A decision to let Andy Rihs’s cycling team race in the Tour de France marks a comeback for the Swiss entrepreneur whose hopes were once crushed in a doping scandal.
The co-owner of BMC Racing, which signed powerhouses like Cadel Evans and George Hincapie, tells swissinfo.ch there’s no bad blood between him and race organisers.
Rihs was the man behind Swiss firm Phonak when American rider Floyd Landis tested positive for doping in 2006. Landis had mounted a dizzying comeback days earlier to win the Tour de France, turning a dream marketing opportunity into a nightmare.
It was not the first time Phonak racers were caught cheating and the team collapsed. Rihs started anew using another one of his companies as the title sponsor, BMC, which makes high-end bicycles. Last week that team won one of six wild cards to join the race in July.
The 67-year-old from Zurich says creating a professional team is like growing a business. He also explains what he’s learnt since Phonak’s demise and why bikes are better than boardrooms.
swissinfo.ch: You have seen the highs and lows of cycling from extremely close up. In your heart do you still believe in the sport?
Andy Rihs: I believe very much in professional cycling because I think it is the leading sport in anti-doping today. A lot of other sports could probably learn from us on how to do it better. When somebody burns his fingers, he avoids doing it again. Before, all these other sports pointed their fingers at us, but now they should be quiet and make their sports clean, too.
swissinfo.ch: What will be different this time?
A.R.: The whole scenario has completely changed in regard to medical control systems compared with four or five years ago. The science has worked really hard with the labs and the pharmaceutical industry to avoid cases where a new drug comes up that has no test to detect it. Today, if people want to cheat, they’ll get caught relatively quickly.
We’re also seeing more Anglo-Saxon riders coming into the big game. Cycling is becoming more global and with that comes a higher importance on global media. It is also more professional in its business aspects.
swissinfo.ch: How did you convince big name riders to compete for you after such bad publicity?
A.R.: I work for many years with my good friend Jim Ochowicz, the American coach who really developed [seven-time Tour de France champion] Lance Armstrong. We started four years ago with a small farm team in California. You can’t just make a team and it’s there. It’s like a company; you have to grow it. In the end we need a team to promote our high-tech bicycles made in Switzerland.
BMC as a brand needs representation so we built it up. Now we have the right budget that can attract the right people. BMC has a good reputation. Otherwise people like Cadel Evans and George Hincapie wouldn’t come. It’s not just a question of money; it’s a personal thing.
swissinfo.ch: What about Fabian Cancellara? Wouldn’t a team with strong Swiss links do well to have arguably the best Swiss rider?
A.R.: Of course. Fabian Cancellara is an absolutely extraordinary rider and who, by the way, is still not finished in his development. He’s a great guy and would be perfect for us, that’s clear. Many riders are under contract and can’t just leave.
But we have Evans and Hincapie, one of the best known names in America. Everyone knows Lance [Armstrong], but a man like Hincapie is very popular in the US. This is one of our largest growth markets.
swissinfo.ch: How do running companies and owning a professional cycling team complement each other?
A.R.: It’s not just because I have fun cycling that I have a cycling team. I cycle all the time and it’s a good sport for me. But this was not the reason. We do it very clearly for business reasons because you want to sell more bicycles.
The power of cycling is extremely high on the media side, especially in communication and awareness. It’s still a sport that’s affordable, and it’s global. But the business is fun and we have fun.
swissinfo.ch: What does cycling do for you personally?
A.R.: Cycling is an enormous pleasure. You feel it in your body, in your brain. It’s alive. Sitting on a bike, riding around, climbing up mountains, looking, stopping – you have all these mental things going on, a real flow process. I’ve solved more problems on a bicycle than in the conference room. You get really clear in your head. A lot of top managers confirm this.
Tim Neville, swissinfo.ch
Andy Rihs is chairman of the board of Sonova Holding. The hearing healthcare firm, which had sales of SFr1 billion ($945 million) in 2007, was formerly known as Phonak before changing its name in 2007.
An avid cyclist, Rihs directed Phonak to sponsor a professional cycling team in the Tour de France before the team was dissolved following a suspension on doping charges.
Rihs is also owner of BMC, a bicycle manufacturing company started by American Bob Bigelow in 1986 as a part of the Raleigh brand. Rihs took the company over in 2001.
At the time of the BMC takeover, Rihs said sales were around SFr3million a year. Today the group has sales of around SFr75 million. Rihs says the business has grown about 20-25% over the past few years with sales expected to triple within the next five years. It is based near the heart of the Swiss watch-making industry in the Jura mountains of canton Solothurn.
Tour de France
The Tour de France is the biggest cycling race in the world.
Running from July 3-25, the 97th Tour de France will be made up of one prologue and 20 stages and will cover a total distance of 3,600 kilometres.