At the recent RadioShack-Nissan-Trek training camp “The Boss” Johan Bruyneel was open to just about any questions. A collection of around a dozen journalists assembled in the Diamante Hotel in Calpe, Spain for a good old chat.
Can you explain how the combining of the two teams all happened?
“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 sometime 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 and if it does work it’s something that could be good for everybody. 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 and 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 four 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.”
You say change frightens people, did it frighten you?
“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, so 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 is that in the beginning its a secret and a confidential operation which 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, why it happened and 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 and 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 and it something that just needs to happen and by the time the season starts we are going to be one group, one solid unit and ready to go.”
What about the doubts of Fabian Cancellara who said that he didn’t want to work Johan Bruyneel?
“Yeah 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 and 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.”
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?
“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 it’s self 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, but definitely he didn’t have the support he needed to be the real favourite of the race.
“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 level then you must win the race, but 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, but 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 and 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 and get the strongest possible team of riders that are available now to support him and make sure the planning goes OK and he has the right people around him; staff, mechanics, soigneurs and 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, but I think overall that the support he will have this year in the Classics will be better than last year.”
You have lost Stuart O’Grady, will this be a problem for this kind of race?
“Obviously Stuart O’Grady is a great experienced rider and he was a big help for Fabian last year, but 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 and 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.”
What would you have said if you had been in the Leopard team car at Harelbeke?
“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.”
What do you think of the situation of Alberto Contador and would you like him to start the Tour?
“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.”
Assuming that Alberto Contador will be on the start line of the 2012 Tour de France, how can he be beaten?
“I think everybody can be beaten. If Contador is at the top of his level it is difficult to beat him, man to man. Its true there 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 and 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 because 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.”
As you will be riding as a team, is it possible that you would sacrifice Andy?
“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 tree times second in the last three Tours, so he is the logical leader and I don’t think there is anybody else that has been close to winning the Tour except Andreas (Klöden) who was two times second, but I think he was never close to winning because there was always a serious time gap, and Andy has his age in his favour.
“But those are the two guys who will have the most chances on our team, Andy and Ardeas, 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 and sometimes you have to gamble and lose everything, but maybe we have a chance to win also!
“If we play safe and we 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.”
Is it an advantage for you to have worked with Contador, to know what he likes and what he doesn’t like?
“I could say the same about thing about Riis, no? He has worked with Andy and Frank… so I think we are even!”
People say that Andy and Frank are too close in the race, if Franks isn’t going so well Andy wont attack. What is your opinion on that?
“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 and that’s winning.”
Can you give an example of the changes you made with the Schleck brothers?
“There is 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.
“Because 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 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.”
Was the last Tour de France the biggest frustration of your management career?
“Yeah, probably, it was just terrible. At the start we were realistic, we knew winning was going to be difficult, but we had a strong team and we had some guys who were motivated and had been on the podium already.
“And then just all of a sudden in three or four day everything has gone, we had everyone on the floor, it was just frustrating. But that’s just part of the sport also. I’ve seen other teams having bad luck at the Tour de France, and a lot of bad luck and you feel sorry for them but you go on.
“Now I felt sorry but I had to deal with it all the time, it was also learning from experience.”
You say it was a learning experience, so what did you learn?
“What you learn from it is; when you are at the Tour de France you are competing and are focused on winning the race and controlling the race or dominating the race, you are in a bubble.
“Now I was looking at it from another angle and you learn how to deal with disappointment and learn how to put it into perspective. The way I dealt with it was at the end of the day: “it’s only a bike race!”
“Let’s move onto the next one. It’s definitely not something I want to repeat, but I learnt something from it.”
Was it new for you not to be able to control things?
“Yes. I didn’t know it was possible to have so much bad luck, it was like one thing after another, every single piece fell down at one point it became a habit, after we lost Andreas Klöden I remember that every time they said on radio tour “crash” I didn’t even wait till they said RadioShack, I would just drive to the front because I knew there would be someone there from us and there always was someone there from us.
“So many guys from the same team and all the leaders, five guys would crash and it would be the four leaders.”
What about the name of the team, you have three named sponsors, what is the name of the team?
“You want to know officially? Our team is RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
“Do you get the press releases? Well that’s what’s on there.”
And the UCI?
“That’s a question you have to ask them.”
Is this the strongest team you have ever managed?
“Difficult to say, quality wise it’s the strongest team, I have had teams that are very, very strong in the big stage races and at the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta, but in the terms of quality of riders and the potential presence throughout the year; yes I think so.”
Having so many riders in the team who could possibly ride the Tour, is that a luxury or a headache?
“Both, it’s a luxury and a headache, I don’t want to think yet about the decisions we will have to make in the month of June to select the team for the Tour, that’s why I think it’s important to think it’s not only about the Tour. We have to perform in a lot of races, stage race and one day races.
“That’s ultimately what our goal is to be the strongest team throughout the year. I would love to see our team to finish No.1 at the end of the year, that would be a very big satisfaction.”
What were you working on with Fabian Cancellara in London?
“Basically what the intention was to see the time trial course, first of all, and then circuit on Box Hill, the one they will do nine times. He will definitely have to go back because it was a busy day and it’s impossible to see the course without traffic, there is only going to be one moment to see the time trial without traffic and that’s going to be the day before the Olympic time trial for one and a half hours only.
“So I think it’s important to go there to get familiar with the circuit so you can have it in your mind and you can plan mentally for something. You have to get the information and that has to be a combination of going there and looking at the map, looking at profiles and looking at videos and probably going back sometime in May I would say, when he feels on a higher level physically and also things look different then.
“Things look different in the winter, he will have to see it at a different time, it’s good to go early so you can get it in your mind and start to plan for what you are going to face in the month of August. It’s a very good sign that he is motivated for next year. He rode the course on the bike in the traffic, not the time trial bike, a normal bike.
“I think it’s a process that will be better, we have done it now and if he goes back in May he will probably have to do it at seven on a Sunday morning and the next time will be the day before the time trial without traffic at all, I think it’s enough.”
How angry were you with the UCI over the license and all the paperwork stuff?
“How much time do we have?
“I could go for a long time over this.
“Not angry, just frustrated, without going into too many details; I really don’t understand why certain things have been imposed on us, which have not been imposed on other teams.
“One thing is the whole process and following the regulations and it’s another thing to demand things that are not in the regulations. But ultimately we have no other choice but to fulfil all the requirement that are demanded because you need that WorldTour license, well you don’t really need it, but it’s better to have it.
“Yeah, frustrated and not happy, definitely not happy with the way we’ve been treated. I had no doubts about getting it.”
What changes would you like to see made with the WorldTour?
“This could go far!
“My opinion is very clear on this; I think professional sports have reached a level that has come to the point of sporting events being a business. And I see that cycling is quite a bit behind, compared to other successful sports and that’s probably due to the nature of our sport.
“We have certain limitations, we don’t own stadiums, we run cycling on the road, cycling is for free, which is also the beauty of the sport.
“But if I look at the evolution of other sports and how popular they are and I look at cycling and see how we are struggling and that we are advancing by baby step and struggling, I think there are other ways professional cycling can be organised. I’m not talking about breaking away; a breakaway league is something that was named by the UCI its self. But I think there should definitely be talks about new initiatives and implicating all the main parties.
“Just now it’s basically one organisation dictating everything and everybody has to follow everything they say. So if it was up to me I’d like to see these things change, but I’m just me so it will probably never happen. It’s very simple, I’m talking from my perspective and about “professional” cycling, let’s specify that because cycling as a whole is very complex and there are a lot of different categories and other disciplines, there is BMX, woman’s cycling, there’s all kinds of cycling.
“But professional road cycling is something that should be seen as a separate entity within the UCI, I think the UCI is definitely an organisation that has shown that they are the organising body that can rule the sport, so they should rule professional cycling, but the business aspect of the sport should be done differently.
“There are a lot of different ideas about that, but it’s very simple, if you see how we are struggling to find sponsorship year after year and how we are being challenged about renewing sponsors, it’s because at the end what do we have to offer? We don’t have a lot more to offer than what’s on the calendar, races like the Tour de France is all very good, but it could be a lot better.
“I think we should start to see professional teams as franchises that can survive for a lot of year like you have in football, you have (I know more about Spanish football) Madrid, Barcelona and all those strong clubs around Europe.
‘I don’t want to compare cycling with football, because it’s different; you have entrance fees and it’s organised completely differently, but there are things we can learn. We just have to get away from the model that professional cycling is dependent on sponsorship exclusively and we can get the business of our sport bigger, but we need to share, not keep it limited because I think professional cycling can be a lot bigger than it is right now, even the Tour de France, but for this we will need the co-operation of all the different parties and if it’s always being hit with a hammer when you don’t agree with what they say and what they want and then we cannot advance we cannot move forward.
‘So just to give an example; the actual system, in our sport there are two big revenues, sponsors and TV rights, and TV right are where everyone knows they are. So it’s logical that we as teams and riders as champions being the top actors in the movie, we would like to have a share of the TV rights. So that would be a good start.”
The teams have to have money?
“It’s not necessarily earning money, its being safe, its feeling safe that you can survive. For example in this economy sponsorship is difficult and there are budget cuts everywhere, if you know you have another source of surviving, you can plan, now we cannot plan.
“We know that every year, or two years, or three years we have to find other sponsors, so you can never plan long term, which is affecting everything, it affecting the recruitment of young guys. Now we have this development team of young guys and I don’t know if in two years it’s going to exist because I don’t know if the sponsor is going to be around.
“So if we can create another business model of having different, and it doesn’t have to be the main part of the revenue, but a little help to be safe, to feel safe, would definitely be a good thing.”
There you have it – the word according to Johan Bruyneel.