“We Might As Well Win” – given that record of Grand Tour triumphs, a more fitting title for his new book would be hard to think of. His recent Giro d’Italia win is his 10th Grand Tour victory – and maybe his sweetest – considering the out-right snubbing he and his Astana team received from the ASO and RCS earlier this year, denying them entry to both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.
But just days before this year’s Giro began, big boss Sr. Zomegnan changed his mind and invited Johan’s team. With both Contador and Leipheimer on the start line, this Giro’s roster got a healthy boost of quality, with some serious ‘foreign’ talent ready give the homeboys a run for their money and maintain the race’s cred beyond that of just regional playoffs – good stuff for the riders, the fans, and the Giro.
No begging here… When you win everything else, who needs the Tour de France?
And with the June 1 triumph just a day old when we talked, this was the obvious place to start the interview…
PEZ: So, first of all congratulations!
Johan Thank you, thank you. It was a pretty unexpected victory, but very sweet.
PEZ: How do you feel? What was the mood like with the team yesterday and last night?
Johan Ah great! I mean, we came into it and we had no expectations at all because we were put on late notice eight days before the start, and that’s not the way we are used to doing things. I think one of our strong points is always the planning and the scheduling.
PEZ: So you’re kind of always sort of ninety percent or eighty percent ready for anything?
Johan Always ready, we had seen the courses and we had checked out all the climbs, and in a short time of ten hours we had to select the team and the staff. We had to prepare all the flights and the traveling and get the buses there. It was a nightmare. Then of course physically and mentally get the riders ready for a three-week tour.
Little did anyone know how different things would be three weeks after the Giro ’08 team presentation in Palermo.
More Than Just A Win
PEZ: From the fan perspective, it was a great victory for a couple of reasons. One, it confirms Contador’s pedigree as a great stage racer. It’s really cool that Contador has now won two consecutive Grand Tours. The other thing, is what better way to show the ASO the reality of not inviting you guys to the Tour and then going out and winning.
Johan I can’t say that didn’t play a role, it was definitely a huge motivator. For Alberto and me there’s different ways to try and make an argument for things. I think we have been very quiet vocally… that’s our decision. We have shown from the very start with this team and we deserve to be in every single big race. We started with winning the Tour de California which was in my opinion the first big race of the season, internationally. Then at Paris-Nice and the Tirreno-Adriatic we were not allowed to participate so we went to the next one which was the Tour of Castilla y Leon, and we won that. Then we won Tour of the Basque Country and we won Tour of Romandie, and now finally the Tour of Italy.
So, even if we don’t win a single race for the rest of the year it’s a great success already, but I’m convinced that we’re going to do more. Each time we win, I have to say that the mood in the team is definitely “what will they say now in Paris?”
PEZ: Are you in contact with the ASO? Is there any open channel that still exists in terms of maybe finding a spot for you at that race?
Johan No, no. I think we’re doing things right but we’re not going to beg to participate. In the end there’s plenty of opportunities to show who we are, and for Alberto also. I think in the end, the one’s who are going to lose out are the Tour de France itself by not having the best riders in the race. It’s clear to a blind guy, you know, everybody can see that.
A BIG FAVOR
PEZ: In terms of the transition from last year’s Astana team to this year’s Astana, … with all the disruption and the bad stuff within the team last year, you arrive and you bring in a bunch of new guys, and essentially it’s a new team… but it still has the same name. To many observers, myself included, the name has a certain perception to it based on past history, and based on what ‘those guys’ did. Do you feel that carries forward, that you have some challenges to overcome because the name was tainted by those guys?
Johan Yes, yes. Definitely, but I knew that all beforehand and I knew that it wasn’t going to happen overnight. As of today, I am very happy with where we are. It went a lot faster than I expected, let’s say the image improvement. I think there are two reasons for that. First of all we have done everything we could do, we have tried to show to everybody that this is a completely new team and it’s run differently and it’s just the name that is the same, and everything else is different. A lot of people have seen that, but not everybody obviously. Then secondly, when I took on this job in Astana I felt like the comments I got from certain directions were like “what are you doing, everybody hates you guys”. Six months later, it’s a different speech, and it’s now, “everybody loves you guys”. Of course, we have a new star, he’s very popular, everybody likes Contador and he’s wearing the image of our team. I think the biggest factor for our image improvement, or our popularity improvement is actually the big “favour” the ASO has done by banning us from the Tour. I see it in terms of re-shaping the team and our image that ASO has done us a favour. They don’t know that but I know that.
PEZ: Can you explain that a little bit?
Johan I can feel that. Everybody can see that we are one of the best teams and we’re very professional and it’s unfair. In terms of our image, if there’s certain people that think we are a bad team then so be it, and ASO is one of them. Bit by bit, they are standing alone with that opinion and that’s only thanks to themselves.
PEZ: Now you have won eight tours, two Vueltas, two Giro’s, where do you find the motivation to keep going?
Johan Yes, well that was basically one of the main reasons that I wanted to stop, because I felt like after eight Tour de France’s and basically seven with Lance I said ok I want to win at least one Tour with another rider. When that happened I decided for myself that this is it. It’s a nice way to finish it and think about something else because from the sports side there is not much that can motivate me anymore. I mean, even if I win another Tour or two other Tour’s what’s going to change? It’s not going to change anything.
PEZ: So that’s the challenge. What do you do, how do you do it?
Johan Well that is why I took on the challenge of becoming the General Manager of Astana, not for the Sport, but to show everybody. This team was basically doomed to death, everybody was against it and everybody was working against it. Once I spoke with the responsible people behind the team in Kazakhstan, and I wanted to understand why they wanted to keep going with the team after all the problems.
PEZ: And what was their answer?
Johan Well, the answer was that cycling is becoming very popular in Kazakhstan and they want to make it bigger. We see the sport in their country as a pyramid. There are a bunch of young kids that are riding bikes and then they have sixteen cycling schools all over the country. Then they have a few U23 teams, a few Continental Teams and then a Pro Tour Team. So once I saw that they absolutely wanted to keep going with this project no matter what happened and no matter who wasn’t there anymore, and I felt that commitment, I said this was a great challenge for me to rebuild this team, and taking everything I know that is going on in cycling and to put the team back on the rails and let it be competitive. Above all, I wanted to restore the image, and to bring the team back to where it should be, independent of the results, because I didn’t focus so much on getting the results. I knew with the composition of the team and the quality of the riders that we would be successful no matter what. Yet, there was a bigger job to do on the image and especially on people’s perception of the team. I have to say, six months after I have accepted the job I am a lot further than I expected to be.
PEZ: Yes, I think you are too. I was one of those guys six months ago scratching my head wondering why you wanted to get involved with the Astana team.
Johan There was a lot of people like that. I don’t know about over there, but over here I had a lot of critics saying that I am an opportunist and I just did it for the money, and this and that. I can tell you, that’s not true. If I did not believe in this, I would have everything to lose. When I start something I finish it off and used to being successful, and if I was not convinced I couldn’t do this I would never have done it. Of course, the financial aspect has been important, but I am past the stage where I only do something for the money. That could never be my primary drive.
• Johan’s new book is available now at JohanBruyneel.com/the_book.html.
PEZ: Sure, and given what has transpired in the last six months with the team, is this victory with the Giro your sweetest victory yet, given where you have taken this team from where it was six months ago…?
Johan Yes, it still has to sink in a little bit. I know already now that the victory in the Giro this year is way more important than Contador winning the Tour again this year, because it was so difficult and it was the first big tour. I think in the beginning, the ASO were in a comfortable situation because they were not the first to make that decision, first the Giro decided that we couldn’t go. I have no proof of that, but I know enough of what’s going on in our sport to know that the decision of the Giro was not all their decision it was influenced by ASO, because the ASO knew already that they wouldn’t select us. They said you should do the same so we don’t lose face, but what can they say now? There’s nothing they can say, and as a matter of fact they’re not saying anything because they know they have nothing to say.
PEZ: Yes, that’s obvious.
Johan It’s not my intention to crush them. I just want to reiterate that it’s more and more clear now to everybody that this is a very illogical decision and it has been too drastic and it doesn’t make sense. I think they will have to wait until after the Tour and see what the impact the Tour de France has been on the general public to really see the consequences of their decisions, and I can predict that they are not going to be very good.
PEZ:I think you’re right. Now, before we sign off I want to ask you a bit about the World Bike Relief Board that you’re a part of now. The organization was started by the founder of SRAM to deliver bicycles to disaster hit areas or impoverished regions of the world, where something as simple as basic transportation has a huge impact on speeding up immediate and ongoing recovery. Tell me what the organization is all about and what you are doing with them?
Johan Well, I heard about World Bicycle Relief when I started to talk with SRAM, which was one of the things that I understood to be very important to them. It was a good way to give back to the people who are in need, through bikes. To me, it’s like a metaphor that I owe everything to the bike. Whatever I’ve accomplished is thanks to the bike, and to be able to give back to the people who are in need through the same means, is a unique thing, it’s very nice. As soon as this season is finished I want to go over there to Zambia to really have a better feel, and to see what else can be done.
PEZ: What is your position or role on the World Bicycle Relief Board?
Johan I’ve been asked to be on the Board of Directors, and of course they want to use my name for the project, which for me is the easy part. I would like to be actively involved and see if I can afford something for myself to make this great idea even better. First I want to go over there and see exactly the impact of what it has already done now. I’ve heard the stories and I’ve seen the numbers, but I want to go over there and really feel it. But, I think it’s one of the things that when you’re a professional in whatever aspect of life, and you’re really grounded to your work twenty-four hours a day, trying to do what you can and make a lot of money, you are forgetting about a lot of things. The contribution aspect is a thing that a lot of people forget about. It’s something that needs to be done on whatever level it can, it needs to be addressed. It’s something that really appeals to me.
Thanks very much to Johan for talking with us – and some always refreshing candor. Watch for Johan coming to a bike shop near you as he hits the book tour over the next few weeks.
• PEZ readers can help by visiting WorldBicycleRelief.org. A single, complete bike can be donated to someone in need for as little as $109.00.
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