Manolo Saiz, the revolutionary

Saiz behind the wheel
Ready to drive off a cliff again?

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 Horrified, the sponsor fled, Saiz had his Pro Tour licence withdrawn and the wreckage was recycled into the Astana team.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.

ONCE on the Champs Elysées in 2003
Elysian Champs

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.

The future
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?

13 thoughts on “Manolo Saiz, the revolutionary”

  1. But as pointed out, Saiz is no different than others. And there are quite a few – Aldag admitted doping, Vaughters has all but admitted it, Neil Stephens is going to work for Green Edge and was one of the Festina boys. Pretty hard to clear out the guys who had problems in the past in the team management world.

  2. Yeah, hamncheeze (I like the name btw), I know what you and the story mean (Riis – admitted doping, Bruyneel – no admission but plenty of questions, Mauro Gianetti for Geox almost died from a suspected doping issue – or maybe it was proven, I don’t know, etc).

    Regardless, with all of these guys managing teams, it doesn’t make me want to roll out the welcome mat for Saiz one bit. If anything, keep him out and make it less welcoming for these guys to remain in the sport. If the sport is going to be clean, it’s leadership needs to be clean. My opinion…

  3. I agree with you in principle, it would be nice to have the sport say a collective “no” to Saiz but it seems very hypocritical to keep him out and yet have so many others heavily involved in team management and team directorship.

    If, and it is a big if, Saiz could run a team that played in bounds he still has a lot to offer in terms of technical management and motivation. If one subscribes to the thought that back in ONCE’s heyday every other team was doping equally, then Saiz obviously did have some exceptional skills beyond orchestrating a doping regime.

  4. That was the point I was trying to make, that Saiz isn’t too different from the others. Like Ricco, his problem was being caught. All the same, that’s no reason to come back, once you’ve been rumbled, I think it’s time for someone else to get their chance.

    I’d add that we don’t know Saiz’s plans. Some articles talk about a return to the big league, others mention a more modest youth team.

  5. Having just returned from a business trip to the Basque Country, I happened across a cache of Liberty Seguros kit at Etxeondo. Manolo Saiz obviously came up in the conversation and as he worked with Etxeondo extensively in the ONCE years, they are well placed to air their views. It seems that Saiz, despite his sins was an extremely good DS whose attention to detail was exemplary, an ideal partnership for EO whose insistence on “getting it right” is unsurpassed. If Puerto hadn’t happened, I’m pretty sure that a Contador led Liberty Seguros would have been the ONCE of the noughties.

  6. Mick, yes that was what I was getting at. Saiz revolutionised a lot, I think he has an engineering degree and brought some technical knowledge to bio-mechanics, frame design and aerodynamics. A good tactician too. But the drugs bust stands out, he’s got a lot to account for.

  7. Manolo Saiz ; was always worth a great quote : “You Jesus w#hore, i s#hit in your neck” being but one of them…..

    One of the earlier posts mentioned other team bosses & Sportdirectors with “blemishes.”
    Unfortunately, if that clinical moralistic (implied) approach was taken, we’d all be watching empty cars & riderless bikes .
    Selective Amnesia can be fatal.

  8. it’s obvious that for fans it’s not so pretty see that people who should guarantee for, at last on work, on race (it was so predictable the dismission of cobra by vancesoleil’s ds), riders’ neatness as a normal boss about his employeers’ honesty, are always the same guys who two days ago denied doping in peloton (true), the they after were caught with the needle in the arm, and today are the avanguarde de l’antidopage. personally I’m frustated to see my favourite pro team, euskadi, get probably his best season with gonzales de galdeano in the car, as well as to observe that a sub23 team, directed by former italian ’80-’90 pro-rider, chased from the GiroBIO. the only thing I want to know is if we would see in few years the pro-teams led by Vinokourov or Valverde. even also Basso. if is not only a question of rules, but of mentality, if not of culture, how to change if the people are always the same, and discriminations are made only by being caught or not? no mentions about riders’ managers.

  9. Mick – it wasn’t a crime when he was arrested, but it is now. But there is still an ongoing investigation into related elements, eg trafficking illegally imported hormones etc. That’s all part of Operation Galgo.

    Squadra – that was a point I wanted to make, that Saiz isn’t that different from others, except he got caught.

    gilbert – yes, the team staff are important. Often the rider gets 100% of the blame and the punishment but it is very rare they act alone. See for my take on Lorenzo Bernucci and Lampre for example. When a team hires a rider who has been caught doping they should think about finding ways to support the new rider (if they believe in riding clean), to make more of an effort.

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