Johan Bruyneel interview: The jerseygate apology, RadioShack’s Tour de France and the team’s future

In an exclusive interview, the RadioShack team boss talks about the team's Tour de France, its new stagiaires, 'jerseygate,' Contador and the team's future.
The Shack men

Before we get into the actual Tour, the latest news seems to be about what we are calling “jerseygate” and then your recent apology. Did the UCI ask you to issue a public apology for your remarks?

No, that was something I decided to do on my own. It’s one of those situations where you react in the heat of the moment and I didn’t handle the situation appropriately. I was frustrated and I let my frustrations get the best of me. I really didn’t think about that tweet until a couple days after the Tour. There was so much going on after the race and then of course traveling home and being with the family. It’s one of those instances where I read it a few days later and said “wow, that doesn’t sound like me.” It’s not something I’m proud of the way I handled and I felt that the best way was just to apologize. Nothing more to it.

Let’s start from the beginning. What were your thoughts after Lance’s prologue in Rotterdam?

That he came to the race with good form, prepared and focused. It was a great start, but you have to remember that it’s the first day and you can’t get ahead of yourself. It was his best TT result since he came back and everyone wanted to see us celebrating after. But why? I knew he had good form — we saw that in California, Luxembourg and Suisse. Then we did some recon before the Tour and he was riding very well. The result was not a surprise for me. I of course didn’t know how other riders would do compared to him, but looking at just Lance’s performance in Rotterdam, I can’t say that I was surprised.

Were the cobbles the beginning of the end for Lance’s Tour?

It certainly wasn’t a stage that benefited us! We had some bad luck, but hey, that’s bike racing. Lance did a nice job to minimize the time loss. At that point, we were behind on some time, but I definitely didn’t think his GC hopes were over. It wasn’t until the Alps stage with his three crashes that we knew that he lost too much time to make up on the other favorites.

Do cobbles have a place in the Tour de France?

Interesting question and I’m sure you would get different answers if you asked every sports director at the Tour. Our team’s strong point isn’t on the cobbles. We had Gregy Rast and Muravyev who are more experienced cobbles riders, but then we have Levi and Andreas who are riders that don’t excel at the spring classics type of races. So our composition is quite different than a team like Quick Step. It’s a dangerous stage in terms of time loss and gaps so I wasn’t particularly pleased to see it incorporated this year. But that’s from my standpoint. It’s natural for some teams to like different stages. Look at HTC-Columbia, it’s a team that’s made for Mark Cavendish so it’s natural they would like to see more bunch sprint stages. From an organizer’s standpoint, they are creating the best and toughest race to determine the world’s best rider. So it’s normal that the race should have all the road challenges — prologue, cobbles, sprints, all types of categorized mountains, individual time trial and team time trial.

Were you disappointed that there was no team time trial?

Oh yes. That’s always been one of our team’s strengths, Just like some teams may have been happy to see the cobbles, we were disappointed to not see the TTT. We won it last year and certainly had one of the best, if not best TTT teams in the race. Not only is it exciting, but it truly exemplifies the strength of the whole team and not just one individual rider. Like I said before, if it’s the toughest race to determine the world’s best, then I think the TTT should be a part of this determination.

What were your initial reactions when Lance had the bad luck of crashing on the Alpine stage?

In my head – “Shit!” But you can’t panic on the radio so I had a very calm voice, but also very strong letting the riders know what happened and what the plan had to be. Of course I needed to know if Lance was physically OK too. But it’s really important to remain calm. If you panic, the riders panic, get all flustered and lose their concentration. You can’t perform well when your body is experiencing that stress.

Feelings on the bus after that stage?

Well of course disappointed. We came to a bike race in good form, prepared and focused and then ran into some bad luck. So who wouldn’t be disappointed after working so hard? The feelings are no different than any other job. But what can you do with bad luck? Crashes happen and we were lucky to avoid them from 1999-2005. So overall, we’ve been pretty lucky and can’t complain too much.

What’s your message to your team after a stage like that?

Well, you have to be honest with your feelings, but then refocus everyone. It’s bike racing and a very long race — so you can never get too high or too low. A team’s best day is another team’s worst day and that’s changing on a daily basis. Our initial goal of Lance going for GC changed so we needed to change our goals and focus. The goals changed, but the motivation remained very high. I’m very proud of how the team handled themselves. It’s not always so easy.

Thoughts on what is now being referred to as “Chaingate”?

Yea, well these things happen. I’m not sure what exactly was the cause for this to happen, but it happened and unfortunately it happened to the Yellow Jersey at an inopportune time. I’ve said it before — To win the Tour, you not only have to be the best, but you also have to have luck on your side.

You also use SRAM Red, right?

Yes, and we are very happy. We’ve been using it since 2008 and Astana and Saxo Bank are using it as well. I think there were seven Tour teams in total using SRAM Red. And Alberto has won four out of five grand tours using SRAM Red, so I think that speaks volumes to the confidence in the products.

Compared to last year – was Andy stronger or was Alberto not as strong?

Well I think Alberto was still the strongest and best rider. But I think it was a combination of Andy being a bit stronger and maybe Alberto not having the same accelerations as he did last year or earlier in the year. He may have had to work a little more in the race than he was accustomed to the past couple of years, but regardless Alberto was strong. He’s the best rider in the world and he showed it.

Would Andy have beat Alberto if Frank didn’t crash out?

It’s really tough to say. Like I said, I think Alberto was still the strongest and best rider, but certainly having someone like Frank on your team is a tremendous asset to Andy. The fact is that Frank crashed out. You can go back and say “what if this” and “what if that.” People like to have fun with all these scenarios, but at the end of the day, it is what it is.

Chris Horner had a team-best tenth place GC this year. Looking back to 2009, do you regret not selecting him to the Tour team last year?

It’s tough to have regrets when we won the 2009 Tour, a bunch of stages and the TTT last year. You can’t argue with those results. I know a lot of people were upset that Chris didn’t make the Tour team last year. He has a nice following, especially back in the U.S. But last year was different — politics and intra-team dynamics factored in to my decision making. And while Chris came to races in good form, he had a lot of crashes and injuries last year. That’s also something to consider because you’re at a major disadvantage at the Tour when you’re racing with less than nine. With Chris’ strong performances and his ability to stay healthy this year, he was an easy selection for the Tour team. He’s a great teammate and has shown that he can get results in Europe. His Pais-Vasco win was extremely impressive. People don’t realize how hard a race Pais-Vasco is. It’s been a solid year for Chris and I’m very happy for him.

You watched Alberto accept his third Yellow Jersey on Sunday. Did you ever think that maybe the separation was not a good idea?

Well, the separation was more between myself and the Kazakhs. Alberto and Lance both had ambitions to win the Tour so when the RadioShack opportunity came up, I took it, went with Lance, and Alberto of course stayed with Astana. But I also took the RadioShack job knowing that the heavy favorite to win the Tour would be Alberto. I wasn’t disillusioned to this so I certainly wasn’t surprised to see him wearing the yellow jersey. He’s a great champion and has accomplished a lot in a relatively short period of time.

Do you think Alberto will beat Lance’s record of seven Tour de France victories?

He’s certainly young enough to accomplish it; he’s only going to be 28 years old in December. But I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not easy. There’s some great competition out there; Andy to name just one. You need to show up every year in great form, surround yourself with a team that is willing to sacrifice for you day in and day out, and of course luck — no serious mechanicals or crashes. I can’t predict the future, but I know he’ll be exciting to watch for many more years to come. The best thing for Alberto will be to take each Tour de France one at a time.

Before the Tour, you were not invited to the Vuelta a Espana. Do you have any additional comments on your non-selection?

I think the best comment was made on Sunday when we were on the podium for the Team Classification. The most powerful statements are made with action and I couldn’t think of a better way to respond. The situation is a shame and just another reason we need to see changes in the sport.

What’re Lance’s plans for next year?

We haven’t had an in-depth discussion about his role next year. He won’t be racing the Tour, but we really haven’t figured anything out; for the past months we’ve been focused on the Tour. Right now I know he wants to spend time with his family. That and the foundation are his two main focuses at the moment, but we’ll have a conversation at a later time.

In the past you haven’t been one to take stagiaires on the team. Why this year?

Well this is the first year that we’ve been tied to the U23 Trek-Livestrong team run by Axel Merckx. So that provides a nice tie-in and opportunity to develop talent and give them a chance to ride at a higher level later in the season. I’m in contact with Axel and he told me that he thinks Jesse and Taylor are ready to get their feet wet at a higher level. And Clinton, though he wasn’t with the U23 squad, has had some nice results in Europe, including winning Vlaamse Pijl. With our main base in Belgium, we get to see a lot of up and coming talented riders since there are so many races going on there. They’ll all get to race quite a bit and we’ll see if something permanent can work out in the future.

What do you look for from these stagiaires. What will be the determining factors in taking them on in the future?

I tend not to look at results and standings so early on because that’s not going to be an accurate indicator. I’ll talk with our other directors who will interact with them as well. Of course they need to be a strong rider who can ride in the bunch and can continue to develop. I’m not looking for them to be at their best now, nor do I expect them to. But it’s really important that they are a good teammate and get along well with the riders and staff. I think that’s something underestimated, but for me it’s very important. Look at any other job — if you have the smartest or most talented employee, but he doesn’t get along with his co-workers or bosses, then it normally creates a bad environment that affects a lot of people and ultimately the results of the company. So just seeing how they fit with the team is just as important. Hopefully they’ll get some good experience and a better feeling for what it’s like to ride at the next level.

Is Taylor Phinney the future of American cycling?

Supposedly I had the future of American cycling on my team a number of years ago and to this day that rider is still waiting for a Tour de France selection. So speculating on who is the future of American cycling is somewhat pointless and potentially damaging to the rider. I know the American fans are excited and they should be. He comes from a cycling family, he’s Davis Phinney’s son, Lance has somewhat taken him under his wing, and he’s performed well on the U23 & USA National teams. There will still be a learning curve, especially since his background is on the track, but that’s also a nice foundation for becoming a road cyclist. The best thing that Taylor can do right now is to focus on being a professional cyclist and learning as much as possible in the next three months. Don’t get caught up on what people are saying in the media or on Twitter. That stuff can easily get to your head. And I think it’s important to make the point that the future of the sport doesn’t rest on one person’s shoulder. There’s a lot of great young talented riders in the U.S.; Tejay Van Garderen, Brent Bookwalter, Ted King, to name just a few. Give those guys credit too.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m in London getting ready to move into our new place. Normally I try to relax a bit during August, but I think it will be very busy. I need to spend more time with my children. I didn’t get to be with them much the last few months. And then of course there’s racing and preparing for the next season. Never a down period. The last few years have been very hectic post-Tour de France — Getting the phone call to manage Astana; Lance’s return; starting Team RadioShack. Always something interesting going on; that’s for sure.