Review: Riis

Lars Sten Pedersen & Bjarne Riis: Riis (People’s Press, 2010).

Denmark is a country where people use bikes a lot – both for transportation and exercise. So when Bjarne Riis, a modest man of very few words, in 1996 won the world’s toughest cycling race, the whole country went nuts. Huge crowds of people stood along the route he was driven from the airport to Tivoli Copenhagen, celebrating.
Some years later, he admitted to using EPO and other performance enhancing drugs, and just like that he went from hero to villain. Even though everyone riding back in those days, were on EPO and his admission came just shortly after his entire team from those days had admitted to the same. But in Denmark, everyone felt betrayed and it has taken a lot of work for Riis, to get back on the nation’s good side.
This book is about his life – from his childhood, riding his bike as hard as he could, partly to be able to spend time with his father, who was partly broken because of the eldest son drowning in the neighbor’s pool by accident. The accident also caused the parents to divorce and split Bjarne Riis and his brother up.
We follow him as he fight to become a professional – which is hard work. But he gets some lucky breaks and slowly works his way up as a rider, becoming better and better, finally culminating in the 1996 Tour de France win.
After that, things don’t always go as planned – especially not in the 1997 race where we all remember him throwing his specially made bike away after it failed him and it was a de-throned champion who rolled into the streets of Paris that year.
But he stuck to it, rode several years after this and still won some great victories.
And when injury stopped him, he took some time off figuring out what he wanted to do afterwards. Again, sort of by chance, he becomes the owner of his own team and decides to make it the best in the world – and succeed by implementing new tactics, new strategies and new training methods.
Alongside his story of his professional cycling career, Riis tells about his private life, his first marriage with Mette and later, his falling in love with Anne Dorthe Tanderup, one of Denmark’s best handball players, whom he met at OL in Atlanta, his divorce from Mette and later marriage to Anne Dorthe – as well as about his 6 sons. I really like how kind he is to Mette, his ex-wife, how kind he talks about her and how he puts all the blame of their divorce on himself.
The book is co-written with a Danish sports journalist who has written about other Danish sports personalities. Especially in the beginning, this is a very uneven book, jumping around from paragraph to pararaph and rather poorly written. This however, improves as the book progresses – or maybe it improves as the events get more interesting. I don’t like the use of present tense throughout in the book, especially not since it jumps in time, begins in 2007, then goes back in time and moves up.
Most times, it feels honest account of his life, his professional career, his personal relationships, his successes and failures. But it doesn’t all ring all true. He admits to taking EPO, he says it’s partly because of curiosity, partly because he wants to test the best out there, partly because it’s in the environment all around him. But even though he admits to it, he doesn’t really credit the EPO with his victories. Instead he talks a lot about all his hard training and loosing weight and always being at the forefront of new training techniques and that being the cause of his victories, not really crediting the EPO with anything.
I like the extra insights it gives into the professional cycling word, the small psychological tricks the riders use to intimidate each other, how hard it is to make it and how much it really takes if you want to win Tour de France.
The book is interesting because it deals with his entire career and life – that’s what gives it 4 stars – definitely not the writing.

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