A season in transition: A conversation with Johan Bruyneel

Discovery Channel scored an important milestone last week when Egoi Martinez won the 11th stage into Burgos. With Janez Brajkovic’s run in the Vuelta’s gold jersey, the team has won a stage and held the leader’s jersey in all three of this year’s grand tours. That’s motivating stuff for a team that long grew accustomed to wearing the leader’s jerseys at the end of the season’s grand tours. Times have certainly changed for Discovery Channel following the retirement of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. Discovery Channel boss Johan Bruyneel is far from nostalgic, however.

By Andrew Hood

Bruyneel is overseeing some big changes at Discovery.

Bruyneel is overseeing some big changes at Discovery.

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Discovery Channel scored an important milestone last week when Egoi Martinez won the 11th stage into Burgos. With Janez Brajkovic’s run in the Vuelta’s gold jersey, the team has won a stage and held the leader’s jersey in all three of this year’s grand tours.

That’s motivating stuff for a team that long grew accustomed to wearing the leader’s jerseys at the end of the season’s grand tours. Times have certainly changed for Discovery Channel following the retirement of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.

Discovery Channel boss Johan Bruyneel is far from nostalgic, however. With the challenge of forging new champions and building up a new block of riders to tackle cycling’s biggest races, Bruyneel is working with newfound enthusiasm as he rebuilds the team in the post-Armstrong era.

VeloNews’s Andrew Hood recently caught up with Bruyneel to talk about the team’s future as well as gauge his thoughts surrounding the Floyd Landis doping scandal. Here are excerpts from the interview: Tell us about the changes for the team for next year?

Johan Bruyneel: We’re having a lot of changes – the most ever. It’s usually between five or six new riders; the maximum was seven coming to the team. A few riders have decided they’re going to other teams for financial reasons and then three or four guys we’re not going to keep. Beltrán is leaving, Azevedo is staying in Portugal in what’s a family decision, Eki is retiring, Hoste, Van den Broeck are both going to Davitmon, then there are a few others. We have Levi (Leipheimer), (Sergio) Paulinho and (Thomas) Vaitkus coming on. There will be some other riders named soon.

VN: Why so many changes this year?

JB: It’s logical because we had the team built around Lance for a long time. When Lance retired at the end of last year, we kept most of the structure we’d had over six-seven-eight years. The guys we took on board when they were 24-25-26 are now 32-33-34… 40 in one case. I think it’s logical that we head in a different direction.

I think the ways things turned out at the Tour de France that it was a sign that we had to change the structure of the team. The way things are going now, I am pretty happy how it goes. We’re losing some veterans on the team, but I am confident we can do the necessarily replacements to be at least equal or better.

VN: Will there be any big names?

JB: Levi is not a small name. I think we have big names on the team. We have George, Popo. We have a new big name in Brajkovic.

Brajkovic could be the new star of the future.

Brajkovic could be the new star of the future.

Photo: Graham Watson

VN: You obviously believe in Levi, how far do you think he can go in the Tour?

JB: If you look at Levi, he’s a candidate for the podium. He’s been a few times top 10 in the Tour, won the Dauphine, Tour of Germany, he’s a GC contender. On top of that, he’s American, he knows the team, and he’s been on the team. He’s worked hard to be where he is right now. For us, it was a logical choice if that opportunity was there to get a big American rider on board.

VN: How important is it to have big American riders on the team?

JB: I know that if I have to choice between two riders, if one’s an American and one’s not an American and I know he fits on the team, I go for the American. If everything else is equal – the same qualities, experience, budget – the American. Discovery has insisted that when they got on board that they wanted it to be a global team, that’s why we’re so international and we will try to spread that more with some new signings we will be even more international next year.

VN: Looking back at the 2006 season, it was a transition season for the team without Armstrong, how do you assess things?

JB: It’s a different year and a transition year. We came off really big, big things. If you look at it from a neutral standpoint, we won a stage and had the lead at Giro, we won a stage and had the lead at the Tour, we had the lead here and we will try to win a stage [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Martinez won stage 11].

Overall it’s been a good season for a team that’s trying to find a new direction and build toward something new. I know all the guys have tried very hard, a lot of times we missed a little bit of luck. I think Paris-Roubaix would have been George’s race. The Eneco Tour was George’s race until 70 meters to go — the prologue at Tour, 17 hundredths of second.

We won other races like Days of De Panne and the Tour of Austria. All through the season we’ve been contenders, which means we have the quality and we have to restructure a little bit and have a little bit of extra luck to make difference between winning and losing. I am really happy with how things went this year.

VN: We heard there was a big push to sign Floyd Landis, how bad did you want to get him back?

JB: When he left, we tried hard to keep him. Then last year after one year on Phonak, we tried hard again because there was a possibility he could leave. Ultimately, it didn’t work out. During the Tour, I was interested, of course. I know Floyd and I know what he’s able to do and I know his qualities as a rider. We didn’t push it too hard because we knew there was this iShares deal that was depending on him. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to go after something that it’s almost impossible to get. It’s just a shame what happened afterward. I don’t know exactly what happened.

As a rider, I really appreciated Floyd a lot, for what he did on our team and he’s gotten to where he is – where he was – thanks to the experience he got on our team and we showed him the way to train, to focus on an objective. He had a good example in Lance to see what it is to work hard.

VN: What’s your reaction to the Landis doping scandal?

JB: It was a big surprise for me. I still don’t know enough details to say exactly what happened, if it’s true or not, if it’s a mistake, I don’t know. It’s a shame for cycling – for him – because I think he deserved the Tour. He was one of the favorites and he was the strongest guy in the race. To tell the truth, I cannot understand how something like that can happen at the end of the race. All his tests before and after he had been checked, there was nothing there. I don’t understand.

It’s not good for cycling. After everything we went through, that cycling went through, it was a good Tour de France, a Tour with suspense, one of the biggest names in the race won the race, and then we got that disappointment. Everything that was built up over three weeks came into question again.

VN: Do you think Landis will race again?

JB: We have to wait and see and follow the procedures and let Floyd to give his defense. Personally, I’ve been too many times in that position as a director of a team and with Lance. Lance has gone through a lot of accusations. We only asked that we go through the procedures. In all the cases that Lance was accused or suspected, he’s been fighting it with conviction and he’s won them all. So I want to give Floyd the right to defend himself and eventually clear his name. That’s his right as a cyclist and that’s his right as a human being, because sometimes cyclists aren’t seen as human beings.

VN: How much do you think the scandal has hurt cycling?

JB: One cannot ignore the doping problem in cycling. At the same time, I think cycling has been the sport that’s been fighting those problems the most. Ultimately, we have to come to the conclusion that this has not been in favor of the image of cycling. The more scandals you have, the worse it is for a reputation of a sport. If there are more controls, that’s because there’s a reason to have them.

VN: Do you think the Ethics Code has really put some teeth into the doping fight?

JB: I think it’s a strong message and a sign of strong will to fight a certain problem. I also think that cycling at this moment is not giving a professional image. There are too many different rules, what’s valid for one, not valid for another. There is code of ethics for teams, but there is no code of ethics for organizers, for federations, for anybody else. The code of ethics is not only about doping – it’s about other things – if a team does something wrong, there can be a problem, or if a rider does something wrong, even it’s not doping, there can be consequences.

I still have not seen consequences for a race organizer, if there’s not enough security, if the transfers of big races are not correct for athletes, there’s dangerous finishes, spectators on the road, cars parked on the road at a World Cup race, things that also need solutions.

VN: How do you think that cycling can win back some of its lost credibility?

JB: There are so many different opinions and so many people who give their opinion who shouldn’t give their opinion. Cycling right now doesn’t look very professional to me. I’m sure if we all sit together with the right people, there is a lot that can be done. That’s the complexity of cycling; there are so many different interests and opinion involved. In my opinion, there are too many people giving their point of view right now who have too much of a short-term view, not wide-open enough perspective.

VN: UCI president Pat McQuaid said cycling needs to have a major discussion about the sport and where it’s heading and make some serious changes, do you support such an effort?

JB: I think that’s a good idea. That’s what I would propose. Cycling is a very complex organization, with a lot of different teams, riders and organizers, all with their own interests. What we must have is the opinion of everyone. It has to be an honest opinion. It cannot be a political opinion. We have to bring representative people together. We cannot get the 20 ProTour teams, all the riders, the UCI; we have to find the representative people.

If everyone is open, I think we can change a lot of things. I think one of the big problems in cycling is that everything that happens, it’s immediately reported to the media. That’s not always the right thing to do. If there is a restructure, we have to be able to solve things first, when we have found a solution, then we can bring it out to the media. Not when there’s still no solution.

VN: At this Vuelta a España, the team’s found a big talent in Janez Brakjovic but perhaps a disappointment with Tom Danielson, how do you view their performances so far?

JB: Overall, it’s been a good Vuelta for us, in terms of results and terms of how the team is riding. It’s important for a young rider like Brajkovic to do what he’s done. He’s surpassed my expectations and his expectations. We expected him to lose the jersey, but we saw a lot of good things. Tom felt better (at La Cobertoria), at the same time, he was in the situation that he was more than four minutes down and we had the yellow jersey. You automatically become a teammate. We had the responsibility to get the yellow jersey to finish as well as he can.

There is a lot of Vuelta ahead of us and we can still do some great things, but Tom was a bit of a disappointment in the first two mountains stages. Now he looks like he’s feeling better, so maybe we can expect some good things from him.

VN: What do you expect from Brajkovic?

JB: It’s nice to have a big champion and win a lot of races, but it’s also nice to have a young guy on the team and bring him along, to put a lot of energy and bring him to where we hope he can get. The satisfaction is a different type. I’ve been used to winning the Tour seven times with Lance, the Giro with Savoldelli and the Vuelta with Heras.

If you see a young guy who has the prospects to become a big champion, it’s another good thing to put your energy. He’s very young, it’s very important that we don’t expectations too high. What he’s shown is something really big for a young kid. He still has a long way to go, we can hope he can keep improving bit by bit, but he has potential to do something big in the future.

VN: Has Danielson been sick or struggling with some other problem?

JB: It just didn’t work. We thought he would be super-good, the first day he was okay, then day after he was not good at all. That’s the way it is, you cannot program the human body.

VN: Do you still believe Danielson can be a grand tour candidate in the future?

JB: He’s definitely a top-10 contender. How far he can get, I don’t know. I was hoping in this Vuelta he could be top 5, he lost some time already. It’s still possible he could be close to the top 10.

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