At the launch of his book 'Riis: Stages of Light and Dark', the former Tour de France winner and Saxo Bank directeur sportif took some time out to talk exclusively to Saddles.
Has your biggest achievement in cycling been on or off the bike?
I'd definitely say on the bike. It's been very exciting also off the bike, but it's in a different way. If you want to achieve something in life you have to be driven and have ambitions and set your goals high. Otherwise it's not possible to get the right results.
What's your one most cherished moment as a rider?
Definitely winning the Tour [in 1996]. That's something you never forget. It's the biggest dream of any cyclist. It was a very good feeling [to end Miguel Indurain's era of domination]. He was a rider I admired a lot and had a lot of respect for. It was a beautiful moment.
Was Big Mig your toughest opponent?
Not in 1996, but going into the Tour, yeah, I trained my mental force around that, but then he turned out not to be the biggest threat for me in that Tour.
How was it to see your brief reign at the top ended by team-mate Jan Ullrich?
At that time, I knew it would come because Jan was a great talent and had great energy. He finished second in the year before so I knew Jan was strong and he would be up there.
What was going on in your head when you threw your bike to the side of the road during the Tour's final time trial in 1997?
If you read my book then definitely you will know what happened around me at that time. I had a lot of things going on in my head. Also, outside cycling, my personal life was a mess. And, of course, as a defending champion you want to win. But that has nothing to do with Jan Ullrich because Ullrich was a great friend of mine and if I wasn't to win then definitely he'd be the first one I would want to pick. But there was a lot of frustration in my head and that had nothing to do with cycling or my colleagues or those I was up against. It was more my personal mess.
In your book you are pretty honest about your doping past but you refrain from mentioning anyone else. Is there an unwritten code for cyclists never to point the finger at anyone else in the peloton?
[Laughs] That I don't know but for me it really doesn't matter if there is or not. I decided if I write a book then I need to be candid, I need to put things on the table but at the same time I also decided that it's not a book where I have interest in pointing fingers. It's my life, not somebody else's life. I can take decisions for my own life. I don't need to do it for others. That has been very important for me. I can stand by what I have done in my life, but I don't need to write about what I think or believe someone else did because at the end of the day, I could be wrong. It would have been totally wrong to say this or that if I didn't know 100 per cent.
Was it a difficult moment when you were stripped of your Tour win after confessing to doping in 2007?
Well, when you admit to the things that I did then you have to be ready for that. But then again, once you have been there, on top of the podium, and had those feelings that it was actually your title, that cannot be taken away. And it was also such a long time after.
Your old rider Andy Schleck never had that chance to stand atop the podium in Paris as winner in 2010. This week he was awarded the yellow jersey. How does that make you feel?
I don't really have a lot of feelings about that. I think it's a strange situation for everyone — for the Tour de France, the riders, the fans, definitely for Andy. As well as I know him, he would prefer a win on the bike than by the jersey coming in by post.
How frustrating have last two years been? You sign the world's best cyclist in Alberto Contador but cannot see him ride. It's like Barcelona not being able to play Leo Messi in a football match.
You're right. It has not been easy these last couple of years. Unfortunately that's what it is, we cannot change that. Now the only thing is to go forward and hope for better times.
Does it mean there will be more pressure for Saxo Bank in the Vuelta?
Well, if Alberto's going to race for us, then yes. That's for sure. Pressure? I don't feel pressure. If you are a cyclist of that level or you have a team with a guy like him, there's a natural pressure. I'm more focused on what has to be done. I think his opponents have more pressure because they want to beat him.
Are you confident that Saxo Bank can still put out a competitive team for the Tour?
Absolutely, that's the plan. We know we don't have a contender for the GC but we definitely have a team that is able to win some stages and go for the mountain jersey maybe. I mean, it's going to be a challenge and actually quite an interesting chance for us to go out there and make a different race than we're used to. It's going to be fun and I'm excited and motivated to get the best out of my team.
Does JJ Haedo have the power to fight someone like Mark Cavendish in the sprints?
I think he does. On a good day when everything works out perfectly, I think he can be up there. I mean, there's only one Cavendish and he is the fastest man in the world but that doesn't mean that he's not going to be beaten sometimes. We have seen it before. It's going to be interesting to see. Cavendish did finish the Giro and will he be in the Tour? We don't know yet.
There's a lot of talk about Team Sky fighting on two fronts — but winning both the yellow and green jerseys was something you and Erik Zabel managed in the same year at Telekom. Can Sky replicate that?
As I said, that's actually my point. It's going to be interesting to see and follow — if Cavendish is in the Tour. I'm pretty sure they have worked out a plan if he's there or if he's not.
If we look back over the season so far then right now Wiggins is the favourite. Cadel has not been that strong but, of course, we also know that Cadel will put everything into the Tour and probably will be ready. If Cadel is up to his top standard then he might beat him. I would say Cadel is still the first favourite definitely for me, with Wiggins second. But he's going to be up there and he's showed some really good performance this year. The question is can he keep it there and be up there in the Tour. That's the question. We have not seen that yet, you know. But he looks good this year and is going to be strong in the Tour, definitely.
In your time you have worked with the likes of Jalabert, Basso, Cancellara, Voigt, the Schlecks, O'Grady, Sastre, Contador... Who has been the stand out star for you over the years?
For sure they have all been big talents, no doubt about that. In my world, it's not enough to be just a good athlete and a talent. The will power is probably the biggest talent you can have and they haven't all had the same will power. I think I have to say two riders who are absolutely the biggest talents I have worked with and they are Alberto Contador and Fabian Cancellara.
Cancellara had a bad accident in Flanders this spring — will he up there in the Tour?
I certainly hope so because cycling needs that. I think he's eager to come back and show what he can do.
Is he your tip for the Olympic time trial gold?
I think you're going to have the fight everyone looks for: Fabian and Tony Martin, maybe Wiggins.
The Giro started in Herning this year — your home town in Denmark. How was that for you?
That was very special. What a fantastic experience. It was a great party for Denmark, especially Herning, and cycling in Denmark is a huge, beautiful organisation. There were lots of people out there on the roads, cheering for my team especially, and that was something special.
You were the first Dane to win a Grand Tour and last month Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian. Explain the kind of emotions he's going through.
It must be very exciting for him. I hope he realises and thinks about all the hard work he put in and has time to enjoy it. It's probably difficult for him to understand right now and it will take a while. It was big, a fantastic achievement.
Do you think Hesjedal is a one-hit wonder or will he be a contender for the years to come?
Well, if you win, you are a contender You proved that you can do it. But it also depends who you are up against. It's beautiful for cycling — the more great champions there are, the better it is for all of us.
What kind of food did you used to eat before races when you were a pro?
Probably the same as what the riders have today — you know: rice, pasta, omelette. But that's not my favourite. I have many. I like a good steak. Nice meat. Also some Danish specialities.
Have riders' diets changed much since your time on the bike?
It's not the same. Some riders and teams haven't changed much. I think our team has changed a lot. We now have a big focus on nutrition so that our riders eat the right food, which I think is very, very important. There's a lot of things to gain there.
What's on your iPod playlist?
I like to listen to Coldplay, that's my favourite. John Mayer too.
In 2004, the documentary film 'Overcoming' was made about CSC on the Tour. How was it seeing yourself on screen?
It was good, sometimes funny. I think when you have a chance like I did to be in a film like this you learn a lot about yourself. You have the chance to view yourself from outside from a different angle and you learn a lot.
Have you been approached to do more TV since?
Well, yeah, quite often other people want me on shows for different things, especially in Denmark, but I don't live there anymore so I can't appear all the time. Plus also I like to have a private life.
Are you a fan of the Danish crime series The Killing or The Bridge?
Yeah, I have seen some of them, not all, because I live outside Denmark. But when I get the chance I watch them. They're great stories.
How did your nickname The Eagle of Herning come about?
A nickname is something you get, it's not something you take. A Danish journalist called me that once after a win in the Tour in '93 when I was up there with the big guys and since then I've been called that, and fine, I think I have to live with that, it's not something I can change.
And your other nickname, Mr 60%?
I think that's a stupid name.
What was the hardest climb you rode as a rider?
I cannot remember. It's probably not the hardest, but where I felt the least good (laughs) has probably been the hardest climb, because, I mean, any climb can be hard — even a small ridge if you feel bad — but I wouldn't say I have a particular climb. For many years I hated Mont Ventoux because in '94 I lost 15 minutes there. I was sick and had stomach problems otherwise I would have probably been top five or seven of the Tour instead of 14th.
You finished many Tours and Giros, but do you have any regrets for not completing the Vuelta in your career?
Yes, especially the last time I did it [in 1995] because I think I could have won. But I crashed in the time trial and I had to pull out two days after with a broken back. It wasn't a bad fracture but enough not to compete.
Do you think the Tour will be more open this year?
I think if you look at all the Tours, they're kind of alike. But then again, every Tour is different. So it's hard to predict. But there will always be outsiders, a new guy coming up, who will have an influence, and you never know what will happen — and that's what's beautiful about cycling. You cannot always predict what's going on. It's going to be nice to see what's going to happen this year. I'm a bit sad that I cannot have so much influence on the GC as I wanted to but then I may have influence on some other things.
And you'll be back with Alberto next year at the Tour?
I definitely hope that's possible, yes. That's what I am working for now.
It must be frustrating seeing Andy receive the yellow after he's moved on — to have trained someone hard but not to see them on the real podium, not to experience it together properly as winners.
You know what, if I really thought that Andy was the right winner, then I would not have sat next to Alberto all these times over the last couple of years. It speaks for itself.
Will this year's Tour be less of a spectacle because of Alberto's absence?
I don't know, some people say that, some will not. It's a pity that a great champion like him cannot participate. That's how it is right now and nobody can change that.
Bjarne Riis was talking to Eurosport at the launch of his book 'Riis: Stages of Light and Dark' (Vision Sports Publishing, £12.99) at Sigma Sports in Kingston, London.
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