really stinks.

Here lies the problem with confessional cycling tomes: they can only go so far — especially, as is the case of Riis, if the author is still very much active in the sport. There's an unwritten code in cycling that you can do your own dirty washing but you should never spit in the soup. When Saddles raised this with Riis, he simply said that it wasn't his role to "point the finger" at others.

It's two sides of a coin. The reason why Riis's book is such a compelling read is that it's Riis, a giant of the sport; by the same token, it's his continued involvement in cycling that means so much presumably had to go unsaid.

The launch itself, however, worked so well precisely because it enabled people to quiz a man who must be one of cycling's must frustrated figures. Signing Contador from Astana should have been followed by a raft of Grand Tour wins; instead it has been a veritable nightmare for all involved, with the Spaniard being banned for two years, his Giro win erased and Saxo's 2012 season thrown into turmoil.

Instead of getting excited about the Tour, Riis is left to answer questions of whether or not Saxo can be vaguely competitive come July.

The Eagle from Herning actually said he was looking forward to the Tour precisely because of the "different challenge" it will entail.

"Of course, I'll miss Alberto on the team, we all do, but that's what it is," he said. "It's my job to motivate the team and I believe we can go out and win some stages. Maybe Chris Anker Sorensen will go for the mountains jersey.

"What I want most is for the team to go down there and make the most of our possibilities, try some new things out, take some chances — chances that we normally don't take when we have a leader going for the overall. I think it's going to be quite interesting and funny to try these things out and to try to tease the other teams and the riders a little bit."

A teasing Riis couldn't also resist a joke about how "right now, I could use Cavendish in my team in the Tour" — hardly surprising, given Saxo's main weapon for the sprints is JJ Haedo.

Riis, of course, stands by the man whose services he cannot use this July. He has no choice. Not only would it be a PR disaster to turn on Contador, he needs the UCI points from the Vuelta if he wants his team to exist beyond the current term.

So, when quizzed about his view on the infamous Chaingate episode of 2010 — when Astana's Contador attacked Saxo's Schleck after he had dropped a chain on the way to an overall win that would ultimately be taken away from him — Riis was entirely frank: "Look, in cycling the strongest wins and in my world Andy came second."

Asked who the best rider he had worked with during almost a decade in management, Riis replied: "Alberto is the most talented rider I have ever seen. He can do anything — he can climb and time trial, and he has will power."

Earlier in the day during his private audience with Riis, Saddles had even asked the Dane to come up with a Fantasy Cycling team from the whole peloton. While he chose Cavendish as his sprinter and Fabian Cancellara as his time triallist, the first name on the list was Contador's. In fact, Riis chose the Spaniard as his GC rider and his main climber, somewhat misunderstanding the point of the exercise.

All this inevitable brings Saddles to his one moment of madness during his one-on-one with Riis. The cameras had been rolling for 20 minutes and Riis had been game in answering a range of questions about his own career on the bike and his current predicament at Saxo Bank.

Thinking it was time to move on to some lighter material, perhaps some stuff that could be used for an amusing blog as opposed to Eurosport's serious TV coverage of the Tour, Saddles asked Riis what his favourite food was.

"I like a good steak," Riis said before a little laugh. He then elaborated, succinctly: "Nice meat."

The temptation was too hard to resist. Riis had pretty much laid it on a plate and wafted it in front of his nose. Saddles could smell that steak and could not hold back — indeed, felt that it would be a crime to avoid making the obvious quip.

"But not a good steak from the Basque region?" Saddles asked, instantly regretting it.

There followed a small silence before Riis, his smile gone and with piercing eyes, quietly said: "That's actually not funny."

Saddles will let you, the reader, be the judge the merit of such a risque aside. Saddles clearly judged the tone of the interview completely wrong and in hindsight it was only ever going to go one way — especially given the rolling cameras.

So your beetroot-red blogger moved swiftly on, seguing stutteringly into a question about the contrasting nutritional habits of the today's pro peloton — and to be fair to Riis, he accepted the blunder and continued the interview with the same professionalism as before. In another world, he could well have walked out or even punched Saddles — perhaps thrown him away like he did his 1997 time trial bike.

Later, our interview done and dusted, Saddles apologised for the steak comment.

"Ah, it's okay," Riis replied with a laugh. "It was just a bad joke, I think."

It was nice to bury the hatchet and move on — but the whole episode does underline the point Saddles was making about Riis's book. There are some things that simply cannot be discussed; there are things we'll never know the truth about. And while the English version has an added chapter which covers the whole Contador imbroglio, we're never going to get an honest take on the whole thing — especially when Riis is still relying on Contador re-signing with Saxo once his ban ends in August.

'Stages in Light and Dark' is a thrilling read and a wonderful insight into the motivations and corruptions of a champion — but oddly enough for something so candid, the reader might be left more in the dark than illuminated come the end.

Next week read the transcription of Saddles' pulsating TV interview with Bjarne Riis. For more follow @saddleblaze.