Book Review: Riis, Stages of Light and Dark

Riis Stages of Light and Dark by Bjarne Riis

Bjarne Riis won the 1996 Tour de France and later confessed to doping. This alone makes his autobiography of interest because few have won the race, admitted they cheated and then wrote a book about the experience. But there’s more since as Riis has since become an influential team owner and the book covers a lot of his time in management.

A page-turning book that covers big moments in the sport and features an intriguing man with many news ideas for the sport… this is also a frustrating read.

The book is the work of a Danish journalist Lars Steen Pedersen who collaborated with Riis in 2010 to write the book. Since then it has been translated into English by British journalist Ellis Bacon and an epilogue has been added to cover recent events with the Saxo Bank team, notably the recruitment and suspension of Alberto Contador.

We get the usual narrative arc. The childhood days, the successful junior, the battles to turn pro. All this is formulaic for a cycling biography but Riis grew up in a very different environment to most. An older brother died, his parents divorced, his mother moves into a commune and Riis rarely sees her. Riis follows his father who jumps from girlfriend to girlfriend. The book tells how one Christmas morning he is woken by his father, not with good wishes but instructions to sneak out of the house as they’re on the move again.

There are some surprising personal insights. I won’t ruin the story but Riis believes he was poisoned by his own team during a stage race to make him quit. After winning the 1996 Tour Riis was slow to start training over the winter. Like many a weekend warrior he decided to use an indoor bike for training in the winter and puts on a Tour de France video for motivation. Only the footage is of him winning.

Riis is an innovator. Adept to new training methods, he takes a real interest in his bikes. He’s designing new things and even likes to set up the gears himself. When he won the 1996 Tour his bold attack on the climb to Hautacam was the defining moment. He attacked in the big chainring to intimidate his rivals. But it turns out he was using an early form of compact chainset and the big ring was a bluff, a psychological tactic. Similar methods get used in management, he takes a business-like approach to cycling with the aim of changing the way teams are run, adopting modern management techniques and strong public relations. In no time he turned Team Memory Card – Jack and Jones into Team CSC, the superteam of the day.

The latter part of the book has a good focus on running a team, it was this that I found the most rewarding. There are many rider biographies but Riis as a manager is a more interesting man. Instead of following the rules he begins to define them. As a pro he endured old-school management techniques where a team was run by a “dictator” (Riis’s words) and everyone followed; such techniques continue today. On retirement Riis studied for a business degree and seems to return to the sport like a fresh-faced MBA graduate. It’s simple when you think about it but Riis was one of the first to look outside of cycling for help, whether a special forces soldier to teach leadership or media experts for public relations guidance. And if you want to know what it’s like to manage the Schleck Brothers Riis gives some clues.

Bog is Danish for book and whilst you turn the pages, the book flows. But put it down and I found it feels like you’re stuck in a bog, sinking into a marsh of selective disclosure and a swamp of libel law as you start to reflect and question what is written.

If you wanted to document events in pro cycling during the past 25 years you could refer to this book but it remains a selective account, a story rather than a history. Riis can pour out the personal details but is very careful not to implicate others. He admits to using EPO and at times details his consumption of other banned substances in precise detail. When he’s on teams with apparently organised doping programmes none of this is mentioned; even though he tells how riders strolled into hotels with personal ice boxes to keep their stash of EPO cool when travelling. With one or two exceptions he is very careful not to name others involved in the traffic. This could be loyalty, it could be fear of litigation but it is frustrating because it is selective. Everyone is doing it but Riis acts alone.

Early in his phase as a team manager the test for banned substance EPO is validated and one of Riis’s riders, Bo Hamburger, has the shame of being the first athlete in history to be caught. Riis declares:

Every rider knows they will be fired if they get caught doping

It could be a linguistic slip by Riis, by Lars Steen Pedersen or translator Ellis Bacon. But the “get caught” point hints at how things were.

You can turn the pages of this book with ease. It goes beyond many rider biographies, covering time spent as a team owner and manager. Interviews with Riis often feature adjectives like “enigmatic” or mention his inscrutable gaze. After reading the book it still seems hard to understand Riis’s conception of pro cycling even if you can sense his steely ambition.

The D-word, doping, is an integral part butthe title “Stages of Light and Dark” might as well refer another D-word: disclosure. One minute Riis puts the spotlight on something but the next it feels like there’s obfuscation, we’re not able to see everything. An autobiography is meant to be a personal account but you feel there are personal omissions too, that you don’t get the whole story. One minute he’s detailing the personal pain of divorce but the next he skims over institutionalised doping in pro cycling during the 1990s. Apply some relativism and this book is ahead of others published by his peers, some of which belong in the fiction section given they refuse to confront the subject of doping.

Disclosure: this copy was sent for review.

A list of all previous book reviews can be found here.

23 thoughts on “Book Review: Riis, Stages of Light and Dark”

  1. I didn’t realize this book has details on what it was like for him to run Saxo Bank – thanks for pointing that out. Am looking forward to reading this.

    Riis takes a lot of cheap-shots from various media segments, but voluntary disclosure is a good thing. I think we need more people to step up and tell their tale, if the culture change in cycling is going to happen.

    Don’t really blame him for not spilling the beans on the rest of the industry as well – his story is his to tell, it is too much to expect him to burn all ties with the industry by naming names. Hell, even Kimmage hasn’t done that in his book. Willy Voet has, and what has it done, either for him or the industry?

  2. It could be a linguistic slip by Riis, by Lars Steen Pedersen or translator Ellis Bacon. But the “get caught” point hints at how things were.

    things were?
    …and a big ring is still a big ring, it aint no 39t, compact or not. Absolute friggin madness, and our sport is owned and run by a slew of these rehab cases. He’s great, he’s great, yes, yes but he doped to the eyeballs so as to push big chain rings up mountains. Now he is captain of a ship and loves his PR. Suckers we are.
    I am unapologetically an uber sceptic. I dont want to believe things are different, I want to believe things can be different, but I cant, not when I see who is in control.

    Anyway, doping starts at U23 nowadays, you are just polished off in the pro ranks.

    • @Rider Council: Things “were,” yes, and things “are,” but I like to believe to a much lesser degree. The choice of words, “…be fired if they get caught doping” is so obvious, IMO. Translation: We’ll (team managers, docs, etc.) supply you or get you hooked up with “providers, “but if you get caught…” you’re out of a job. The riders always have been and always will be the sacrificial lamb when it comes to doping.

      Do I think Riis knew what Contador was up to, you bet.

      One of the other latest high-profile cases, the top Russian contender for an Olympic medal, Denis Galimzyanov, wrote his letter of confession that he acted alone (right) whilst Katusha boss, Hans-Michael Holczer made the statement, “I will not put my hand in the fire for anybody.” Think Gerolsteiner in ’08 and his other teams with multiple dopers getting caught. Denis did not act alone, that’s for certain.

      Riis, Bruyneel, fill-in-the-blank with a name, are the old-school dictators (“rehab cases”) likely still trying to get away with whatever they can. Riis, with his colored past/childhood, became an overachiever-type…and like many survivors of a crummy upbringing, has demons and deep-seeded anger that plays out in different ways. Don’t have to be a psychologist to figure that out. Anything that will bring success = happiness in the minds of many like Riis, but underneath it all, the demons are still there. Ultimately, sad.

      Nevertheless, our sport is still embedded with a generation of cyclists-turned-managers and staff who had their fun during the dirtiest of times, most notably, the 90’s. Fortunately, we also have the Jonathan Vaughters (age 38) and the Bob Stapleton-types who have been very vocal about the importance of having a clean team/sport.

      Dave Brailsford has said, “…if you want experience of professional cycling you have to go back a long way to find people over 40 who haven’t been tainted in some way.” –, 15 February, 2011. Very true statement.

      I put my future and present hope in many U23 riders and other riders who seem to embody clean riding, like Taylor Phinney, Ryder Hesjedal, A. Talansky, TJVG, OGE and SKY riders as examples.
      I try to see the encouraging gains made and hope that this clean philosophy spreads until the “rehab cases” are gone from the sport. May be a long while until the scales tip the other way, but I hope they do tip far enough to see favorable results.

      • Correction to my statement: “The riders always have been and always will be the sacrificial lamb when it comes to doping.” I should have said that many riders have been and continue to be the sacrificial lamb when it comes to doping, but I also believe many did act outside teams’ knowledge.

      • Is it just me or do other people wonder about Jonathan Vaughters’ “doping stance” considering he rode for USPS?
        (Also, when looking into Ryder Hejedal’s history towards the end of the Giro I was sad to see he once rode for USPS too)
        Seriously, anyone riding for that team must have known what the Boss was upto and would surely have had the best “medical professionals” making sure they were ready to play their roles in the team.

        • @NickV: USPS had “systematic doping” while Bruyneel was DS according to credible sources, but not all riders were doped, I do believe. Vaughters rode only one season for USPS (’98-’99). Not fair to make him guilty by association only. He rode the TdF four times (Credit Agricole) but never completed the race — crashes, bee sting…basic bad luck. If you read enough about Vaughters, you’ll likely agree that he really stands behind his “clean” philosophies.

          USPS was Lance’s team (part owner) and he was certainly one of the ringmasters recruiting riders to engage in a practice that was still quite accepted at that time. Of course, his pal Johan ran the show. Landis, Hincapie, Hamilton, to name a few, were riders for US Postal who admitted to using PEDs like EPO, testosterone and growth hormone. But again, not all riders engaged in doping, per sworn testimony.

          A couple of weeks ago, there were two bloggers on INRNG who know Ryder Hesjedal from riding with/against him in the past. Both were certain that Ryder has always been clean and his name has never come up in doping discussions. Again, not guilty by association.

          Some riders do actually turn their heads the other way when it comes to cheating.

          • Vaughters has made big hints about moments when he wasn’t enjoying what he was doing on US Postal. He’s stuck because to admit anything would reawaken a pack of sleeping dogs, pile the pressure on him and some, like they do with Riis, would question everything.

            The trouble with naming people is that it leads to scapegoating of individuals when instead this was an institutional problem across the sport. If we still need to blame someone, go after those in charge of the sport who were sleep walking or worse, complicit.

      • Re Orica Green Edge, they are not beyond question. DS Matt White rode in what strong rumours and (arguably) credible confessions tell us was a very doped-up team (US Postal). DS Neil Stephens rode for Festina at the height of their doping program, he also rode for Once for many years under Manolo “Mr-Suitcase-Full-of-Cash-for-Fuentes” Sainz, was DS for Val Verde throughout his doping years (esp when Caisse D’Epargne stood behind AVV despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt) among other question marks. I really hope they are on the right side of the line as they both appear to be great guys with real ability when it comes to directing a team but there are valid questions for them to answer to put that beyond doubt.

        • Right on re. the Orica-GreenEdge DSs.
          As a Aussie, it was with great trepidation that I digested the news that Whitey and Stevo would run the team on the road.
          However, Shayne Bannan is the real boss and he has a very good record as the Aust. national coach for years.
          I guess the availability of 2 talented Aussie DSs with a lot of experience was enough to get them in the game and paper over a possible past that I’m sure no one at OGE PR is willing to discuss.

  3. Let’s hope Riis revisits this text at a later date when not so much is at stake for those implicated and fills in the blanks a bit more. We may have to wait for him to leave cycling for that to happen though.
    Long time either way.

    Interested to read this. Thanks.

  4. Here’s some helpful input from a Danish reader:

    In the Danish book it says: Alle ryttere ved, at de bliver fyret, hvis de bliver taget for doping.
    And Google translate that: All riders know they will be sacked if they are taken for doping.

    I don’t know if there is a difference in English between “get caught” and “are taken for”, but the Danish version do not imply that doping is tolerated, it simply says that if you disobey the rules regarding doping you get fired.

    Hopefully this explains the quote in more detail.

    • I don’t speak Danish, but I believe Riis meant what the translator thought he meant; the name of the game is indeed, sadly but unmistakably, “don’t get caught”, and probably will always be.
      I won’t read this book, as I never liked the man. The 3rd rate domestique at Guimard’s Castorama, turned secondary rider in the already ultra-beefed-up Ariostea legion of winners of Ferretti, who then goes on to win the Tour, with strong suspicions not only that he was doping but that he was taking it much further than anyone else ever (that’s what we expect him to comment upon).

      And the guy began the “my only objective is the Tour de France and I don’t ride anything else” stupid fashion of cyclists who focus in impressing audiences who don’t know cycling.

  5. But this quote is quite meaningless now it was written several years after the fact. How do we know he has changed how he thinks? Because he says so? Because any of them say so? Do we have concrete evidence things are changing? This has all happened before, let us not forget, please. What we should be concerned with (and it’s good to see some of the questions in the above posts) is how they can placate us within a short period of time. Owners, managers, directors know very well what goes on. They spend most of the year involved with their riders, their tests, their medical reports they know their abilities and they know very well what’s up. However, riders are still getting caught and the teams claim to know nothing. Thats too convenient, sorry. There are too many still in the sport that know how to play this game. We had a very serious corruption problem uncovered and those claiming to fix it were all involved. It does not add up. We can admire our heros but we can not let ourselves get carried away and because doping is such a bummer topic. I would imagine for journalists it has to be tough to be in the mix and yet continue to try and investigate more aggressively. However it seems that all they do now is report when something happens and chase the same doping story together because it’s safer, easier, less hassle that way. This is not good enough and very few out there have the balls like Kimmage. Can anyone name anyone currently shedding new light on the situation? Are journalists, much closer to the situation than us the easiest of all to mollify?

    • There’s a lot of race coverage but it takes a big budget for investigative journalism, both to fund someone for the work but also because you need to have a big warchest to defend yourself in legal action if you publish allegations. Cycling websites don’t have the budget and the biggest newspapers aren’t interested in story. This explains why the police have been the ones who have caused surprise.

      • I’m not sure how long the omertà will continue to take a hold. The anglicisation of cycling will bring with it the well-funded take-no-prisoners Fourth Estate. See how the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald etc all now cover cycling pretty much daily. L’Equipe is presumably not frightened of an exposé either. Any sniff of a scandal and they won’t hesitate but only if it sells copy – cycling has to be sufficiently mainstream and the investigative journalism will follow. However, the double standards across sports will be very depressing – tennis: “clean image”; cycling: “bunch of dopers” – yet I bet the former is currently dirtier than the latter and don’t even get me started on athletics!

        Anyway, back to Riis. I was never a massive fan (the doping thing just loses me) but I genuinely felt for him when the team deserted him at the back end of 2010. Does he discuss this? It just seemed so weird when they’d worked so hard together for Cancellara’s success in the Spring for it all to collapse in such acrimony a few months later. Mind you, I bet there’s a few of them regretting that decision now while they read about their current DS’s view of their sub-par performances in the press!

        • The same anglophone fourth estate asks almost no questions about football, rugby and other sports so don’t hold your breath. Investigative journalism is one thing, sports reporting another. It took years to crack the FIFA corruption story, the same with exposing the IOC.

          As for Riis, yes he covers the way his team was crumbling as Leopard was being formed, from what the Schlecks did and didn’t tell him to the way all the others on the squad, from riders to staff were going, plus some specifics on Cancellara who Riis eventually released from his contract.

          • Riis slowly lost his teams trust due to lack of presence and poor management from 2009-2011. Period. He focused on money prior to product (riders) development and slid away from doing what he does best: the fine tuning of riders. For years Kim A was the only one present on daily basis for the “chosen” riders – and therefore the bounds. Riis just showed up at TDF and claimed the steering wheel.

            As to Cancellara he was bought out solely by Trek money, and again Riis decided money before people. He COULD have kept him. But I think the rider(s) simply had had enough of him as the focus on securing his own money as team owner made him lose the close contact to his close employees = schoolboy error.

            The scapegoating of the Leopard-Trek backers and their management as reason for the crack of Saxo-Bank is wrong, it is all down to pure management by Riis, but I guess we have to wait until the people involved have their retirement founds secured from working life long in the closed circles of pro cycling and can find time to write biographies, or have them written.

          • Reading what INRNG wrote and El Gato de La Cala below sheds light on how there are always two sides (or more) to a story. And then there’s perspective, too. Everybody sees things from their own perspective and then these beliefs get published and we fans have a hard time getting to the truth. I guess the truth is what each believes to be true, but it’s subjective, so only one side of a story and likely not the truth.

            I’m not a Riis fan at all, but JB really looks to be the ultimate dirty, unethical liar.

  6. Love how there are riders that fans “know” are clean, without any data at all, other than they “ride for Garmin”, or “they would never stoop to doping”, or “my buddy rode with him on a media ride, and he was a nice guy”.

    Nobody is immune, or above suspicion. You make assumptions at your own peril.

  7. ^^ Good point.

    Someone puts out a nice “I am sorry” story and makes a bunch of public statements, and he is immediately forgiven. And others are perennially guilty b/c they don’t pander to the public. And the riders we like are never guilty, while the riders we don’t like are always guilty.

    Fans are, for the most part, ignorant idiots (me included).

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