News of Manolo Saiz’s comeback… isn’t that new, nor a surprise. Outside cycling Saiz owns a small palace where he offers a restaurant and wedding receptions. But he’s been talking to the media about new projects for some time, slowly raising his profile. For example he’s tweeting.
Saiz is infamous as the manager of the Liberty Seguros team that got blown apart by the original Operation Puerto investigation in 2006. The team had outsourced a vast doping programme to Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. Horrified, the sponsor fled, Saiz had his Pro Tour licence withdrawn and the wreckage was recycled into the Astana team.
He was never an elite cyclist but during the 1980s he started helping ONCE (say “on-thay”), a Spanish foundation for the visually impaired. Coaching tandems with a blind stoker, by 1989 Saiz had impressed enough to convince the charity to fund a full road squad to raise the foundation’s notoriety. Success came quickly, Melchor Mauri won the Vuelta in 1991.
The ONCE team went on to become one of the most dominant teams of the 1990s, the yellow kit a familiar sight at the front of the bunch. Teams that were no strangers to EPO became frustrated with the way even gregarios at ONCE could rip up a race. And not just the big events, the Spanish squad turned up raring to go in the early season races. Did Saiz start an arms race?
There were many novel techniques. Saiz insisted on riders training on their time trial bikes, perhaps the DS to make the practice widespread. Famously ONCE riders didn’t compete much prior to target races, staying at home with a team-issue fax machine to await incoming tailored training programs. The faxed regime were reputed to be more demanding than a race: a six hour structured workout with no hiding in the bunch. It was clever, the random nature of racing and the risk of injury were swapped for pre-programmed plans. But it was also apparent being away from competition also meant being away from doping controls, out of competition testing was a rarity back then.
Saiz’s influence spread beyond the team. He was president of the pro team’s lobby, the AIGCP. Indirectly, the methods employed at ONCE were closely copied by others. It was the blueprint for Festina in more ways than one.
When Lance Armstrong recently claimed that he helped to revolutionise the sport, note many of the practices employed by US Postal owe a lot to Manolo Saiz. The blue US Postal train of surprisingly bulky riders setting the pace on a mountain stage of the Tour de France was a repeat. After all Johan Bruyneel was one of Saiz’s riders.
Once an outsider, today Saiz is linked to the problems right at the heart of the sport. I’ve said before he’s not the right man to return to the sport. There were some genuine innovations along the way but he’ll will struggle to escape the legacy of Puerto. His defence of being exonerated by a judge in the Puerto case is a provocation: doping was not a crime at the time but anyone rumbled with a briefcase of cash and doping products has to confront and explain what was happening. That said, look around at, say, Movistar, Radio Shack or Saxo Bank-Sungard? How different are Unzué, Bruyneel and Riis?
But surely any team considering a new manager, whether a youth squad right up to a World Tour outfit, should be looking for someone with a fresh approach?