Before It All Went Sideways – Johan Bruyneel

A 2008 interview brings up all things Lance and racing

Photos: Bettini and Conley

Over the last decade, Johan Bruyneel has managed one of the most successful franchises in professional sports. His teams have won eight Tours de France in nine years, as well as one Giro d’Italia and one Vuelta a Espa¤a. He has had remarkable success as a sports manager with the U.S. Postal Pro Cycling team and Discovery Channel Pro Cycling team. Bruyneel helped turn this lowly American team into one of the top franchises in sport, with Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France seven years in a row, from 1999-2005. After a year’s hiatus from winning in 2006, Bruyneel and his Discovery Channel team came back in 2007 to win the Tour de France again, this time with 24-year-old phenom Alberto Contador.

But Bruyneel decided that he had accomplished all he could in the sport of cycling and needed a break to spend more time with his wife and young daughter. As the Discovery Channel team didn’t find a sponsor for the2008 season, 43-year-old Bruyneel decided to take a break and retire from the sport of cycling. At press time, Bruyneel was contemplating a lucrative offer from Astana to take over the management of their squad for 2008, but when RBA sat down with a relaxed Bruyneel at his villa outside of Madrid on a warm fall afternoon, the calm, cool Belgian didn’t seem too anxious to return to the stress of the pro peloton.

Road Bike Action: Johan, you told me something very interesting about how the 2008 Tour de France started for you?
Johan Bruyneel: After three days at the Tour, I called my wife in Madrid and told her ‘it’s good that I’m here now, but I realize I’m done with this. I’m just going to get through this Tour.’ Already after three days of this year’s Tour, I realized I’m never going to be in the caravan anymore. After we won the Tour, the decision was even easier for me. The question was: could I do more? The answer was no!

RBA: What did your wife say?
JB: Oh, she was happy! It was not a surprise for her. I’ve been thinking over the last few years that I’ve wanted to spend more time with my family. When you are away so much, you don’t know what’s going on in your own house.  My daughter is starting school and I want to be there for the first day of school, but I can’t. Plus there is the whole buildup of all the negative atmosphere (in cycling), especially at the Tour de France. I think all the teams should be working together rather than working against each other; it’s just like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.


RBA: The 2007 Tour was your eighth Tour win in nine years…how would you compare this year’s win to the other years?
JB: This year was very special for me personally, because everybody has always associated my name with that of Lance. First of all, it was an honor for me to work with Lance; he’s one of the greatest athletes in the world. And at the same time, a lot of people said ?anybody could [win the Tour] with Armstrong’…so it was very, very nice to win the Tour with another rider two years after Lance retired. It wasn’t an easy victory, with a lot of tactics and, of course, a lot of other things happened too. Still, Contador was one of the strongest riders in the Tour. So I was very, very proud of the win this year, because I knew it was something I was missing in my cycling history.

RBA: And 2006 was not the best year at the Tour for the Discovery Channel team…
JB: You know, it was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, so we had to restructure the team, to rebuild a house in a few months. Our team had been built around one person for seven years. It’s difficult to change it in one year. But I’m glad it went that way in 2006, because it just shows you can’t take anything for granted, that you have to work hard. It doesn’t come naturally to always win. It was very, very satisfying but, for many different reasons, difficult. I didn’t enjoy the Tour de France this year. I did enjoy the fact we won, because it would have an impact on Contador’s life. He’s a young kid who won the Tour de France, he’s a hero, and I think he has a bright future. It had a big impact on my life, too. You really have to be inside to understand.

RBA: Did you enjoy the Tour that much in previous years?
JB: No! It’s difficult to enjoy the Tour de France if you are there to win. It’s very difficult first of all, because you have to be alert, and then the Tour is so big compared to any other cycling events, with the media attention, the people, the stress, the pressure to perform, it comes from everywhere. You can’t really enjoy the Tour, but I must say I enjoyed the Tour as an event itself in 2006, because there was a lot of time for joking and relaxing that year. It was different. But at the same time, I didn’t like to be in that position.

Photo Bettini

RBA: How do you suppose that Lance Armstrong got through seven Tours in a row without a crash, a flat tire or any other bad luck or other major problems?
JB: Well, not always; in 2003, everything went wrong, and I think Lance won that year because he was so strong mentally. There were probably four or five riders who were stronger than him. With the exception of 2003, I think Lance was always the strongest rider in the Tour, which makes things easier. And I think in 2001, when Lance did his bluff on l’Alpe d’Huez, we saw that the [U.S. Postal] team was not so strong. In other years the team was just amazingly strong; we had built the team exclusively for the Tour de France with the best athletes. So if you have the strongest rider, the strongest team and on top of that you are just focused on Tour de France, it’s hard to be beat.

RBA: How do you look at the Discovery Channel Tour de France team this year? It was a very different team than you’ve fielded before.
JB: It was a challenge this year, and as a team manager, I tried to rebuild a team with cohesion. To get a team together and get results, and if you’re fighting to win, that’s different than fighting for fifth place. Last year in the Vuelta at the start of the race, we had a hard time to get the team to work together because there were different individuals. For some reason, our teams have always worked well together. In this year’s Tour, you saw we had an amazing team. A team that all of a sudden began to believe in a young kid, where there were no guarantees. Guys like George Hincapie, who was always there 100 percent for Lance, who really started to believe in Contador, or even Levi, who was the original leader of the team. All of sudden, he was riding like a super domestique. I think it says a lot about the way we have run the team and the way we have dealt with things. It’s not always easy, because everybody has their ambitions. But at the same time, we’ve always been able to maintain that common sense of working towards a goal together. Over the years, people have left the team because they didn’t fit that philosophy anymore. When Tyler Hamilton left, he wanted to be a leader. When Floyd left he wanted to be a leader. So, I think that’s logical. But we’ve always been able to maintain the core group, a great, great team working together.

RBA: What role did Lance Armstrong play regarding this year’s Tour de France success?
JB: Well, Lance called a few time and talked to Contador, and he was really involved by calling me all the time. It was a good feeling to have Lance’s perspective; you can know what’s going on inside the race, but someone like Lance, who has been there and is looking at the race from a distance, has an interesting perspective. One of my most important principles is that whenever I have to make an important decision, I try to consult with people that I believe in and trust. For the last ten years of my life, Lance has been that person in my life. We have always been on the same wavelength, because we have mutual respect for each other. Lance would call me after the stage, and I remember after Stage 9 from Val-d’IsŠre to Brian‡on, he called me, and he said ‘hey man, after what I saw from Contador on the Galibier, I think he can win the Tour.’ So from that point on, Lance got more and more involved.

RBA: So, Contador was not a fluke who won the Tour because a rider ahead of him was pulled out?
JB: Look, you have to face it, normally Rasmussen would have won the Tour de France. He was the strongest guy. But at the same time, Contador was right behind him in second. So it’s going to be challenging for Contador, because everywhere he goes, he’s going to start as the favorite. That is probably one of the most difficult things a champion has to deal with; the pressure, the responsibility, not being able to make any mistakes.

Levi Leipheimer at speed.

RBA: Besides Contador, Discovery Channel had another rider on the podium at the Tour De France, Levi Leipheimer, who went on to become USPRO Champion. What is your perception of Levi?
JB: There is one thing I can say about Levi this year: he’s been great for the team. He’s had his best season ever and perhaps his most difficult season ever. He has been very, very professional. First he was brought to the team and was going to be a leader. Then Basso came on the scene and it must have been difficult for him, but he accepted that and acted very professionally about it. Then when Basso was gone, Levi was ready to take up the team leadership again. At the Tour, all of a sudden, Contador was the strongest rider and once again, Levi was very professional. He looked out for his own chances, but also did what he had to do for the team. So I have only positive things to say about Levi, and was happy he could win the [USPRO] Championship. He was good for the team from the Tour of California, an important race for us to win at the start of the season, and he won it. He was preparing for the Tour and meanwhile he won two stages in Georgia. Last year after the Tour, when we decided to take him, he went to the [USPRO] Championship and it’s not a secret, but he was a teammate for George [Hincapie] there.

RBA: What about the decision by Rabobank to pull Yellow Jersey Michael Rasmussen out of the Tour? Should he have even started the Tour?
It’s not clear how many tests he missed, but once he was at the Tour de France, I honestly don’t think he should have left it. At the same time, knowing what kind of situation cycling is in right now, and knowing the Tour de France is putting the highest standards in place, I think Rabobank took a risk by selecting [Rasmussen]. The question is would all this have happened if Rasmussen had not been the Yellow Jersey? So that’s another thing; in the Tour, as soon as you have the Yellow Jersey, the storm starts. So I think considering all the elements, it probably would have been wiser if Rasmussen had not started.

RBA: Johan, how did you get involved with cycling?
JB: My father was head of a local cycle tourist club. So, when I was thirteen, I started to go on the Sunday rides with my father’s club, and even if I was a young kid, I was surprisingly good compared to a lot of those older guys who were like 25 or 30. My mother’s cousin was a very good professional rider. His name was Georges Vandenberghe, and he had the Maillot Jaune for 11 days in 1968. He was Eddy Merckx’s teammate on the Faema team, so there was a cycling history in my family. When I was fifteen, I took a racing license in the same club as my cousins and started to race, and I was immediately a really good rider. But it was never my intention to turn professional. My last year as an amateur, 1986, I was really focusing on the track. I did the World Championships in 1985 in Italy and 1986 in the U.S. And the winter of ’85-’86, I did the amateur 6-Day circuit with Lorenzo Lapage [assistant sports director-Discovery Channel]. After I came from the U.S., I won the GP Eddy Merckx time trial and was contacted by a new, little Belgian pro team S.E.F.B. with two or three experienced riders and the rest new pros. The director was Ferdinand Bracke, who was a former World Hour-Record holder and a time trial specialist. He was at the race and offered me a place on the team.

RBA: Tell us about the ’93 Tour, when you set the single stage speed record of 30.7mph from Evreux to Amiens. I understand your father had just passed away…
JB: It was an amazing experience for me…I still think of that because it was very special. Sometimes, if you have a special motivation, you can do extraordinary things. You get in a different state, in the zone. I remember I had planned on this stage, and during the stage I felt better and better. There was an early break that came back and the peloton was blown apart. I made the front group with some strong riders and I attacked from that group. No one wanted to come with me because it was too early, but I remember that from the moment I went, I thought ?they will never see me again.’ I was gone. So those 20 kilometers to Amiens, it must have been twenty minutes or so because I was going 60km/hr, was just the most amazing experience. No pain, no joy, no sadness…just ?I have to do this’. I was on automatic pilot and was gone. I remember crossing the finish line in Amiens and I wasn’t emotional or anything…just ?get it done’. I know now Pwasn’t riding alone that day.

RBA: Last year, the Discovery Channel team signed Ivan Basso with great fanfare. What happened there?
JB: I have to say that [Basso] definitely didn’t tell me the truth. When we decided to sign Basso, he had been cleared by the Italian Olympic Committee. But after that, they went after him again. Based on what he told us, it was a clear decision to sign him. Afterwards, after he confessed, I definitely don’t feel good about it. I know that sportsmen-cyclists in this case-are ambitious, and with that, you have to be selfish. Basso was thinking about himself selfishly. At first I thought we had done everything right, but when I heard about the second investigation, I thought, ?oh this isn’t right.’ Shortly after that, Basso came to my place in Madrid and told me ?I don’t see a way out of this,’ and that he had to confess. That was a big surprise and a big disappointment for me. At the same time, I think our team did things in the right way. Was it the right decision to sign Basso? In hindsight it was not, but at the time we did it, I thought it was the right decision.

RBA: Do you think that the approach that Vaughters is advocating with his Slipstream team and their own drug testing program is the correct way to go?
JB: When you have an aggressive marketing strategy, you can sell anything.

RBA: In general, where do you stand on these team administered drug-testing programs?
JB: I see where cycling is now, and to regain credibility, certain things have to be done. For example, putting in place an aggressive [team administered drug testing] program like CSC or T-Mobile is important going forward for teams. At the same time, when I look back at our last nine years (U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel), we’ve been very competitive and had the greatest champions and we’ve been under fire all the time, but we’ve never had a positive case or anyone with irregular blood values. We have never had a positive test on our team, or a rider who was unable to start because of blood values. I think that’s a pretty positive track record. Some riders have gotten in trouble when they left our team, so I don’t think we’ve done a bad job ourselves. I can tell you now that there have been instances where we have sent people home because we had reason to…from our own internal checks.

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