The BMC Racing team announced Thursday that its team owner, Andreas Rihs, died at age 75 after what the team called a “patient and valiantly endured illness.”
Despite a tendency to defer the spotlight to his riders, Rihs was a giant in the world of professional road cycling and an irrepressible enthusiast for the sport. He founded the highly regarded bike company, BMC, and owned two successive teams at the top level of the sport that won two Tours de France, among other major events.
“Andy was not only an owner and main sponsor of BMC Racing Team, but also a friend who enjoyed life and loved sharing that joy,” the team said in a statement. “With him, an exemplary visionary, an avid sports fan, a passionate cyclist, and a great supporter of sport has left us.”
Tributes poured in from current and former BMC racers and others in the sport. Jonathan Vaughters, general manager of the EF Education First-Drapac team, remembered their shared love of wine. George Hincapie, who spent the last three years of his career with BMC, recalled Rihs’s “joie de vivre” and said it had been an honor to work for and be friends with him.
Rihs was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1942. In 1980, along with his brother Hans-Euli, he inherited Phonak, a Swiss hearing-aid company owned by their father, Ernst. He grew its sales to almost $2.5 billion dollars per year, and the fortune he made helped fund his love of cycling. He made a substantial donation to help build the Velodrome Suisse in Grenchen, Switzerland—the site of numerous recent World Hour Record attempts. But Phonak (which now exists as a part of holding company Sonova), was also tied to Rihs's lowest moment in the sport.
In 2000, Rihs fielded his first pro cycling team, under Phonak sponsorship. The team quickly found success, culminating with Floyd Landis’s stunning comeback win in the 2006 Tour. But when Landis tested positive for testosterone, the title was stripped and the team, which had been set to continue with a new sponsor, folded. Landis, of course, would eventually play a central role in bringing to light an even larger scandal, revolving around Lance Armstrong. Another prominent American who raced for Phonak was Tyler Hamilton, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and was later stripped of that title and other results for doping. In the years since, a number of riders on the team have either been caught, accused of, or admitted to doping.
Rihs was only momentarily chastened by the Landis debacle, however. In 2007, he fielded a third-division team sponsored by the bike company he founded, BMC. Steadily, the team grew in size, roster and budget, and won a Tour title with Cadel Evans in 2011. Today, the team is one of the largest and best-funded teams in cycling.
Rihs was a member of a long tradition of wealthy cycling enthusiasts who own teams, dating back at least to patrons of the peloton, like Bernard Tapie, who owned the powerhouse La Vie Claire team in the '80s that got Greg LeMond his first Tour victory. Rihs’s recent company in that exclusive club includes owners like Mitchelton-Scott’s Gerry Ryan and the controversial (and now ex-owner) Oleg Tinkov. In recent months, BMC team staff had been quietly searching for a replacement sponsor, as Rihs and BMC were said to be reducing their longtime support. None has yet been announced for 2019.
Rihs was a constant fixture at races, eager to spend time with riders and staff, and often seen on his own bike. He delighted in supporting his riders. In many years, the Tour de France had a rest day in the Provence region, where Rihs would put the team up at his luxurious Coquillade hotel and winery, even when it was many miles away from where other teams were staying. Rihs would bring cases of wine to the races at times for the staff to enjoy and sometimes liked to laughingly refer to himself as the team’s sommelier rather than its owner.