By Andrew Hood
The first surprise in Johan Bruyneel’s new autobiography is that he lived vicariously through Lance Armstrong. The Belgian achieved as a sport director what he could never do during his 11-year racing career.
“I was lucky enough to win two stages and take the yellow jersey, but I knew that I could never win the whole race,” Bruyneel told VeloNews in a recent interview. “It’s a big compensation to do as a sport director what I couldn’t do myself physically.”
Bruyneel’s new autobiography — “We Might as Well Win,” which hit the stands June 10 — tells his side of the story of how the pair forged a relationship and rewrote Tour history, with Armstrong winning an unprecedented seven consecutive titles and Bruyneel becoming the “mastermind” behind the well-recorded blueprint that became Armstrong’s winning formula.
It’s more than that, however. The book reveals details about how Bruyneel quickly realized he didn’t have the engine to win the Tour and how he came to rely on his wits and savvy to win stages, a quality that would become his strength as a sport director.
The autobiography explores key moments of Bruyneel’s career both as a racer and sport director, with behind-the-scenes anecdotes that the 43-year-old believes are a model not only to win bike races, but to be successful in all walks of life.
“What I want is that people can take away certain things that I’ve experienced, things that I put it into practice with the things I am doing with the team,” he said. “It’s often very simple.”
Bruyneel found a good lead-out man with co-author Bill Strickland, the executive editor at Bicycling magazine.
Strickland uses words like Bruyneel plays tactics and helps bring to life the most interesting facets of the book with vivid detail and crisp prose. Strickland is so good, in fact, that it sometimes feels like a book about Bruyneel rather than a book by Bruyneel.
The narrative is wisely constructed. Rather than following the story chronologically, the book meanders forward and backward through a series of talking points during Bruyneel’s 25-year career as a racer and sport director.
It works best when Bruyneel explains some of the significant moments of Armstrong’s reign, from “the bluff,” to the bonk on Joux-Plain, the unlikely 1999 victory and how Armstrong almost lost the 2003 Tour.
The 213-page book certainly isn’t for everyone.
By taking aim at the general public, it slows down the pace as Strickland feels compelled to explain details and lay out the basics of cycling tactics that VeloNews reader won’t need.
Detractors will absolutely hate it.
There’s not one mention of Michele Ferrari, Armstrong’s controversial training guru, and only passing treatment of the scandal and innuendo that plagued Armstrong and the team during its heyday. A stronger defense from Bruyneel would have made compelling reading.
VeloNews recently spoke with Bruyneel about his book. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: You are obviously reaching out beyond the hard-core cycling base, what are you trying to convey with the book?
Johan Bruyneel: What I want is that people can take away certain things that I’ve experienced, things that I put it into practice with the things I am doing with the team. It works. It’s often very simple. People think they need to be well educated or have a complicated strategy to be successful. As long as you keep trying and are convinced in the way you are doing it, you will get there. A great example is with the team. It was me against everybody. If you look at the result, I am very proud of it.
VN: Why now with a book?
JB: I thought about it two years ago. It took a little longer than expected and I had to find the right moment to publish it. Ideally, it would have been right after last year’s Tour de France. To win with Lance, everyone says that was easy, but to win with another guy, it was important. It was unforeseen that Alberto could win the Tour. When he did, we said, OK, let’s just wait and work on it a little more and release in the spring of 2008. Now with Alberto winning the Giro, it’s really the ideal moment.
VN: The title, “We might as well win,” was a personal motto of yours, why did you use it for the title?
JB: It’s probably never more adequate than now. We went to the Giro, we were not ready, but once we were there, once we were in the race, we might as well win. We talked a lot about that during the Giro. It came from Alberto himself. In the beginning, he wasn’t happy at all to be there. Once he was there, he said, “Now I’m here, I’m not excluding anything.” It was good to see how, bit by bit, people who are working with me, they start to adapt that saying. It’s very true. You have to have the basic ingredients and quality, but nobody thought we could win the Giro. It was a very sweet victory.
VN: The book is obviously written for a wider audience, why did you do that instead of aiming for the cycling fan?
JB: That was my goal from the beginning. If I had some stories to tell, and through the stories some lessons could be learned, it’s more than just for bike fans. That was the easy part, I don’t have to convince them of anything. The way it is written and reads, it can be helpful to just about anybody. You don’t have to be a bike fan to read the book. It’s very well-written and well-explained. There are enough valuable lessons to take away.
VN: How did you hook up with your co-author, Bill Strickland?
JB: It was just by coincidence. I had an interview with a guy who was writing a book and we talked about who might be available to help me with the book. It worked well from the beginning. It was very important to find someone who was a good rider but also someone who could understand the detail of the sport. Bill really put a lot of that detail into the book. You can really feel it. There are a lot of little details that really bring the story alive.
VN: One name that is not mentioned in the book is Michele Ferrari, why did you avoid this topic in the book?
JB: I wanted it to be a positive book. There are a lot of things that have been said that are negative. I wanted the book to be focused on the philosophy of winning. That wasn’t necessary to mention, and it is controversial anyway. That’s a battle I gave up on a long time ago. I don’t want to have to keep explaining and keep defending ourselves. I’ve passed that stage a long time ago.
VN: One thing you don’t bring up a lot in the book are the doubters: how do you react to the people that just don’t believe in the victories?
JB: That’s too bad for them. We’ve tried to explain too many times. How much harder can we try to explain? Right now with Astana, we basically have the top team with the strongest riders, we’re dominating the races, at least the ones we’re allowed to race, and we have the strictest anti-doping program that exists. (Anti-doping director Rasmus) Damsgaard and what he’s doing — it can’t get better. There are a lot of cynics out there and critics who say they prepare for a race this way or that way. Now we go to the Giro, eight days before it starts, we show and we still win it. The team is at a good level and that speaks a lot.
VN: But there are people out there who just don’t believe in the victories?
JB: I cannot do anything about that. I’m not going to keep trying to explain. I’m not losing any minute of sleep over the critics. People will say they did that or they must be cheating. You have some people who are obsessed with destroying someone or something they did. If that’s your life mission, that’s sad. Those are not happy people. I consider myself a happy person.
VN: Looking at Armstrong, what was the most important element of his victories?
JB: I start with the most important, which is to believe, to be convinced you can be successful. You have to be able to do whatever it takes to fulfill your belief. If you have something in mind and you believe, you can make it happen. I was convinced that Armstrong could win the Tour. From the moment he saw that conviction, then he was convinced too, everything else was a lot easier.
I think it’s valid for everything. You see it in sports all the time. No one believed that Contador could win the Giro, but bit by bit, he started to believe. From the moment he took the pink jersey, I thought Alberto would win the Giro, even if he wasn’t 100 percent convinced yet. The others were stronger than him, but he won. Back in 2003, when Lance was struggling with the Tour, there were five riders who were stronger than him, but they didn’t believe they could win, and Lance did.
VN: Do you think anyone will touch the seven-win record?
JB: Well, it won’t be seven consecutive with Alberto, because that’s one thing they took away from us. Alberto has more Tours ahead of him. He’s young, he’s smart and he has the right people around him. I cannot predict the future, but it would be wrong to try to pursue the record, because that’s when you make mistakes. This is definitely not his last Tour victory.
VN: With Lance, you were not chasing the record?
JB: You could see it coming closer and closer, but it wasn’t something automatically you do. We went from one year to the next. In 2003, he was trying to win the fifth, we knew it was going to be hard. We thought about the record then. The Tour started hard. It was the most difficult one of them all. I think with the second, third and fourth, we never thought about number five, because you always have to start over again. The competition gets better, they duplicate the things you are doing, so you have to stay ahead of the competition. We were pretty good at that.
VN: It’s obvious from the book that both you and Armstrong were obsessed with the Tour, but who was more obsessed?
VN: I was maybe more obsessed than he was about winning. I have never gone to the Tour thinking we could get second – never – apart from 2006, when we didn’t have a clear candidate for victory. Some people have criticized me about that, but I cannot have finishing second in mind. At the end of the day, you have to realize that some people don’t like it when you win too much. That’s the price you have to pay. I would never give it up to make others happy.
VN: It’s also obvious in the book that you have a clear love affair with the Tour, despite what problems exist now.
JB: The Tour always was a huge satisfaction. No matter what the Tour might think of me or what relationship we might have, the Tour was always on a pedestal for me. It’s the biggest event, it’s the race that motivated me as a rider and as a director. It was the race I started to dream about as a child. I was lucky enough to win two stages and take the yellow jersey, but I knew that I could never win the whole race. I would win it with Lance seven times and once again with Alberto. It’s a big compensation to do as a sport director what I couldn’t do myself physically.
VN: You said after Contador’s Giro victory that it was one of the top three moments as a sport director, what were the other two?
JB: The first with Lance was the most important. After that, every one was important. Then number seven was also very important. Number eight was even more important, because it was the first one without Lance. Considering the circumstances how we started the Giro and the questions about his fitness, the fact that he was able to win a big race like the Giro when he shows up completely unprepared says a lot about him and his potential and our organization. To be able to put a team together, with the improvisation, taking it day to day, but still being very structured from the chaos means a lot.
Watch for a full book review in the upcoming issue in VeloNews.
Johan Bruyneel with Bill Strickland, “We Might as Well Win,” Boston-New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008
Upcoming stops on book tour
July 7: Borders Books and Music, New York, NY
July 8: Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Ore.
July 9: Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif.
July 11: Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle, Wash.
To buy book: www.johanbruyneel.com/the_book.html