When you think of personalities who have defined the world of professional cycling down the years, not many match up to Bjarne Riis.
But where some have attracted attention through a flamboyance on the bike or an engaging persona off it, ‘The Eagle from Herning’ has dominated the sport with a singularly brooding, enigmatic intensity.
This autobiography, ghost written by journalist Lars Steen Pedersen, is an attempt to peel back some of the mystery surrounding Riis, and shine a light on an unquestionably shady past.
It follows the Dane through his early days as a shy youth who found cycling to be an outlet where he could express himself.
Doping, and how he first got involved in it, is the reason the majority of readers will be buying a copy of Stages of Light and Dark. In the mould of confessionals from David Millar’s “Racing Through the Dark” and Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race”, Riis treads depressingly familiar ground with the story of a young pro initially dead against doping who was slowly beaten up by the superhuman performances going on around him.
But where the book differs is in the way Riis’ own drug use isn’t always central to the narrative. Barring chapter six, entitled ‘EPO in the Fridge’, when he tells the chilling story of leaving his children playing in the living room to inject himself with EPO, and chapter 19’s self-explanatory ‘The Confession’, there isn’t an awful lot of detail.
The methods he used barely get a second mention, and information on how much he took, how often and the impact it had on his performance are largely missing. Warts and all, this isn’t.
There’s plenty on notorious drug busts, such as the ‘Festina affair’ of 1998 and how Riis resorted to flushing EPO vials down the toilet, but it comes from the Dane’s point of view at the time, when he was trying to evade suspicion.
With the line “none of us wanted to be accused of anything we hadn’t done”, in relation to the media rooting through the trash outside team hotels in Pau, Riis amusingly echoes the innocence Hamilton tried to proclaim when busted for a transfusion of someone else’s blood in 2004 – presumably, while both doped, neither wanted to be accused of a method they hadn’t employed.
In describing his Tour de France-winning performance of 1996, Riis speaks at length about his form, in particular how he destroyed the field on a curtailed stage nine to Sestriere.
“During the last kilometre to the finish,” he recalls of the approach to the Austrian ski station, “I experienced a real rush of euphoria … and felt only positivity and pride at the way things had gone.” It’s a line that’s symptomatic of the lack of remorse Riis seemed to have towards doping. It’s as though he was able to push it to one side in the presumption that everyone else was doing the same thing.
With his confession in 2007, it’s easy to dismiss Riis as just another doper who used drugs as an easy way to the top. On the evidence of this book, though, that would be doing him a disservice.
As a teenager, after being told by a Danish national coach that he should “hang [his] bike up on a hook and give up riding” he became relentless in his pursuit of becoming a top cyclist.
He writes about having a prodigious work ethic, demonstrated by the story in which he rode all day through the snow one Christmas, at a time when many of his rivals would be indulging in some time off.
He dieted obsessively (as a manager he became known for carrying calipers to measure his riders’ ‘excess’ fat), he visited an acupuncturist and even slept in an altitude chamber at home, much to the annoyance of his now ex wife, Mette.
He also embraced a scientific approach towards training that was alien to a peloton who were still only concerned with how many miles they churned out.
To him, doping was just another factor in his relentless quest for the top, and one he believes is overplayed when it comes to making a champion bike racer. It’s maybe why he glosses over his drug use, in case it overshadows an achievement he feels he dedicated his life to reaching.
What he doesn’t gloss over is his sometimes fragile mental state. As much as Riis comes across as a stern, emotionless character, it’s in revelations of his shyness, his occasional bouts of depression and a tendency to be overly sensitive that the reader gets a true insight into the man.
But where the book comes alive is as a companion piece to Hamilton’s The Secret Race, which, as his former employer at CSC, Riis plays a huge role in.
Hamilton’s claim that Riis introduced him to the controversial doctor Eufemiano Fuentes isn’t supported. Stages of Light and Dark was published before The Secret Race, but responding to Hamilton’s allegations, Riis flatly denied them, saying he had never met the Spaniard.
And, as with Hamilton, when the confession finally came it was when Riis had been left with little alternative. Hamilton went through years of denial before finally telling all, first in 2010, to a grand jury during the federal investigation into doping on the US Postal team, and then as part of a 60 Minutes interview in 2011.
For Riis, the moment came following a succession of confessions by teammates on the Telekom squad he was part of during 1996. While he claims that confessing was something he’d thought about doing for some time, you can’t help question whether the admissions from the likes of Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag had backed him into a corner.
What isn’t in doubt is that Stages of Light and Dark is an important addition to the story of professional cycling, even if it lacks the searing detail of other recent ‘confessionals’.
Yes, Riis is more descriptive of his doping than he was in 2007, but you get the impression he hasn’t put all his cards on the table. Then again, this is a man still heavily rooted in the world of professional cycling; a man who, with his own team very much alive and kicking in the form of Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, still has a lot at stake.