Stay or Go? The Unicorns Debate Bjarne Riis

Bjarne Riis doped. He admits that. After all, his career spanned the heady early days of the EPO era, when no test existed to catch riders, and the UCI gave tacit approval as long as a rider’s hematocrit stayed below 50. But he’s been adamant that the team he owns and runs, currently known as Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, is clean and has been from the start, and that he himself is a force for anti-doping.

Yeah, maybe. Or maybe, as various reports claim, he actively encouraged his riders to dope, which they did with team staff support at least up to 2006. That’s well within the statute of limitations, and according to the UCI’s Anti-doping Rules article 21.8, Riis should be convicted of Administration, which carries a ban of 4 years to life.

21.8. Administration or Attempted administration to any Rider In-Competition of any Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method, or administration or Attempted administration to any Rider Outof-Competition of any Prohibited Substance or any Prohibited Method that is prohibited Out-ofCompetition, or assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting, covering up or any other type of complicity involving an anti-doping rule violation or any Attempted anti-doping rule violation.

So should he stay or should he go? A couple of unicorns (one rather optimistic and the other sort of suspicious) will start the debate. Feel free to continue it in the comments.

White Unicorn: I like Bjarne Riis! He came clean about his own doping, and started one of the first in-house testing programs with Rasmus Damsgaard in 2006. And his team has always had anti-doping clauses in riders’ contracts! They know they aren’t supposed to dope, so if they do, it’s their own fault. That’s what Bjarne said* about Bo Hamburger after he tested positive in 2001, that Bo knew the rules when he signed up:

"Above all, I'm trying to run a clean team," I said, "but at the end of the day the riders have to be responsible for their own actions."

Black Unicorn: Responsible for their own actions…where have I heard something like that before? Oh, yes. Riis’s own confession:

"It was part of my daily routine," I explained. "But I take full responsibility for my actions. I bought the drugs myself and it was my choice to take them. I'm sorry for the doctors that have been embroiled in this, but at the end of the day I am the only one who can be held responsible for saying yes or no to actually doping."

He was even scornful of his former team-mates’ tearful admissions in his book:

Back then, doping had been part of the job, and the way to reach your ambitions. The choice to dope was mine. No one had made me do it. Everyone who injected themselves with EPO knew that they were doping, and doping was against the rules, so I couldn't see why people were revealing what they did and then breaking down in tears 10 years later as though they hadn't been master of their own lives and decisions. That just gave mixed messages.

So, Riis’s philosophy on doping: you can lead a desperately thirsty horse to delicious cool water, but it’s all his own if he drinks.That anti-doping clause was a clever way of distancing himself if—when--one of the riders he encouraged to dope tested positive.

White Unicorn: There’s no proof Bjarne encouraged anyone to dope. It’s not fair when there’s no hard evidence—like when people used to say nasty stuff about his hematocrit and then expect him to prove his innocence:

But where was the justice in that? That I was guilty until proven innocent? That anyone could pluck wild accusations and allegations out of thin air, and then I’d have to try to prove that the accusations were false? It was a game I had no interest in playing.

Black Unicorn: Sort of mind-boggling when you consider that, well, he WAS guilty. He wasn’t born Mr. 60 Percent, you know.

White Unicorn: Details. The point is, he should be innocent until proven guilty. And right now it’s his word against that Hamilton boy’s.

Blackie: Tyler Hamilton** is pretty detailed, Whitey. Let’s take a look:

Bjarne leaned back in his chair. Took a sip of wine.

"Have you ever tried a transfusion, Tyler?"

I shook my head. Bjarne's blue eyes lit up.

"Oh, you need to do it. You will like it."

Riis went on to detail how he'd planned his transfusions in his own Tour victory, and explained the reasons they worked so well; how, unlike the slow rise in hematocrit created by EPO, transfusions provided an instant boost of around 3 points, which correlated to a 3 percent increase in power. They were like the fountain of youth. Best of all, in this new age of the EPO test, they were undetectable, 100 percent safe--if you did them properly.

He told me all this, then he went silent. He was waiting for me to give a sign. Yes or no?

Hamilton said yes.

Then Bjarne gave me the phone number of the man who would define my life for the next few years: Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. Bjarne told me that Fuentes was a well-respected Spanish doctor, very experienced, had worked with top riders for years. His personality was a little different, Bjarne said, but nothing to worry about. Fuentes was very safe. I should not worry.

And it wasn’t just Bjarne quietly egging Hamilton to dope—there was staff involvement:

During the Tour [testers] tended to arrive first thing in the morning to demand blood and urine. After getting my early BB [blood bag], I was concerned about getting tested—and sure enough, the next morning, our team was chosen to be tested. Fortunately for me, the protocols worked in my favor: as is customary, the riders were given a brief window of time after being notified to produce themselves to be tested. it's not a lot of time, but it's enough to get an intravenous bag of saline we called a speed bag which lowered the hematocrit by about three points. This is where the soigneurs and team doctors really earn their money: they're constantly on standby, in case they're needed. CSC's crew was as good as Postal's. One speed bag later, I was back in the safe zone. It's a team sport.

Whitey: Yeah, and I could write a very detailed and convincing account of meeting something that doesn’t exist, like—like a zombie or a centaur. Bjarne was asked about Tyler by Dansmark Radio at the time, and utterly denied knowing anything:

"Did you know that Tyler was taking all these products?"

"No, of course not.”

See? Of course not. How much clearer could he be?

Blackie: I wonder what else he might have said in that same interview…? Oh, yes, it’s coming to me:

"So can I get you to say that you have never doped?"

"You can."

"May I hear you say it?"

"I have never doped."

Whitey: Poor Bjarne. He just wasn’t ready to talk about that yet, and as he says, he was trapped into lying:

I was annoyed that I'd been forced into a trap again....If I'd known I was going to be asked whether I'd doped again, I would never have agreed to the interview.

Blackie: Yes, poor Bjarne—trapped into lying. Again. And again. And again. What makes you think he was telling the truth about Hamilton?

Whitey: What makes you think Hamilton is telling the truth about Bjarne? He-said/he-said. Nobody wins that game.

Blackie: Fair enough. But Hamilton isn’t the only one. Here are a few offerings from Jörg Jaksche:

Jaksche rode for Riis and Team CSC in 2004. During this time, according to Bild, Riis decided who should take how much of what product, with Jaksche saying how he was helped to avoid a positive doping control.

Jaksche also says (via gnomes) that when, after he left CSC for Liberty Seguros and went to visit Fuentes,

"He (Fuentes) was surprised that I had not already last year been sent to see him by Team CSC. I could not help but assume that he had already received visits from several riders who had been referred to him by management at Team CSC"

Whitey: Read further, Blackie!

Jaksche said, however, that he has never seen Fuentes and Riis together, and he has never heard them mention each other by name.

So you can’t read anything into what Fuentes maybe was implying when he said whatever he said to Jaksche.

Blackie: And the rest of what Jaksche said? About deciding who takes how much of what?

Whitey: Um. I thought we were talking about Fuentes.

Blackie: Okay. Let’s continue to talk about Fuentes. About how the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung saw witness statements saying Bjarne Riis took Frank Schleck to Madrid in December 2005 to meet Eufemanio Fuentes in person.

Whitey: A journalist saw a paper that said someone saw something—wait, how many degrees of separation are we from the alleged event? Besides, Riis said it didn’t happen.

The Danish newspapers were asking for a reaction from me, and I didn't particularly want to have to come forward every time there was some kind of rumour. This accusation, however, was so serious that I didn't really have much choice. "These are some very serious allegations, which we flatly deny," I said. "I have never had any kind of contact and I would never be able to send any of my riders to a man like that."

Blackie: Right. And it turns out a couple of months later the rider he hadn't taken to Fuentes was found to have sent 7000 euros to that same doctor, for "training plans."

Whitey: Ahem. Mr. Schleck was cleared of wrongdoing by the Luxembourg federation.

Blackie: Gee, that’s convincing. Shall we talk about Ivan Basso?

Whitey: No. He didn’t dope, either. He just thought about it.

Blackie: But how do you suppose yet another CSC rider ended up working with Fuentes?

Whitey: Lots of people worked with Fuentes who weren’t on CSC. Besides, even if any of these…these bad things are true, they happened a long time ago! Can’t we close the door on Puerto, and count from when Riis hired Damsgaard to oversee his internal testing program? If a man has been running a team on strict anti-doping principals for a good six years now, shouldn’t he be allowed to continue?

Blackie: Leaving aside the various criticisms of the Damsgaard/Riis collaboration (the hospital where Damsgaard initially set up the program refused to renew his contract out of ethical concerns), let’s put it another way: If a man was a career doper, and on retirement started up a team where he doped his riders—at the same time he paid lip service to clean riding by insisting on anti-doping clauses in their contracts that allowed him to throw them to the wolves if they got caught—why should he be allowed to continue to be active in the sport?

Even if—if— he is running a clean team now, shouldn’t he be punished for violating the rules in the past? It’s a big deal when a team owner and manager institutes doping on his team. Current managers should know that whatever they’re doing now could come back and bite them in the ass any time within the statute of limitations (or beyond, these days—that USADA precedent has opened up a big ol’ can of worms).

Whitey: But it would destroy Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank! All those nice riders and staff, out of jobs—you can’t mean it.

Blackie: Mwahaha…I mean, regrettable. But fallout happens. And you do want a clean sport, don’t you? Don’t you?

Danish federation—to you.


*Riis quotes are from Riis: Stages of Light and Dark, by Bjarne Riis with Lars Steen Pedersen, translated by Ellis Bacon, Vision Sports Publishing, 2012 **Hamilton quotes from The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle, Bantam, 2012
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