Magazine article Scandinavian Review

Bjarne Riis and the Emergence of Danish Cyclists

Magazine article Scandinavian Review

Bjarne Riis and the Emergence of Danish Cyclists

Article excerpt

Denmark enjoyed a prominent spot on the map of international cycling in the summer of 1996. Danish professional cyclists such as Bjarne Riis and Rolf Sorensen had long competed with moderate success at the top levels. Riis had even finished in third place in the 1995 Tour de France, professional cycling's greatest race. In 1996, however, Riis actually won the 83rd Tour de France, trading his red jersey as Danish national champion during the course of the Tour for the traditional yellow jersey as Tour leader, which Riis never relinquished. For his part, Sorensen was the silver medalist in the mens' road race at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta; he also won a stage, or day race, of the 1996 Tour de France.

Bjarne Rs, the Danish cyclist, became Blame Rs, the winner of the 1996 Tour de France, only after leaving Denmark a decade ago and improving, by small increments over a relatively long period of time, in races on the European circuit. Born in 1964 in Herning (Riis's nickname, perhaps due to his increasing baldness, is the "Herning eagle"), he left his homeland in 1986 to race as an amateur in Luxembourg. His first years as a racer were difficult, working to support himself in the mornings and training in the afternoons. He became a supporting rider to the Frenchman Laurent Fignon, himself a multiple Tour de France winner. After winning a stage of the 1989 Tour of Italy, Riis reexamined his career and set his sights higher. His development was gradual but unmistakable, climbing from a fifth-place finish in the 1993 Tour de France to third overall in 1995. "When I got third last year," Riis said during a pause in the '96 Tour, "I knew I had the capacity to win. I realized that if everything went right, if everything went my way, I could win the Tour." In 1996 everything went right, everything went his way, and he won the Tour de France.

Readers unfamiliar with professional cycling really only need to know one thing: Cyclists in the Tour de France are among the best conditioned athletes, if not the best, in the world. Imagine riding a bike each day for three weeks. No problem, you say? While you're at it, how about riding: an average of four and a half hours per day; at an average speed of forty kilometers per hour; over mountains such as the French Alps and the French-Spanish Pyrenees?

That was the 1996 Tour de France. More than two hundred cyclists rode in twenty-one daily stages across five countries, totaling 3,800 kilometers. Although Riis won by a "mere" one minute and forty-one seconds, he was clearly the superior rider in the '96 Tour. Whenever it was necessary, Riis controlled the crucial mountain stages and time trials during which large amounts of time are won or lost. Thousands of Danes lined the Champs Elysees for the final day's traditional finish, so many Danes, in fact, that all plane and train tickets from Copenhagen to Paris had been booked days in advance, in anticipation of Riis's victory. …

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