Two years ago Manolo Saiz left cycling under a cloud of suspicion. A whirlwind of doping accusations and arrests were at the epicentre of some of cycling's ugliest scenes and consequently brought down one of the sport's most influential characters. Now, although the tremors still rumble on from Operación Puerto, the Spaniard is busy preparing himself for a comeback. He may be ready for cycling but, with his links to Puerto and the negative associations that surround him, it's unknown if cycling is ready for him?
The best of beginnings
Heralding from Torrelavega, Saiz became the archetypal directeur sportif of the 1990s. He managed the famous ONCE team from its inception in 1989, through to its reincarnation as Liberty Seguros in 2003. The dominant yellow machine – or yellow peril as they came to be known as - became one of the strongest outfits in professional cycling, racking up four Vueltas, Milano-Sanremo, and the Tour of Lombardy. There was a time when Saiz could do no wrong. Riders such as Laurent Jalabert, Alex Zülle, Roberto Heras, Abraham Olano, Melchor Mauri and even Carlos Sastre rolled through the ONCE doors.
Ever the innovator, he was the first directeur sportif to use team buses. Before that riders were either forced to hitch a ride from the mechanics and staff or even ride their bikes from hotels to the start line. Saiz revolutionised the way riders trained, too. His hands-on approach meant his riders were introduced to tailor-made training schedules, were kept up to date via fax and were riding for one purpose – the success of the team and not the individual.
The dream unravels
Yet three years after Liberty Seguros replaced ONCE as Saiz's main sponsor in 2003, his name, reputation and career were dragged into the murky cauldron of Operación Puerto. The story doesn't need retelling here, suffice to say that the director was arrested with a suitcase full of cash at the same time that Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes was arrested. In Fuentes office several blood bags were seized. Some were later linked to riders via an DNA analysis. Claims by Jörg Jaksche over the conduct and practice of the ONCE team didn't help but to this day Saiz still claims his innocence. Two years after the sport was rocked to its very core, the director wants to return.
That's not to say he's been completely out of the picture.
"I'm part of an amateur team because I always liked the nature and basis of cycling and I always cared about the young riders," he said. "Once in a while I have a meal with them to talk to them a bit about feeding and things like that. But I don't go to competitions at the moment," said Saiz. "If you had asked me if I wanted to return a year ago, I would have said 'no'. But if you ask me today, I'll say 'yes'. As soon as I can, I will come back to professional cycling. I am ready."
The Spanish Armada
Saiz's passion for the sport cannot be denied. Although he doesn't attend races, he still follows them from afar. "I truly spent a lot of time without watching cycling but lately I have watched it again," he admitted.
Saiz thinks the Spanish wins in the Giro d'Italia with Alberto Contador and in the Tour de France with Carlos Sastre show just how good the Spanish racing scene is.
"We must recognise that things are done very well from the bottom up in Spain," Saiz said. "Until riders turn into professionals, maybe due to the Spanish geography, maybe due to the mentality of the Spanish cycling people, they basically race many five-day or three-day races. And that gives them a basis for very good recovery at a young age. This year we are seeing great results but we also had riders like [Miguel] Indurain, [Pedro] Delgado, [Angel] Arroyo or Abraham Olano and many other riders in the earlier generations. The amateur teams do great work with riders and the results are seen in the professional field."
As well as Sastre and Contador, Joan Llaneras was among his coached riders. Llaneras won one gold medal and one silver medal in track competitions in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics.
"I saw his victory and watched with nothing but pride," Saiz said. "Llaneras is a rider who moved from the amateur to the professional field with us. He also stayed with us many years as a pro rider. We were the ones that started advising him that maybe he could perform better on the track. It is a great pride to see his age, the longevity I mentioned before that our riders have.
"I think Llaneras is a rider who deserves it because he faced difficult moments throughout his sporting career. He had to overcome them and all his accomplishments are important for him and the Spanish cycling. I think now with four medals he is the Spanish sportsman with most medals in the Olympic Games."
Easier said than done perhaps, and Saiz has no illusions about how hard a comeback might be. "It's not easy because it's a closed group with an owner [the UCI - ed.] and that owner has trained watchdogs. Undoubtedly, if I've made it once, people do not forget that and if someday I return to the world of cycling, it will be to become the world's number one again," he said. "There are people that have shown interest in working with me, including some sponsors."
"If someday I return to the world of cycling, it will be to become the world's number one again"
The thought of a director sportif with a controversial past at the head of large team is nothing new to cycling, making Saiz's rhetoric regarding a comeback not all that startling. While the former ONCE manager doesn't work as director anymore, does he see the current sidelined position as unfair?
"No, because I have taken the decision not to work," he said. "No one has prohibited me from working. I think other directors, like Riis, are free to say everything they want. There is no doubt he is a director with a great background and also with a great working capacity and that he is a valid director for the world of cycling. I think the world of sport should currently feel proud of Bjarne Riis."
While Saiz technically could have continued, there was growing resistance inside cycling against him. The ASO, UCI and other organisations are trying to clean up the image of cycling. Saiz believes part of the problem could have been avoided.
"First of all, we shouldn't have dirtied cycling so much," he added. "In cycling, one rider climbs Alpe d'Huez one second faster and all of a sudden people think there is something wrong. In almost all the events of the swimming competitions in the Olympic Games the world records were broken and people don't think that way. So maybe it is that we have dirtied our sport much more than we should have."
Formally, the Puerto affair and his own implication in the raids carried out in May 2006 are almost at an end for Saiz. What remains will be the air of suspicion and presumed association.
"It stated that there was no kind of culpability and there was a judicial challenge made by the ministry," he said. "Now we must wait for the judge's reply which without a doubt will be the same: that there was no kind of implication." The mention of Puerto still angers him.
"I feel cheated by my own country. I feel I was 'sold out' to the cycling establishment. Undoubtedly I feel innocent. I know perfectly well that I am not guilty."
So where now for Manolo Saiz? The hurdles he'll need to overcome in order to return to cycling are unclear. His court case maybe close to completion but some onlookers will not see his return as part of the clean slate cycling so desperately needs. One thing is for certain though. Cycling is not the same sport he left behind in 2006 and it's certainly not the one he dominated in the 1990s. If Saiz does manage to come back he'll be wise to follow the transparency that other teams like CSC-Saxo Bank, Garmin-Chipotle and Team Columbia embody. The fire may still burn within him but will that be enough? The tough times may not be over for Manolo Saiz.