Commentary

CSC's Riis uses own doping admission as fuel for change in cycling

Updated: July 21, 2008, 5:37 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Team CSC-Saxo Bank owner Bjarne Riis is back in a team director's car at the Tour de France a year after he voluntarily took himself out of the race. In May 2007, after years of denials and silence, Riis admitted he had doped during his career, including while he prepared for his 1996 Tour win with the Deutsche Telekom team. Tour officials made it clear he would not be welcome, and Riis bowed out to avoid creating a distraction for his riders.

Yet Riis' recent legacy in the sport also has won him some admirers. He is regarded as one of the best tacticians and motivators in cycling, and he was the first director of a top team to institute an independently monitored blood profiling program.

The team has found success as recently as this week at the Tour de France; Frank Schleck holds the yellow jersey heading into Tuesday's Stage 16.

CSC (Computer Sciences Corporation), a California-based information technology company, will end its sponsorship of the team after this calendar year, but Riis' consistently successful team will go on under the banner of title sponsor Saxo Bank, an international online investment bank based in Riis' home country of Denmark.

We spoke with Riis earlier this season about the year since his confession. The following are excerpts from that conversation:

Bjarne Riis
Joel Saget/Getty ImagesAfter his doping admission, Bjarne Riis said it's easier to live with the truth. "When I fail or make a mistake [now], I admit it immediately."
Question from ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford: What has the past year been like for you personally and professionally?

Answer from Bjarne Riis: It has been interesting, I would say, but hard. Very hard. I actually first realized what I had been through when my father died in December. He was always there; he was the reason I started cycling. When I started at 7 years [old] until he died. He was my biggest fan. I never lost anybody before close to me like that. First time I've been to a funeral. After he died, I got some help. I realized I had been on the edge mentally, I had been pushing myself to the limit, deeper than I actually knew. When we had the [annual team training camp] in November, I had no energy. Physically, I was freezing all the time, and I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't give the team the things I really wanted to give them. I was totally blocked. So it has been a process for me, a fantastic process actually, that I have been through.

Q: It might seem contradictory to people that you doped and then became a leader in anti-doping policy. Was your own experience part of your motivation?

A: I don't know if it was a motivation. It has become a motivation. If you want to be a leader, you need to be able to make a difference. I knew that I didn't want to make a team like the rest of the teams because of my career, because of what I've seen. And a part of that has become our anti-doping program. But this is just a part of what we do. And of course I'm proud and the team is proud of it. Maybe in five years or 10 years from now, the rest of the sports will follow our example.

Q: Doping scandals are bad business, and you're a businessman. But from a personal standpoint, was it important to you to try to prevent your riders from having to make the same decisions you did?

A: It's my job as a leader to teach them, to motivate them to go in a certain direction, a certain lifestyle. I want to give them something they can use for the rest of their lives, as a human being, not just a cyclist.

I had to live with it for a long time. I feel good about [the doping admission] today, and I believe it was the right moment. You can shoot at me as much as you want. Anybody can shoot at me as much as they want. You have nothing on me. It's a relief. Here [taps his chest], inside, I'm still the winner of the Tour de France. Maybe for you or someone else, I'm not, but I can live with that. I'm OK, and people treat me exactly the same way. Maybe even with more respect now.

I know today I don't need to lie about anything, and I feel good about that and I feel that I'm on zero. It's better in many ways, not just for cycling history, but for my family, my friends, my team and me. I can live with the truth.

When I fail or make a mistake, I admit it immediately, a lot easier today than I did a year or two or three ago. And that's also something I try to build in the team. Because if I know, then I can help them. If I don't know, then I cannot help them. So many times I had difficulties telling the truth. I would be embarrassed. Small things, stupid things in life.

Q: It was taking a lot of energy to keep that facade going.

A: Protecting myself but knowing [accusers] were actually right, it was getting worse and worse. Five, 10 years ago, if I had stepped up and told what I told last year, I would have hurt a lot of people. I stood up and spoke for myself.

Q: A lot of people have said your statement was forced by the ones that came before, the other [Telekom] riders who made admissions. Is that fair?

A: That was my decision. Of course, that forced or helped me to make that decision.

Q: What was your main emotion when you walked into that news conference?

A: Of course I was emotional. I could easily have cried. It was hard, but I was well prepared. I had a message to give. That was the most important thing for me, to do it in the right way, to get it out so people understand what I am and how I am.

Q: You seem to me to be quite a private person.

A: I am a reserved person. I also believe a lot of people think I'm arrogant because of the way I look, the way I am. I'm not. I can guarantee it, I'm not. But this is something I fight a little bit with myself, to be a little bit more open. I've always been shy.

Q: And you were prepared for any consequence? Did it go through your mind that you might have to quit?

A: Yeah, it did, but if I cannot have peace with myself, I cannot do anything for anyone else.

Bjarne Riis
Pascal Rondeau/Getty ImagesBjarne Riis won the 1996 Tour de France, but later admitted he doped while he prepared for that race.
Q: Does the sport need the people who lived through the doping era to help lead cycling out of the doping era?

A: I believe the sport needs me. I actually do. Because I can give so many good things to the sport, to my team. We need to change, and we need new ideas. I believe I can do some things good for the sport. But we also need people from outside to come in and help us in taking the next steps. What I have done, taking new [training] methods and treatment, working on nutrition, I want to be ahead of the rest and I can be. Modern sport is also a business. That's a problem in cycling. We have known for a long time that … riders become managers or sports directors, and they run it in the same way it has been run for 30 years. We have too much inbreeding in cycling.

Q: How did you meet Rasmus Damsgaard [the researcher who designed the team's blood-monitoring program]?

A: Turn on the television, he's on and he's criticizing the sport. He's standing there and screaming that everybody's doping. We contacted him and asked, 'Why don't you run a program for us?'

Q: Was he surprised to hear from you?

A: A lot. Because he was my biggest criticizer. But actually he respected me a lot doing that. I believe he thinks I am brave, had the guts to do it; and I was not afraid of doing it because I believed in my team. My team is clean. That's how I see it, and I know there are still a lot of people who doesn't believe it's true, but now I can put out documentation for it.

Q: Apparently, he trusted your intentions. Isn't that kind of remarkable?

A: No, not for me. Maybe for you, but not for me. I feel bad that so many people feel they cannot trust me. That's a problem for me. I'm struggling with that in my work. But I just have to be patient and keep on doing the work I do.

Q: A lot of people might have a hard time believing you didn't suspect that [ex-CSC leader] Ivan Basso had dealings with [Eufemiano Fuentes, the central figure in a Spanish blood doping operation] a few years ago.

A: I can only explain what I can explain. Of course I've worked closely with him, but not every day. He had more than enough possibilities to fool around without me knowing. More than that, I cannot answer. At the same time, we didn't know what we know today in terms of analyzing the controls.

Q: Was that what made you think, "I've got to get an independent testing program in here?"

A: Today I'm quite sure if I didn't put up that program, it would have been very hard to continue.

Q: You consider yourself a good judge of character. There's a phrase I'm sure you're familiar with: It takes one to know one. Do you feel like you can look into a guy's eyes and know if he's telling the truth about being clean?

A: [Exhales deeply] Sometimes, yes. Many times, it's about gut feeling, and I listen a lot to that. Sometimes you really go in and ask a specific question. Any rider in the peloton, bring him to me and I can make him improve. Analyzing, motivating them, coaching them. I'm good at that. But I cannot always go in and tell if he's lying or not. It's all about in general, does he fit into the team.

Q: Some of the directors have told me they look at blood records before signing someone.

Bjarne Riis
Pascal Guyot/Getty ImagesBjarne Riis still trains and works out with his Team CSC-Saxo-Bank riders.
A: Yes, I do that. Since Ivan, I learned a lot about how to do that. I still believe today that Ivan, without doing what he has done or not done or whatever, I'm convinced he is still one of the best cyclists in the world. I'm 100 percent convinced. The amount of training he could put in -- I've never, ever seen a rider be able to train that hard day after day. I've never seen a rider that serious, that focused on his job. That's a tragedy. I hope some day that he will be able to prove he's the rider I believe he is.

Q: Are you convinced Tyler Hamilton was clean when he rode for you?

A: That's difficult to answer right now. There was nothing particularly suspicious. At that time, we didn't have all the values and test systems we work with now. It was a lot harder. Today it would have been easy to see.

Q: So it's progressed that much in four or five years?

A: Oh yes.

Q: Knowing what it's like to give in to temptation, are you better prepared to help a rider resist that than someone who never experienced both sides?

A: I believe if a rider wants to dope, if he wants to take the risk, they just do it. The good thing about it is that we have our program, and first of all, I would say we have some smart people. To believe that they can hide themselves or flick [disrespect] our program, our system, they have to be stupid. We spent a lot of time at the beginning saying, "We're going to do this. This is how it works." Rasmus was there, talked about many things. They believe in it.

Q: Do you think they can be closer as teammates than you and your old Telekom teammates, just because there are no secrets?

A: First of all, they are. The atmosphere and the way we work together are so different.

Q: It seems natural that if you're hiding something from the next guy, it must be harder to be teammates.

A: If you want to be a winner of the Tour de France, you don't share everything in detail with the guy next to you. Not that I did something else particular. The products I did were pretty much standard. But the importance of being good teammates and good friends is big on our team.

Q: People talk about amnesty, having a period in which people could come forward and tell the truth and then be pardoned … you're shaking your head no. Why? Don't you think it's better to get those stories out on the table?

A: Let's move ahead. Q: It was better for you, though. How many other guys out there have that same burden?

A: We will never move forward if we keep looking back. We can learn from the past, we can't change the past. It gives us [the] possibility to do better things in the future. That's how we should see it.

Q: The day of that news conference, you said that if [Tour officials] wanted to come and get your yellow jersey, they could. Do you still have it?

A: I still have it. As I said, the jersey is the jersey, but I have my memories, and that's enough for me.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.