Being Bjarne

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“The Tour of Denmark has just finished. I’m there. I call him. You are here! Yes. But he is sick. Doesn’t feel good. I convince him I’ll come and visit for eight minutes. Give me eight minutes! Okay?” Our intrepid Dane gets his man, finally

Photographs: Fredrik Clement
Bjarne Riis

 

 


Last night Bjarne’s flight was delayed. He got to the hotel at one thirty in the morning and wanted to share a bottle of wine with his staff. We sat up for a couple of hours discussing, among many subjects, Tiger Woods’ extraordinary comeback. Bjarne was in a good mood.

In the morning we got into his team car and followed a bike race, a race Bjarne won three times in his prime. His Continental team were there as underdogs. It was uneventful, the riders are mostly young, learning the trade. Bjarne gave an inspirational speech afterwards, and so everyone hugged each other and that was it. The whole thing dismantled in thirty minutes.

His home in Denmark is one of those mansions you’d imagine he lives in. Austrian imported tiles. With 20-feet-tall windows overlooking the park and the bay. View: water. Of course. We arrive half tired but strangely also wonderfully wired. He wants to cook. I bought wine. We both want it to work. For three years, we have been trying to get together. Meaning, I have tried to get him to sit down with me uninterrupted for a couple of days. It’s a lot to ask of someone who doesn’t know you and is unsure of your intentions.


Bjarne Riis doesn’t answer the phone, he doesn’t answer texts or emails and when by chance I get him to respond, it is vague. He says he wants to do it. “When I’m ready”. Weeks turn into months. For a man with six children, a couple of homes and, on top of that, Virtu Cycling, an organisation which amongst other projects, contains two bike teams with many employees, his communication is suspiciously slow. The whole thing seems unsteady or half shaky. I ask around. Yep. That’s Bjarne, people say. He is cautious. Things take time.


A year passes. Small talk now and again. Text, text. Text. 18 months. Now he is at his mansion in Vejle. The Tour of Denmark has just finished. I’m there. I call him. You are here! Yes. But he is sick. Doesn’t feel good. I convince him I’ll come and visit for eight minutes. Give me eight minutes! Okay?


We spend the afternoon in silence watching, as it happens, the World Championships in Norway. His women’s team makes a respectable appearance in the TTT, and Bjarne is pleased. However, his shoulder is hurting. So he apologises. He tries to be polite. But the minute I got there, he regretted it. When I leave, I convince him to meet me again. Bjarne ends with his signature smile. The half-smile. “Okay,” he says. The cornerstone of all promising beginnings. “Okay, Bjarne. See you soon, Bjarne. All right, Bjarne,” I say, holding his hand.

It’ll be another year.

Bjarne Riis
Edited extract from issue 19.8, out now