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'I walked around London with Paul Weller, Paul Smith and Bradley Wiggins. Best day of my life’

Mark Bailey
7 Sep 2018

Danish cycling icon Brian Holm opens up about helping Riis win the 1996 Tour, mentoring Cavendish and the day he was declared dead

This article was originally published in Issue 57, February 2017

Brian Holm is reclining in an easy chair at his home in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen, shielded from the raw Danish winter by the amber glow of a wood burner. From the tea and muffins arranged on the table by his wife Christine to the snug blankets on the sofa and the pitter-patter of his children Albert, 13, and Mynte, 10, in the hallway, the scene radiates pure Danish ‘hygge’.

But Holm – with his chunky black glasses, cherry red Doc Martens and Hackett wax jacket – is an Anglophile at heart.

We’re here to discuss his career both as rider and directeur sportif, but conversation drifts to his love of British and Irish music (Thin Lizzy, David Bowie, Oasis), Mod culture, Steve McQueen and his jaunts to London, where he visits the RAF Museum and once ate three English breakfasts in a day.

‘I have always loved British culture and especially 1970s Britain,’ says Holm, 54.

‘I like the music, the clothes and the cycling style. People say I like fashion but really I just wear the same stuff.

‘I will never be a rapper with a dog chain as I would look f***ing stupid, but I like heritage. I bought my first Doc Martens in the 70s and I still wear them.

‘Britain has great style. You see it now with how fashionable London cyclists are. Before, people said, “Poor kid, why do you like cycling?” Now you are a cool f***er.’

Holm points out some prints on his wall: Englishmen in bowler hats, London bobbies, a shot of him with ‘The Modfather’ Paul Weller.

‘When I got invited to meet him I got straight on the plane. I would have quit my job for that. I walked around London with him, [fashion designer] Paul Smith and Bradley Wiggins. Best day of my life.’

When Holm says he might open a bookshop in Notting Hill, like a Danish Hugh Grant, I’m not sure he is joking.

Great Dane

In Denmark, Holm is known as the charismatic cyclist who supported fellow Dane Bjarne Riis in his 1996 Tour de France win (a victory later tainted by the riders’ confessions of doping) and as a city councillor for the Conservative People’s Party.

British cycling cognoscenti know him as a key influence on Mark Cavendish at Columbia-HTC and Etixx-Quick-Step (Holm was also best man at Cavendish’s wedding) and for his scene-stealing quips in Chasing Legends, the cult cycling documentary about Columbia-HTC’s 2009 Tour de France success.

When Holm collects me and the photographer from Copenhagen airport, he drives us around the city, pointing out the gritty boxing club where he used to train in winter and the church where he once worked as a bricklayer, toiling away with frozen fingers to repair the roof.

‘My first memory of cycling was 1971, when I got a Peugeot bike. My father was a bricklayer and I was in a local amateur team called Amager Cykle Ring.

‘In winter my mother wouldn’t let me take my mudguard off because I was getting my jersey dirty so I was the only guy in the club with a mudguard. Not cool.

‘I raced every Sunday until 1979 and then we got a new trainer, Leif Mortensen – Amateur World Champion in 1969 and sixth in the Tour [1971]. He asked me how much I trained. I said never!

‘He started to help me and in the early 1980s me and my friends won all the track, cyclocross, road, time-trials and team time-trials as amateurs.’

Combining manual labour and training wasn’t easy. ‘I still hold the Danish 10km road record, which I set in 1980. I wanted to try the 10km record on the track later that year, but I was still a bricklayer.

‘My father said I could leave at 2pm to try for the record at the track. After 5km I died totally. I looked like a bloody idiot. At 5am I was up for work again.’

Disappointment followed at the 1984 Olympics when Holm and his team pursuit colleagues were knocked out in the quarter-finals by the USA.

‘We found that the Americans were blood-doped and I was so disappointed. I was sure we would be Olympic champions. I never forgot that.’

Pro dreams

After finishing fourth in the amateur road race at the 1985 World Championships, Holm was ready to quit, but in December he received a call from Guillaume Driessens, manager at Belgian team Roland-Van de Ven, offering him a pro contract.

‘I saw the wage was 320,000. I thought, “That is crazy money.” But it was Belgian francs, not French francs. I had signed for 10,000 Euros a year for three years.

'Luckily Riis and [Tour, Giro and Vuelta stage winner] Jesper Skibby did the same so we were in the same boat.'

In Holm’s first year as a pro he died – briefly. ‘I broke my skull and was declared dead after a crash at the GP Stad Vilvoorde [in Belgium] on 26th April 1986 – the same day as the Chernobyl disaster.

‘My mother came and I was given the last oil by a Catholic priest. Sean Kelly’s wife Linda came to see me every day for five weeks because the hospital was near to where they lived.

‘But I woke up after three days and I was back in business. With a headache, of course.’ Was he afraid of riding again? ‘Not when you’re young. You think you are master of the universe, then you get older and realise you were wrong.’

Holm’s early days as a pro were gruelling but his work as a bricklayer had galvanised his spirit.

‘We were three guys living in a room in Belgium with no heating, sleeping by the oven. I didn’t even have the money to go home over the winter.

‘It was hard but I knew if I went home I’d be a bricklayer, getting up at 4.45am and lying on that church roof in the cold, so if I felt lazy in training I’d say, “OK, I can do another 100km.”’

Holm and his colleagues were dubbed the ‘Danish Coffee Club’. If any rider messed with them they would soon have a horde of Vikings on their back.

‘We were a group of about 10 pros in Italy, Belgium, Spain and France and we stuck together.

‘We were all different – Skibby was the funny guy, Riis the strange guy, [Rolf] Sorsensen [who won 53 races] the winner. If there were crosswinds it didn’t matter what team we were in, we would make an echelon and move up together.

‘People thought, “Here they come.” We were saying, “Don’t mess. We make the rules.” They were the good old days.’

Life on tour

Holm enjoyed personal success, winning Paris-Brussels and Paris-Camembert in 1991 and finishing seventh at Paris-Roubaix in 1996.

‘From 1986 to 1991 I won two to three races every year but from 1993 when I joined Team Telekom I was a domestique.

‘Before Riis won the Tour in 1996 nobody believed he could do it. It was a big battle with the Germans and the team was divided, with Erik Zabel, Rolf Aldag and Jan Ullrich in one group and Riis and me, so it was like two teams not talking to each other.’

On the riders’ return to Denmark, they were treated like heroes. ‘We were flown back to Copenhagen in a private jet and when we landed the firefighters made gates of water.

‘We thought: has there been an accident? Then we were put on a truck and we felt like The Beatles. There were 250,000 people on the roads.

‘People were yelling. We lost it. Skibby had a crazy haircut, we were going to discos and there were girls everywhere. I loved it.’

The Danish riders are still friends today and have formed the Danish Professional Cycling Club. They meet up for dinners and weekend rides.

‘Back then we were so jealous of each other,’ chuckles Holm. ‘When Skibby heard I won Paris-Brussels he was crying. But we were also friends and looked out for each other if someone needed a contract.

‘But if you’re not a bit jealous, go home and get another job. You need that jealousy to drive you.’

Holm says the life of a pro cyclist was far from glamorous. ‘I broke my skull because I needed prize money for food,’ he says.

‘These days after a few years the kids don’t have to work any more, although some forget to divide their income by 50 years. Then the calculator doesn’t look so good.’

Hard racing

‘But the racing is harder today. If we had a 200km stage we’d race after 150km when we saw the helicopter and knew we were on TV. Today it’s anarchy from kilometre zero. Two weeks into the Tour everyone is ill with bronchitis or broken bones.

‘In my time Bernard Hinault or Mario Cipollini would go to the front and say, “Take it easy, gentlemen. We’ll race later.”’

Obsession with weight was just as common. Holm became so thin he could see veins in his buttocks. ‘You learned to go to bed hungry. It’s all in your head.

‘You convince yourself you love rain and you love wet cobblestones. If you tell yourself 200-300 times a day, you start to believe it. Even today I love rain because I have said it so many times.

‘You convince yourself you don’t need cookies and you don’t like butter or cheese. Maybe 90% of this cycling life, you have to learn.’

After retiring in 1998, Holm released an autobiography in 2002 called Smerten – Glaeden (The Pain – The Joy) in which he admitted doping.

‘Wow, it just exploded around me. People were yelling at me in the street, spitting at me. I was a national coach and they sacked me.

‘School kids on the bus would look down at me in my car and make injection signs at me. But then something happened. After a few weeks, they left me alone.

‘I had been honest so everyone flipped over to the next story. Life was about moving on.’

Holm openly admits his mistakes but insists they be viewed in the context of an era rife with doping. ‘I think it’s different if somebody hides it, like Ullrich did for many years, but I said: admit it, face it, move on.

‘If someone from my time complains then I listen. But some idiots coming along 20 years later, that is a joke. I regret that I rode in a period with such useless leadership. That is how I am sorry.

‘I think about the young riders today: be happy you make more money and ride around in big buses because we took all the shit for you. I regret everything was like that, just like I regret that my Olympic medal went to the Americans with their doping.

‘It was the system and the system was wrong. I think the sport is as clean as it can be and there is now a really a good sense of justice in the bunch.’

The director’s cut

Since retiring Holm has worked as a directeur sportif, first for T-Mobile (which morphed into Columbia-HTC) and now for Quick-Step Floors.

‘Joining T-Mobile was like joining Manchester United. They were the biggest thing in cycling. We had young guys like [Andre] Greipel, Cav and [Matt] Goss winning like crazy and we had a really good atmosphere in the team.’

Holm’s blend of brutal honesty and brotherly banter has proven to be a potent motivator, especially for Mark Cavendish.

What makes him special? ‘Keep in mind that he has done it since 2007 and I’ve heard the same bollocks every year: he is too little, too fat.

‘But he has unbelievable focus. Sometimes I think of his poor wife Peta because he gets what I call the “foreign legion” look in his eyes, when he gets so focused.

‘Look at Milan-San Remo [where Cav beat Heinrich Haussler by one inch in 2009]: he can dig so deep, he is just unbelievable. He has a mindset I haven’t seen before – and he can live with the stress, which is also amazing.’

Part of the skillset of a sports director is to adapt to the personalities of the riders. Different characters require different messages in the car and in training.

‘It takes me two to three years to really know a rider,’ says Holm. ‘Only then do I know which buttons to push.

‘If Greipel lost and you told him what was written in the papers he wouldn’t like it. But if Cav gets beaten and you say, “Hey, they’re writing that you’re eating too many doughnuts,” he will say, “What the f***? Tomorrow, I’m going to win.”

Easy to work with

‘You can grab him by the ear and tell him to shut up and he’s happy. He’s so easy to work with as he always listens, always follows the programme.

‘I’ve only worked with Marcel Kittel [at Etixx-Quick-Step] a short time but he is different again. Maybe with Kittel or Greipel or Tony Martin you have to take care of your voice.

‘But Kittel is a nice kid, very polite, a gentleman. Anyway, let’s be honest, Cav would have won all those races even if the bus driver was sports director.’

Holm is a busy man. Alongside his political and cycling commitments, he founded cancer charity La Flamme Rouge after surviving colon cancer in 2004.

He enjoys cyclocross and motorbikes and loves reading about his cycling fashion icon Roger De Vlaeminck.

He is working on a clothing range called 12:16 (named after his Danish 10km time-trial record) which will launch in the UK next year, and is involved in a Bioracer clothing franchise in Copenhagen.

‘It’s better to have too much to do than too little. A friend told me to follow the 10-20-30 rule.

‘Always save 10% of your money; read for 20 minutes every day about politics and culture, then you can jump into a conversation with anyone from the mayor to the guy who takes care of your garbage; and exercise for 30 minutes a day to keep healthy. It is a good system.’

As darkness falls outside, Holm says he is looking forward to the next boisterous gathering of the Danish Professional Cycling Club.

‘We are like soldiers from Stalingrad sharing old stories,’ he chuckles. ‘You still remember if somebody flicked you in a race 20 years after: “I closed that gap for you, you said you would give me £1,000!” “I paid you!” “No, you didn’t!”

‘Everyone now thinks our stories are exaggerated so we have to cut them down by 25% or people think we are crazy. But the funny thing is… they are all true.’

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