Bjarne Riis was at the start of the first stage of the Tour Down Under on Tuesday – his first race with the NTT Pro Cycling team since he announced that his Virtu Cycling company had taken a 30 per cent share in the team and he was named as new team manager.
Riis was as phlegmatic as ever, denying he was emotional about returning to pro racing at the highest level and dismissive of any criticism of his past.
"It's different, but it's nice to be back," Riis told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 1 of the Tour Down Under, mixing brief smiles with long pauses between his answers.
"Do I need to be emotional? It perhaps depends on what you mean by emotional. I'd say I'm excited. My passion for the sport is still strong – of course it is. I'm looking forward to working with NTT Pro Cycling."
Riis and Virtu Cycling have managed a women's team and a men's Continental team in recent years, but the Tour Down Under is the first time Riis has been on a WorldTour in an official capacity since he fell out with Oleg Tinkov and sold his team to the Russian businessman in 2015.
Riis and his business partners Lars Seier Christensen and Jan Bech Andersen announced their involvement in the NTT Pro Cycling team in Denmark two weeks ago, with team owner Doug Ryder describing it as a "significant moment" in the history of the African WorldTour team.
NTT Pro Cycling revealed a 27-rider roster for 2020 that includes Danish riders Michael Valgren and Andreas Stokbro. The team arguably now has more of a Danish flavour than its African origins.
The team will also be directed by Riis' former Team CSC riders Lars Bak and Lars Michaelsen, while Danish news outlet Ekstra Bladet reported that several of the new members of the NTT Pro Cycling staff were hired at the request of Riis in anticipation that he would take over the team. Those hires include team doctors Piet de Moor and Piet Daneels, who have both previously held positions at Team Saxo Bank. Australia's Michael Rogers is also now working with the team after being part of the Virtu Cycling staff since he retired.
Mark Cavendish has moved on to Bahrain Merida from NTT Pro Cycling and Steve Cummings has retired. New riders on the roster for 2020 include Victor Campenaerts, Domenico Pozzovivo and under-23 world champion Samuele Battistella.
Riis has already spent time with other NTT Pro Cycling riders at their European training camp in Spain. He is hoping to bolster the team after a poor 2019 season.
"I need some time to get to know everybody and see how they all work. Hopefully I can bring some of my knowledge and spirit of how to be a team. I think I have some good energy to bring. There are a lot of riders and staff I haven't seen before and haven't worked with. But it's nice, it's exciting," Riis said.
Riis and his partners bought 30 per cent of the NTT Pro Cycling team, but reports in Denmark suggest he may soon take a majority share and so take control of the team. Danish window company Velux has been named as a possible sponsor for 2021 when the Tour de France will start in the Danish capital Copenhagen. NTT's current title sponsorship ends this year, but Ryder has said talks are ongoing about a renewal.
"Right now it's 30 per cent, but we're not really looking at that because I know my role," Riis said, staying tightlipped about any future take over.
"If it's 70 per cent, 50 per cent or 30 per cent, it doesn't really count right now. Being a minority owner is not really a problem. We have a very good relationship with Doug Ryder and we agree on things."
Still a divisive figure
Riis divides people as much as Vegemite in Australia, and not everyone has welcomed him back to the WorldTour. Some people love him, others hate him, recalling how he doped massively to win the 1996 Tour de France and was accused of encouraging doping during his time as team manager of Team CSC.
An Anti-Doping Denmark report revealed in 2015 that Riis admitted to knowing that Tyler Hamilton was working with Dr. Fuentes for blood doping and that he did not act to stop it. Riis also confessed to blood doping during his own career – something he had never revealed previously, and so had personal knowledge about blood doping practices.
Under UCI rules, Riis can act as a team manager and has a UCI licence despite his past. A number of other former dopers also have senior roles in team management or work as directeurs sportifs. However, according to Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, Michael Ask, the director of Anti-Doping Denmark, suggested Riis has a "lack of credibility and moral ability to lead a cycling team".
Riis admitted he is aware of critics.
"Of course, I pay attention to it but… It's not new that some people have an opinion on me," he said.
"I have actually been around – just maybe not at this level. Maybe people should get to know me better before coming out with these opinions. What can I say? I'll perhaps invite all my critics for a coffee and explain how I do things.
"I'm still the same; I still have the same philosophy and still have the same values. I don't see why that will change."