After the fairly light-hearted conversation with the Schleck Brothers (coming soon to PEZ!), it was down to a serious chat with “The Boss” of what could be the top team of 2012. He hasn’t had an easy time pulling it all together, as you will read, and there has also been the UCI to contend with. Without further ado – here is the Johan Bruyneel version of the world of RadioShack, Leopard, bike riders, and the future of professional cycling.
The questions were from all the Journo’s, not just PEZ, but the best ones are from me!
PEZ: A lot of managers have worked with a team for many years before a new season; will it be a problem that there are so many new faces?
Johan Bruyneel: Yes there is definitely work to be done, that’s for sure! I know half the team that I brought. In terms of riders and of staff, I know them and how to work together. The other half I’m discovering, but we all know each other from past years. It’s a learning process. So yes, there is a period of adapting to each other, getting used to each other, and working together. I think we will be ready from the beginning. We will be ready to perform at the highest level, I would say.
PEZ: Can you explain how the combining of the two teams all happened?
Johan: How it Happened! How much time do we have? It actually happened by coincidence and a little by surprise, as far as I’m concerned. But then if you think about it, it wasn’t so much of a surprise. We had the team Leopard-Trek in their first year, who in my opinion had a pretty good season; first of all they had good riders. It’s easy to criticise the lack of big victories, but if you think how close they were: Cancellara gets second in Milan-San Remo, third in Flanders, second in Roubaix, to name these three big races. Andy gets second and Frank third in the Tour de France. So, I wouldn’t say it was a disappointing season, any team would have been happy with these results, but the big victory was not there.
We on the other hand had a commitment before the Tour de France. At the end of the month of May we had the commitment from RadioShack and Nissan to renew for two more years, and we had the common factor which was our bike manufacturer. We have a long history with Trek, and that is how we actually got together. It started with an idea, maybe a crazy idea, but sometimes when you start to talk to different people about a crazy idea it doesn’t seem so crazy or impossible anymore. We got together to talk, and it looked like this could be something that could work. If it does work, it’s something that could be good for everybody.
Johan Bruyneel has made a life in the world of cycling – starting first as a successful racer and for the last decade plus, as a team manager/director.
The talks were happening with Flavio Becca, the owner of the team, with Trek, and our other sponsors. Everybody was open to consider it and to think about all the advantages. They could see it was feasible, and it was something we could bring to an end. Then you start to work on it, and it’s not so easy! Now we are sitting here, after 4 months of hard work, and I’m happy about the result. It was a long process and some people don’t like certain new ideas. In general, change is something that frightens people, you get out of your little comfort zone, but I think change is good. If you keep doing the same thing for years and years, you keep getting the same result. If you don’t try anything new, you won’t get any better. Now we even have this Continental team (Leopard-Trek development team). When I think back to when we started to talk in August, we have come a very long way; we even have our WorldTour license!
PEZ: Was it someone from Trek who had the idea?
Johan: I wouldn’t say it was just one single person, but it was Trek who facilitated it because we had that common factor. They have definitely been a strong influence because with Leopard-Trek they were the bigger commercial sponsor of team Leopard, and we have a long history with Trek. Even before I was on Postal in ’98, I guess. So anyway, we have a long history with Trek and that has been a big influential factor.
Bruyneel’s relationship with Trek pre-dates even Lance’s first Tour de France win in 1999.
PEZ: You say change frightens people, did it frighten you?
Johan: Frighten me? No! Let’s be honest, something like this, putting two groups together, immediately your reaction is “what is going to change?” Certain people knew that their job was going to be on the line, which obviously made for some unhappy people. Other people, who for a long time had been in the same system, both from the RadioShack team or the Leopard team, knew there was going to be changes. At the end of the day, I know there are people who have not liked this.
On top of that, the complicated part of this was bringing an operation like this to an end. In the beginning, it’s a secret and a confidential operation. At some point is not confidential anymore, and the fact that we could not openly communicate about it definitely made things more difficult. Like a lot of stuff, I read in the newspaper first, and then it happens for some reason. I wasn’t really worried about that, because I knew I would be able to sit down with everybody and explain how it happened and why it happened. Even people with doubts and criticisms, mostly due to a lack of information, would understand everything, and maybe change their mind about it.
So all those conversations have happened a few months ago when we had our first team gathering in Belgium, and now basically we are working on the physical aspect of getting ready for the season. It’s bringing two groups together, and I’m very happy with what we have accomplished during those three days in Belgium and what I’m seeing here. It’s something you can’t force, you need some time. That’s why I think it’s very important that they spend time together on the bike, rather than doing other stuff. It’s all about feeling comfortable, and every professional cyclist feels comfortable on a bike. That is their comfortable environment, so spending four or five hours on a bike together every day is something that just needs to happen. By the time the season starts, we are going to be one group. One solid unit, and ready to go.
PEZ: How did you cope with the uncertainty, did you have a team meeting?
Johan: Yes. I put everyone together in one room. I said that I owed everybody an explanation, and to talk about how everything happened. Above all, I asked everybody to also come back with comments to me in front of everybody. Until that point, we could not communicate openly. Behind closed doors I’ve listened to criticism, to doubts and questions. I wanted to have that meeting with everybody so that when we went out of that room, all those questions were answered and everybody could get it off their chests. Easier said than done, but it was obviously a process that had to happen. It was my perception that after we walked out of that room we were one team, and we were never going to talk about being two teams any more.
PEZ: What about the doubts of Fabian Cancellara who said that he didn’t want to work
Johan: Yea I read that somewhere, maybe it was in his book, probably? Again I don’t go off what’s in the media, I’ve had conversations with Fabian and he has never mentioned to me that he had questions or doubts. I think he had doubts in the beginning about what was going on with the team, and rightfully so…like everybody else. But doubts about him wanting to work with me is a question you would have to ask him. It’s not something he has put to me. Maybe it’s in his book, and I’ve not read his book. (“It’s not in the book”, commented one of the books co-authors Christof Gertsch) Well I’ve not read it. (”you can get it in Flemish now”) I read German also! What is in the book? I’m suspicious! Does he say that? We have the author right here so, did he say that? (“It’s not quoted”), anyway it’s something you would have to ask him. All the conversations I’ve had with him have been very positive. After having received all the explanations and being reassured that he was going to be well taken care of, because I think that is a priority for every champion, every bike rider, every athlete. I flew over to Zurich to have a long talk with him, long before we spoke in Spa. We spent time together in London recently looking at the time trial course, and I see a very motivated Fabian Cancellara. So he is ready for a great season and happy with his environment.
A big goal for Fabian Cancellara in 2012 will be repeating his 2008 Olympic success.
PEZ: Talking of Cancellara, you said you don’t have so much experience with the Spring Classics. How can you and your team help him improve that little bit to close the gap that was there last year?
Johan: I don’t have, but we have people that do! Fabian doesn’t need to prove anything; he has shown over the last 5 or 6 years that he has been one of the strongest guys in all these Classics that are suited for him. So I think it’s more of planning and creating more of an environment for him to perform at the highest level. If you talk about the race itself, and if you look at his top three places from last year in Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Roubaix, I wouldn’t say he made any mistakes. I think he was a little bit lower than he was the year before, and probably not as fortunate. If you add to that the fact that the team last year had some bad luck, they had some crashes, and some people they were counting on for the Classics were not available. Definitely he didn’t have the support he needed to be the real favourite of the race.
Fabian Cancellara on the loose at the E3-Harelbeke.
Add to that; in Harelbeke he made a big demonstration. That could be the only mistake he made. If you feel so super and you are at that level, then you must win the race. Obviously after that victory it became clear to me that it would be very difficult for him to win Flanders, because there was only one guy in the race. So at some point he was isolated in the race, and he had no more help. He did the right thing. He was alone against four or five other guys from other teams, and he attacked! Unfortunately, nobody was able to go with him, and ultimately everything got organised behind him. He was tired at the end.
My job is to make sure the team is strong, which is part of what I’m trying to do now. Get the strongest possible team of riders that are available now to support him, and make sure the planning goes OK. He has the right people around him: staff, mechanics, soigneurs. If he is motivated and works as hard as two years ago, he will be at the same level. I think the support is stronger than he had last year, but it’s not ideal. Let’s not forget that we could not add people to the roster. We had to free-up spaces on the roster because there were too many people. I think overall that the support he will have this year in the Classics will be better than last year.
PEZ: Ideally he should have one or two guys who can ride with him near the end of a race. Who could that be?
Johan: We have Gregory Rast, he has been one of our protected guys in the past in RadioShack. He’s been at the top in Flanders and Roubaix, so he’s a guy who has proven that he can be there at the final. I expect quite a lot from Yaroslav Popovych (in a supporting role). I’ve spoken with him about changing his training, and I expect him to have the quality to be there. He has the technical ability, and he can ride on cobble stones. But I think overall we will have a strong team to support Cancellara.
Gregory Rast performed very well in the Northern Classics in 2011.
Bruyneel sees much potential for Popovych on the cobbles.
PEZ: You have lost Stuart O’Grady, will this be a problem for this kind of race?
Johan: Obviously Stuart O’Grady is a great experienced rider and he was a big help for Fabian last year. The problem was not having a guy like Stuart O’Grady, the problem was all the those other guys behind. I saw that O’Grady was working too early in the race. I think it was the combination of two things: maybe the depth of the team was not there for the Classics, but above all, having that sole favourite role because of winning those two races the year before. It was everybody against Fabian, and everybody against Leopard, so it was difficult.
PEZ: Will it be different this year?
Johan: Yes! He will not be the only favourite; he will be one of the favourites.
PEZ: Even if he wins Harelbeke again?
Johan: Harelbeke is different now, it’s a WorldTour race.
PEZ: What would you have said if you had been in the Leopard team car at Harelbeke?
Johan: In cycling, if you can win an important race, you have to take it. You never know what can happen. The next day you can crash or a car can hit you, and you could be out for three months. He had to handle the role of the favourite after what he did the year before, and the demonstration in Harelbeke. I remember I spoke to somebody from Leopard before Flanders and I told them straight: “it’s going to be very difficult for you guys to win.”
PEZ: What do you think of the situation of Alberto Contador, and would you like him to start the Tour?
Johan: Definitely! In my opinion, the best rider in Grand Tour over the last 4-5 years is Alberto Contador. For the whole world and for cycling, it would be very negative for Alberto Contador to be sanctioned. The problem in the “Case Contador” is that it is not a clear case. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about it one and half years later, and we are still talking about it. It is not a normal case. I wouldn’t like to be the judge, but first I hope he can demonstrate his innocence.
PEZ: Assuming that Alberto Contador will be on the start line of the 2012 Tour de France, how can he be beaten?
Johan: I think everybody can be beaten. If Contador is at the top of his level, it is difficult to beat him man to man. It’s true there is quite some time trialing, but there is a lot of other stages, moments, strategies that can be employed to gain or lose time. So obviously Contador is the strongest rider, if he is at the top of his game. He is one of the best climbers, one of the best time trialists, he’s won the Tour three times, plus Giro, plus Vuelta, but I think our strength is our team. We will have to use the strength of our team to attack him whenever we can. So where that will be, I don’t know, but that is definitely what we will have to try. If we wait for the time trial or a mountain top finish, then its man against man, and it’s very difficult. So we will have to use our strength as a group to attack not only Contador, but also Cadel Evans and other favourites.
Contador: the rider that makes every team manager fret.
PEZ: As you will be riding as a team, is it possible that you would sacrifice Andy?
Johan: Well…normally not, unless there is a strategic opportunity where you say: “this is the moment, everybody is dead, we just have to do something and then we have to make a choice.” In theory, if you look at the history of everybody and at the age of everybody, Andy has been three times second in the last three Tours. He is the logical leader and I don’t think there is anybody else that has been close to winning the Tour, except Andreas (Kloden) who was two times second. I think he was never close to winning because there was always a serious time gap, and Andy has his age in his favour.
Contador is great, but Andy Schleck isn’t half bad himself.
Those are the two guys who will have the most chances on our team. Andy and Andreas, they have the results. Personally I think we can put together a very strong group of who can put the pressure on and keep wearing out the other teams and leaders. Sometimes you have to gamble and lose everything, but maybe we have a chance to win also! If we play safe, calculate, and we just race at strategic points (which are climbs and time trials), then it’s going to be difficult to win. We will have to be smart and we are going to have to gamble, and have to risk losing everything by trying to win.
PEZ: Is it an advantage for you to have worked with Contador, to know what he likes and what he doesn’t like?
Johan: I could say the same about thing about Riis, no? He has worked with Andy and Frank…so I think we are even!
Johan Bruyneel has made the parade lap around the Champs with Alberto Contador in the past.
PEZ: This the first time you have worked with Tour favourites that were not in your team before, is it difficult to work with them because they have learnt other things?
Johan: It’s a process and it’s also not my intention not to come in and say everything has to change, that just doesn’t work. That’s why we need some time. I can see from the talks we have had and the discussions we have had about the planning of the team that I’ve suggested certain changes, and they are open for change, which is a very good thing. Now it’s up to us to implement those changes and to prove that its better, because ultimately the ones who have to believe in getting towards an objective has to be convinced of that right away. If I impose my idea, and they are not buying into the idea, then it’s not going to work.
PEZ: People say that Andy and Frank are too close in the race, if Frank isn’t going so well, Andy wont attack. What is your opinion on that?
Johan: I’ve heard those comments. I’ve not seen those doubts about attacking personally. If, at a certain moment we have a chance to attack in the Tour and we can gain time, then we will do it. We are not going to think about anybody else. After so many times being second, there is only one thing that counts. That’s winning.
PEZ: Can you give an example of the changes you made with the Schleck brothers?
Johan: There are a lot of changes in the team around them. The organisation is different, we started to train earlier. Last year they went in the snow, which I think can be a good thing. I’m not saying their approach last year was bad. I want them to be ready, be at a certain level all the time, to avoid that we have to have a race against the clock to be ready. If you are at a good level as a professional cyclist from the beginning of the year, you know you can set out a plan and follow that plan. If you show up at the beginning of the year and you are out of shape and you struggle in your races, then you have to be inventive; pick a race here and drop a race there that won’t do.
It’s already difficult enough, there are enough challenges: you can be sick, you can crash, and you can get injured. So let’s make the race against the physical condition a constant race and make sure you are ready. You don’t have to be ready to win, but they need to be in a good enough level at the beginning of the year to be in the races without suffering too much. To be able to build upon those races to get to a better condition towards. First of all, the month of April to be at a good level for the Classics, and then secondly during the second part of the year.
PEZ: What did you think of the level Andy was on in California and Switzerland last year?
Johan: Well, I have to say California, for example, his condition wasn’t bad, but in Switzerland it was a little disappointing. Normally in the Tour of Switzerland you don’t have to win, but you have to be in the top 5-6-7 with the top guys because it gives you that comfortable feeling that you are ready, and you can take your rest and the affect of the training you have done in Switzerland. Switzerland is part of the training build up to the Tour. So he should have been on a higher level at the Tour of Switzerland, probably. But then again he was on a good level at the Tour; I’m not saying he’s going to do the Tour of Switzerland.
Tune in later this week for the second part!