Back in 1996, I wanted Tony Rominger to win the Tour de France. Rominger had grit, panache - and wore one of those glorious Mapei jerseys covered in multi coloured cubes. I still have one in the wardrobe. Unfortunately Le Tour was won instead by a dead ringer for Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show - the angry, air-gulping Dane, Bjarne Riis. It was easy to see that Riis was zipped up tighter than a finish line jersey and he sealed his reputation as a whiner the following summer, by being upstaged by his team mate Jan Ullrich, and tossing his TT bike into the verge in a fit of petulant rage.
From super domestique, to doped tour winner, to penitent, to launching one of the first team anti doping programmes with CSC: Riis's career has been one of compromised survival. Richard Moore describes the book as 'a tale of insatiable personal ambition': but I'm afraid Stages of Light and Dark is a wordy dollop of self-justification laced with criticism of those who fail to meet the goals Riis sets - or show understanding for his sacrifices and instruction.
Riis's early career chugs through a seemingly inexplicable run of stop/start failures and being passed over by selectors. I lost count of the sentences that start with "But.." as Riis is dropped by team after team. The translation from the Danish is very word heavy in a John Major, "I was not inconsiderably perturbed" kind of way - which adds a few comic touches here and there. Riis and his girlfriend are on their way when she passes her chiropodist's exam and they kiss goodbye to boring old Denmark and move to - Belgium! Soon it's the big time. Riis's first Vuelta sees the whole team (many of them Spanish and dodging drug tests) bail out over the first two weeks - leaving Riis dreaming of personal glory as the team's sole finisher. After telling his team manager of his plans Riis suddenly comes down with food poisoning and has to abandon. 'I have no proof whatsoever but I was convinced that the team had poisoned me in order to make me quit so they could go home'.
Riis's performance experiments (alongside daily dosing with EPO) run to Prozac: 'The pills made me feel much more positive, which allowed me to see possibilities rather than limitations' (and no doubt ease the depression of spending up to £13,000 a year on EPO); ingesting dry green tea on the move by tearing the bag open with his teeth; experimenting with a handy roll-out bed of plastic nails; and sleeping in a personal barometric air chamber that is prone to sudden accidental re-pressurisation as a wake up call. Riis is also big on accountancy which in itself is understandable and not often discussed in cycling autobiographies. Bike racing is Riis's living and it's quite interesting to learn what salaries riders commanded at the time. But Riis then goes and ruins it all by being 'pleased as punch' to be wearing the Maillot Jaune -but retiring to his hotel room so he could stare at the most famous jersey in cycling and... 'imagine what it could mean for me financially."
The development of EPO as the PED of choice clearly shows how pro-cycling reached the mess it's currently in. In the early 1990's EPO wasn't a banned substance. You could spot which riders took EPO thanks to the 'toiletry-bag-sized cooler bag they'd be clutching when they arrived at their hotel'. Riis acknowledges his doping past as the 'rock in the rucksack' yet tries to play it both ways; by hiding his doping from fellow riders and blending systematic EPO dosing with weight loss and 'scientific training' to kid himself that the EPO was only supporting his stature as an elite.
Riis wasn't an exceptional rider. In his own autobiography 'We Were Young And Carefree' Fignon describes Riis as 'a good rider but not capable of winning a Tour de France under normal circumstances'. Riis tries a little self deprecation: dropping in provisos to good race results along the lines of 'I'd won - but only I knew the truth..." yet is soon complaining that the Festina team in 1997 were 'riding like animals' and, after Festina's bust in 1998, that the press are lumping ' all the rest [of us] in with them [Festina], and that's not fair." It's a mess of contradictions leaving you with the impression Riis is still, to this day, more angry with Festina for out-doping him and his team than any real remorse for the damage being done to the sport.
It's not just doping that Riis has a poor moral compass for. Stage 16 of the 1995 Tour de France was neutralised following the tragic death of Fabio Carsartelli. Riis acknowledges the tragedy - then recalls telling the press at the end of the stage that it would have been better to race the stage proper - or ride only part of it. For Riis, riding the full stage neutralised was far too big a gesture for the dead rider when he, Bjarne Riis, still had a chance in normal racing conditions to overhaul Alex Zulle for second place.
Leaving racing before he's caught for doping, the doors of management soon open for Riis with CSC. As a Team Director you need to be strong or likeable - preferably both. Riis possesses neither quality in spades. His muddled hypocrisy as director of CSC is breathtaking. A low point is a weeping Ivan Basso being read the rules, then sacked from the 2005 Tour - by someone who was very lucky not to be caught himself throughout his career, was still lying to the press, and turning a blind eye to his riders' predicaments. EPO was a testable banned drug in 2000. Riis waits until December 2006 to create a proper anti doping policy for CSC. He only really decides to come clean when backed into a corner by confessions from his old team mates at Telekom - yet this detail isn't mentioned. The 'irritating' press are finally faced, by a new Bjarne Riis: Riis the Reformer. "Someone who has the courage and willingness to fight for something that everybody wants".
Riis's training ideas and tactics have been a cack-handed mess to date as well. His pitting of Carlos Sastre against the Schleck brothers in the 2008 Tour De France ended up with Sastre using his own intuition to win and acrimoniously jumping ship with Cervelo when they took their bikes away from Riis's CSC to form their own pro team. There's an explanation of course. 'The only problem was that you never really knew where you were with Carlos - at least, that was my experience after the six years he's ridden for me on the team'. Six whole years in the dark? The man's the Terry Waite of team management... Long before being sent home by Riis from the 2010 Vuelta - for getting a skin full and staging a race day lie in - Andy Schleck had been planning his own escape. The Brothers Schleck set up Team Leopard Trek behind Riis' back - taking Riis's best riders and staff (consisting of some of Riis's oldest friends) with them. Left like Eeyore in a lonely field Riis reflects their lack of 'honesty' and 'loyalty' but remains puzzled as to why he was rejected as a director so comprehensively. I can tell him. He's that kid we all knew at school who'd be given his own seat on the bus on school trips - because everyone found him boring and didn't want to sit next to him for the journey.
Of course Riis's procrastination has struck again with his confessions now being blown out of the water by his ex rider CSC Tyler Hamilton's book The Secret Race. When Hamilton broke his collar bone in two places in 2003's Tour riding for CSC, Riis's typically un-empathetic first question was "Does it hurt?" (take a wild guess Bjarne..) and then "Can you carry on?" "I don't know. I think that's going to determined by the pain" was Hamilton's response. On the hill climb challenge of Mt Rehabilitation, Riis has already been passed by Hamilton. Looking down a couple of hairpins, I wouldn't wonder if that isn't Lance, on the way up to pass the Dane with a sob story of his own. If Riis had written a more honest book I'd almost feel sorry for him.
Stages of Dull and Grey would have been a more apt title for this self serving and dull book.
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Riis: Stages Of Light And Dark by Bjarne Riis With Lars Steen Pedersen Translated by Ellis Bacon
Size tested: n/a
Will it stand the test of time?
Did you enjoy using the product? Enjoy probably isn't the right word, but it did offer an insight.
Would you consider buying the product? No.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? EPO completists perhaps.
About the tester
Age: 48 Height: Weight:
I usually ride: Dolan Prefissio - winter bike My best bike is: Condor Moda Ti - summer bike
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, commuting, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding, Dabble in Triathlon