By Andrew Hood
John Lelangue is a very happy camper these days. A yearago, the former Tour de France official took over the reins at the troubled Phonak team reeling after a string of doping scandals and an overhaul of the team management.
Lelangue stepped in along with sport director Juan Fernández to help steer the team through the uncertain 2005 season. A year later, instead of talking about past problems, Lelangue is optimistically looking ahead to the Tour and the promise of team captain Floyd Landis.
Following back-to-back victories in the Tour of California and Paris-Nice, Landis and Phonak positioned themselves among the top favorites for July’s grande boucle.
VeloNews caught up with Lelangue at the conclusion of Paris-Nice to discuss Landis, the transformation of the team and plans for July. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: Are you surprised by Landis’s form to win California and Paris-Nice?
John Lelangue: We knew he was in good shape at California. When we met last October to plan the races for the season, he wanted to be strong for such an important race in his home state. We made the best preparation for him to be strong in California.
VN: What’s changed most about Landis this year?
JL: I think he has made a big change to become a real leader, not only in the race, but in the team and the organization as well. Now he is the charismatic leader of the team. We work together very closely. He’s phoning me when we are not together. He is helping us with the training program and he’s working with the small details of the team, with the mechanics, with the staff. He is my first point of contact between the riders and the rest of the team.
VN: How important was it to Landis to see the team working for him at California and Paris-Nice?
JL: It’s very important. Now he’s taken the confidence that all the team can work 100 percent for him. It was new for him to defend a jersey as well as for us. We have never done that before. At Romandie last year, the victory came in the final time trial. We came with the idea of this objective. We came (to Paris-Nice) with a strong team and the guys were reacting well to defending the leader’s jersey.
VN: You obviously brought a strong team to Paris-Nice …
JL: We made the decision not to take any young riders. This is more of the team we will see in the Tour de France. We’ve added strong riders to the team, like Axel Merckx and Koos Moerenhout. When you have a leader like Floyd, you do your job by giving 120 percent. You know that he will be there to give the result.
VN: Did Landis just decide to become the team leader or was it a growing process?
JL: I think it has come step-by-step. For years, he was a good teammate, now he’s passing to a new stage of his life to become a leader. He’s found a good ambiance on this team. There is no pressure, no stress. We are always relaxed. He likes the way the team functions. It’s open, things are clear and there’s no tension. We always do things on agreement. We make all the decisions together. We work with the riders to decide their racing program. We meet with them one by one to see what their choices on. If we respect this, we will come together in an understanding.
VN: How is Landis taking on more responsibility on the team?
JL: Every night I sit with Floyd. We talk about the race, how the day’s stage went and what we think should happen the next day. We go over the strategy. Floyd stands up in the team meeting and talks about the strategy. The entire team is integrated in this. We speak with the head-sets during the race. He can give me information. We share everything. It’s enjoyable to work with him. He gained a lot of experience from when he rode with Lance (Armstrong). To have this experience is valuable.
VN: How is it to work with Landis?
JL: He is always laughing, smiling and he’s very funny. He’s a very optimistic person. It’s very positive to have a leader like this, for the rest of the team and everyone around him. He is happy about life. That’s really important to create a positive ambiance together on the team.
VN: After these successes, it’s clear that Landis will be the team leader for the Tour de France?
JL: The team will be built around Floyd for the stage races. For the Tour, we also have (Santiago) Botero, who play the role as a joker. For the rest of the team, it will be built around Floyd for Paris for the objective to arrive at the podium or even victory.
VN: You believe Landis can win the Tour?
JL: I said that at the team camp in February and everyone was surprised. When someone asked at the team presentation, can Phonak win the Tour de France, I said yes. I didn’t say we are going to win the Tour, but I said we are going with the intention of winning the Tour. We know Floyd is one of the top 10 guys who can win it. We know the parcours is perfect for us. We’ve had the confirmation that the team can work 100 percent for a leader and defend the jersey. I am optimistic about the team. We will go there with the objective to be on the podium. Which spot, we don’t know.
VN: How much stronger can Landis become between now and the Tour?
JL: If you’ve seen what he’s done both here and at California, he’s really at the top level of where he should be at this point of the season. The situation will be improving a lot. To be really at 100 percent, that has to wait until the Tour. Even at Georgia and the Giro, he will not be 100 percent. After Georgia, there is only one week before the Giro, so we must be careful not to spend too much energy there.
VN: There were some critics who said the team didn’t have the experience to control a stage race?
JL: I was never afraid. Even in California, it took a lot of work to control the race. Even here (in Paris-Nice), I was never anxious or worried about the situation. In the last three days, we had breakaways, but we let them go away until it was a normal margin of comfort. We knew on the climbs he could do it alone. It was more important that he have guys to work with him on the flats, then Floyd can concentrate on the final climb. Even if he had a flat tire, we were close by with the team car. In Saturday’s (seventh stage), we had 19 riders away in a break, but we were able to control the differences with just two or three guys riding at the front. We don’t have to react to everything.
VN: How important was this victory for Landis?
JL: He takes big confidence that the team is there for him, that he is ready and he has made good preparation. Now he can consider himself a real leader in cycling and as a Tour contender. Now everyone has seen it. The team is working well. He has a lot of confidence for the next races, because he knows he can do it.
VN: This and California were really a test for Landis and the team?
JL: Paris-Nice is very important. It’s the first big race of the season and the first one with all the big teams. It’s very important for us to be there in the beginning. This was the only race before the Tour when we could really test the team and see that the team is functioning around Floyd. The other races are different, with different goals and situations. This was a really good test, but the main objective remains the Tour. Even in (Tour de) Georgia we will go and just see how the race unfolds without any pressure. We made a good test at the beginning of the season with Floyd and the team. Now we can slow down a little bit for Floyd so he can prepare in tranquility for the Tour.
VN: What kind of message does this send to the other teams?
JL: Well, I’m sure the others are looking to this with interest. Now we have confirmed that we are a solid team. I am pretty confident. Now we fix the idea of the Tour for him. We have to accept that at some of the races before then he will be at 100 percent.
VN: How will Landis confront the Giro?
JL: He will come to the Giro without any pressure. Okay, if there’s a possibility for something, we might take it, it depends on how the race unfolds. Some of the other riders will be also to gain some of the stages. Axel or (Victor Hugo) Peña will be able to try something. For Floyd, there is plenty of time to recover after the Giro and prepare for the Tour. I think we will make a test to see the possibility for Floyd to train in a competition for three weeks. The mountains and the time trials will be good tests for Floyd and the team. Then he has four weeks to recover before the Tour, but even then he doesn’t have to be at the top level until really five weeks, for the first individual time trial in the Tour.