Sunday, 27 May 2007
Bjarne Riis admits to doping...
While CSC Team boss Bjarne Riis must be inwardly satisfied at watching his latest young talent Andy Schleck put in a handy ride at this year’s Giro D’Italia, he almost certainly has other things on his mind. At an extraordinary press conference at team CSC HQ on Friday, Riis confessed to the use of EPO, cortisone and human growth hormone between the years 1993 and 1998. Not the kind of news cycling needed, even if many are not surprised by it, but the most furrowed brow in cycling may well be able to relax a little more in future as a result of his public confessions.
The press conference was by all accounts shocking for its plain matter of fact account of this sordid process, but amongst all of the sleaze Riis emerged passionate in his hopes for a brighter future for the sport he has loved since the earliest days of his youth. "The time has come to put the cards on the table," said Riis. "I have done things which I now regret and which I wouldn't do again. I have doped. I have taken EPO. For a while, it was part if my everyday life”. After years of sniggering at his expense by the Danish press, the man who’s haematocrit level led him to be dubbed ‘Mr Sixty Percent’ finally retracted his previous ‘I have never tested positive’ line of defence and faced the music.
Riis was keen to emphasise that he bought and injected the EPO himself, and stressed that his statement was from Riis as a private citizen, not as the manager of one of the most successful Pro Tour teams. Perhaps he wished to protect former Team Telekom team-mates from suspicion, though recent revelations about German doctors Heinrich and Schmid look set to blow the lid further off that particular can of worms. Erik Zabel has already admitted to trying the substance once, not pursuing it because of the side-effects, and Rolf Aldag admitted using EPO the day before Riis. Jan Ullrich is already no stranger to doping allegations, and a cynic may wonder whether Riis wanted to act before his hand was forced, in much the same way that Ivan Basso recently responded to the CONI investigations.
With no other sanction available to use against an ex-pro, the UCI asked for Riis to return his 1996 Tour De France yellow jersey. Riis said that it is in a box in his garage at home and he invited them to collect it. Riis’ observation that back then he had little choice if he wanted to be competitive in a very dirty sport has some powerful resonances, and to an extent mitigates his actions. If so many riders had the same unfair advantages, is Riis’ achievement nullified? He clearly regrets his actions and has visibly lived a tortured eleven years during which only his family and closest friends have known his secrets. By coming clean there is just a glimmer of a chance that he can draw a line under the affair, giving the positive example to the current generation that he now hopes for.
I’m sad that another hero has fallen by the wayside. Riis is a quiet and intelligent man, committed to this sport to such an extent that he often uses his own money to pay his team’s wages when times are hard. For now he retains his sponsor’s backing and it is evident that he truly believes that things are different in today’s cycling. No doubt many fans will be more sceptical, and there will almost certainly be more setbacks along the way. Floyd Landis looks set to be the next yellow jersey to bite the dust, and in the current climate the tales of the Brothers Grimm may look more believable to some observers than the Armstrong years. Despite everything this sport is too marvellous to implode in its own sleaze, and somewhat ironically Riis may be just the kind of man to usher in the new era that can save it.