The world according to Brian Holm: The Deceuninck Quick-Step DS on doping, cancer, the Tour de France and what makes young riders tick

“I heard a lot about him, that he was a trouble-maker and wasn’t easy to work with and I called Patrick and said, ‘why would you sign him?’”

Brian Holm, in typically candid fashion, is describing a conversation he had with Deceuninck Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere after hearing the Belgian team were signing Philippe Gilbert from BMC in 2016.

It’s a fair assumption that the Dane’s first impressions of Classics specialist weren’t great.

But Lefevere had the perfect answer for his well-respected sports director – the guys who are the hardest to manager usually made the best riders.

Holm pauses for a second, breathes in and says: “And you know what? In that first year he won Flanders and he was good. Maybe not as good as 2012 but he won some good, good races and to see him coming in he’s probably the most professional rider I’ve ever worked with.”

It’s clear from chatting to Holm that his love of cycling runs deep. His career was eventful to say the least – and perhaps not always for the right reasons.

He almost died after a crash in the early part, helped his mate Bjarne Riis win the 1996 Tour de France in the middle part and then suffered the full force of the Danish press and public’s disgust after he admitted to doping in his 2002 autobiography.

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Holm, who also sits as a Conservative councillor in his home city of Copenhagen, considered retiring last season.

But, knowing how much he’ll miss the sport, he decided to cut a deal with Lefevere.

He said: “To be honest, you have to stop sooner or later. My son is 15, my daughter is 12 and I was missing them. Plus, I prefer to stop before someone asks me to.

“But, and there’s always a but, I think last year I probably did 170 travelling days so going to zero and completely stopping would be painful. I asked the boss if I could do 50 days and still be around, because I love the bikes, love the kids, the teams etc – and I got it. It’s a bit like rehab!

“It feels weird not going to training camps. I mean nobody is dead, but it’s strange for the first time in 18 years.”

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Last year, Quick-Step racked up an incredible 73 victories. This year, so far, they have 54 and also were in the unusual position, for them, of mounting a GC challenge at the Tour de France.

And while Julian Alaphilippe ultimately had to settle for fifth place, having spent two weeks in yellow, it was evident that the Wolf Pack don’t consider any challenge to be out of reach.

Holm believes the mental strength that exists within the team and the fact they treat each race with the same intensity has helped breed success.

“It was quite amazing what happened last season. We won a lot for sure and, of course, we have a system, or Patrick Lefevere does. Part of winning is that we do more races,” he said.

“I know Niki Terpstra and Michael Morkov always said if you have somebody coming to us from another team they would always say how amazing it was that we were always trying to win, even for the smallest race in Belgium we ride it like it’s the World Championships.

“We come in with bus, the truck, two mechanics and the riders never have a feeling that it’s a low budget team. We do that every race, not just for the Tour of Flanders.

“Some teams go just to race but we always go to win. Our team has four or five captains when most teams just have one.

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“We’ve never had a big, big star – although we had Tom Bonen in the past – or a Chris Froome or Sagan. The riders we have become superstars with us and then end up leaving because we cannot afford their salaries anymore.

“Every time we do a race we have a lot of communication so we always know everything about our riders – where they are, how they’re feeling, trouble with the wife. We always follow them quite closely.

“On top of that, we have Patrick. I think he turned sports director in 1979 – that’s quite a few years! We can always be surprised by cycling but I think he’s seen most things.

“Of course, he’s a hard man to work for but he knows the business for good and bad. But when there’s trouble, like when Ian Stannard between three Quick-Step riders in Het Nieuwsblad, he supports the team. You can always trust him because he also understands that losing is a part of cycling and sometimes you lose very big.

“That’s a part of it – when you’re winning a lot, you’re losing a lot also. Sometimes that can be more painful than other times but we have to learn to live with that.

“When we lose, we think that we can always win tomorrow because we always have 14, 15 or 16 riders who can win.”

Individual wins were not easy to come by for Holm during a professional career which started with living in a house with no heating in Belgium and culminated with him being part of one of the biggest teams in the peloton – Telekom.

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He was Danish national road race and time trial champion in 1990 and also took victories in a couple of prestigious semi-classics including Paris-Brussels in 1991.

Add to that, he has a clothing brand, 12.16, which is a reference to the Danish 10km TT record he set on the roads of Amager in 1982 and still stands to this day.

But his crowning glory was probably the 1996 Tour de France. It was a race he didn’t win but he did help fellow Dane – and good friend – Bjarne Riis to glory.

It was a victory built against a backdrop of team politics, fighting and a general distrust between the Danish and German factions of the team.

The Telekom team contained its fair share of big egos – Jan Ullrich, Erik Zabel, Riis himself and Rolf Aldag.

Holm admits the atmosphere wasn’t great: “To win it with Bjarne (Riis) we had to fight for three weeks. We didn’t only fight Festina, we also fought internally in the team because there was a big war going on.

“We were sitting at different ends of the table and we didn’t talk together, the team was really divided. But you’re young and you don’t really care!

“I remember we had me, Bjarne, Christian Henn in one block pretty much, and then you had Jan Ullrich pretty much left alone and the rest with (Rolf) Aldag, (Erik) Zabel and (Jens) Heppner who hated the Danish and we hated the Germans.

“But here we are now, 20 years later, the best friends I’ve got are like Zabel and Mr Aldag. Sometimes you need big fights to become good friends.

“When you go to a race like the Tour you feel like a soldier off to fight in Afghanistan – you’re ready to sacrifice your whole life to win.

“For sure, there was a big, big fight but it was just fantastic. Bjarne always believed he would win and so we did.”

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Those early days in Belgium with Riis and another Dane Jesper Skibby taught Holm a lot about the effort required to make it to the top of the sport in any capacity, let alone as one of its superstars.

I wondered if the world we live in today, where young riders are overnight sensations with the world at their feet, has changed the level of work needed.

Holm isn’t so sure that’s the case but does admit the advent of social media has changed certain expectations put on riders.

He said: “Thirty years ago to be a good rider you probably needed the same skills – to live with the pain, to live with the fear of being in the bunch sprint; all that stuff is the same and that won’t change.

“But, of course, they tend to have more money. As somebody once said, a professional cyclist can never make too much money because it’s so hard. And that’s good for the kids, they’re free of drugs, there’s no more doping and they can ride clean. The best one is winning and not doping but you couldn’t say that 20 years ago.

“And they go much, much faster today. They go so fast but you have the traffic islands, road furniture; it’s so dangerous these days.

“We lived in a flat – four guys – with no heating system making €10,000 a year and we couldn’t get home in the winter because we had no money so we just lived in Belgium.

“If I have to say something negative about the younger generation it’s that they’re getting so bloody boring. Nobody has an opinion about anything anymore but they’re probably playing on the social media with a press officer behind them.

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“Somebody beat one of our riders in a bunch sprint, he went on the bus and said ‘congratulations’ and I said ‘that’s bullshit, you hate him; he just beat you by 3cm’. People write stuff they don’t mean.

“But I understand it because the consequences are pretty big – you have sponsors and people watching.”

One thing that has changed in the cycling landscape is doping. While no-one can stand here and say the sport is absolutely squeaky clean, any doping today is not on the widespread scale in the 1980s, 1990s and before things came to a head in the late 2000s.

Holm confronted his own doping past in his 2002 autobiography and it’s fair to say the reaction he got in his home country, while expected, took an incredible toll on him. He lost his job as a national coach with the Danish cycling team and had to endure taunts in the street from journalists and passers-by.

But he said: “I expected it. I realised quite fast that if I was to write a book in 2002 and not mention doping – most people would probably know we had done something and that something was going on in cycling.

“I got a good friend from a big Danish paper and he said ‘if you write something, don’t lie’ so I remember I wrote it in about two weeks, alone, but that chapter probably took me another two weeks!

“I did not want to hurt anybody, I didn’t want to hurt old colleagues or cycling either. I wrote in the book that I had done something but never mentioned any names or colleagues so I was ready for the nasty questions.

“People asked me why I didn’t write any names of products and I said ‘I don’t want any kids to do it’ so I said I’d used something but didn’t say what.

“My house was surrounded by journalists for two weeks; every time I looked out of the window I thought ‘fuck, what have I done? Fuck, fuck, fuck’. There were TV programmes about me and the biggest programme we have said ‘send him to Sweden’!

“I always say that to move forward in life, you have to have some explosions and it can be painful. It wasn’t good fun for a few weeks but then people say that I was the first one to be honest and things start to get better.

“I remember talking to Aldag and Zabel and I said please just admit it. If we are to move forward then we cannot lie. We weren’t the only ones to do it.

“I said for a few weeks they’re going to shoot you, they’re going to yell at you in Germany for a couple of weeks but if you admit they can’t take you anymore. And they did.

“The only problem was they were shouted at for four or five years and not two weeks because the Germans are different from the Danish. Aldag called me and said ‘you fucking idiot! Why did you tell us to do it?’.

“But now if you ask them they’ll probably say it was the best thing they did. Afterwards, you could move on. Do I feel guilty about it? No fucking way because that was part of cycling in those days.

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“I would probably give my right arm to be able to ride clean like they do today. When I see young riders today, they should look at us and say ‘you took all the shit for us because we now have ten times the money’.

“Each generation is standing on the shoulders of the generation before and that will continue.

“As a young cyclist my dream was to never, ever do anything with doping; I just liked riding my bike like they do today.”

His battle with the press and public after the book came out lasted only a few weeks and Holm started to carve out a career as a DS, first with the T-Mobile team that morphed into the all-conquering HTC team and then with the various guises of Lefevere’s teams.

But little did he know after his doping confession that the hardest battle was still to come.

In 2004, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and didn’t know if he would live or die.

There’s no doubt such a life-changing event has altered Holm’s outlook on life. He talks about his battle with cancer – and his post-cancer life – with real clarity. There’s no bitterness that he was struck by the disease, just a sense that he’s been given a second chance to live all over again.

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He said: “That made the hardest Tour de France feel like a holiday – Club Med! Fighting with cancer when I didn’t know if I would survive or not cannot be compared with anything in life.

“After I survived that, nothing can hurt you anymore. It’s the nicest moment because with colon cancer you have less than a 50% chance to survive.

“When there’s a bigger chance that you’ll be dead in two years than alive you start to appreciate the little things in life. You don’t really give a fuck about anything anymore; you just wake up happy you have your wife and kids.

“After a few more years you say ‘Wow, it’s the best thing that happened to me’ because you changed your life afterwards.”

Keen to help others, Holm set up La Flamme Rouge, a charity which helps to support cancer patients and survivors through cycling.

His old protégé Mark Cavendish has given his support, as has the British fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, with whom Holm has been friends with for years.  

Holm is a self-confessed Anglophile so his friendship with Sir Paul is understandable.

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But the 56-year-old admits he doesn’t understand where his perceived love of fashion – he’s a regular on the papers of Danish lifestyle and fashion magazines and was last year voted the country’s second best-dressed man – comes from.

He laughs: “It’s a big honour – I always wonder why because I’m not that into fashion. I like suits but I always wear the same clothes – I’d go for Clarks desert boots for instance – it’s not very bling bling.

“I’ve always liked Britain since the 1970s. It was interesting because of the music, the clothes. I liked the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Slade. I’ve always loved British music. I used to live with the British cyclist Paul Watson and I still have a lot of contact with him – he was Mr Mod himself in the 1980s!

“I think from the earlier 1980s I got my addiction because all the styles that happened in the 70s – the glam in the early 1970s and then a bit more rock with Thin Lizzy – was always changing.”

You get the impression that a bit like some of his musical heroes, Holm is never keen to let the grass grow underneath his feet.

He knows the time to step back from cycling will come but, thankfully for us, that time isn’t quite yet…

Main image from a shoot for M•O•D Copenhagen.

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