By Ben Delaney
The Astana team camp isn’t Johan Bruyneel’s only project going on this week in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The recently retitled Johan Bruyneel Cycling Academy is also hosting 16 young riders in the same hotel as the ProTour squad.
Bernard Moerman has run the operation for years under the banner of the Cycling Center with headquarters in his home of Oostkamp, Belgium, and more recently with the Albuquerque satellite program.
Although Bruyneel has given his name to the program for 2008, its mission remains the same — to give young, mostly American, riders a bike racing education in hopes of landing them pro contracts.
Morning temperatures in the low 20s haven’t exactly made for vacation-style riding. On Tuesday, with black ice spotting the roads, Astana cancelled its planned team ride. Tour de France winner Alberto Contador went shopping in Santa Fe. All 16 Bruyneel Academy, however, riders suited up for a three-hour ride.
Riding on new roads in a not-yet-developed area south of Albuquerque, Moerman splits the young men into three squads, and drilled them methodically. More than just having riders put in the miles, Moerman each day lays out the objectives. When riding tempo, each group takes a turn rotating at the front; when a squad member flats, his whole team squad stops and paces him back to the group.
Driving behind and alongside the group, Moerman barks instructions, which riders dutifully relay through the group. “Stop sprinting! Ride steady! Keep it tight!”
When one squad neglected to stop for a teammate who flatted, Moerman pulled the whole group over, and climbed out of the car.
“Think! Think! Think!” he bellowed. “Johan wants smart bikes racers, not just fast racers. If you don’t think, you will never be a good bike racer.”
Arizona resident David Nelson is in his fourth year with the program. He joined the program after meeting Moerman at the Valley of the Sun in Phoenix, and on the recommendation of his coach. The plan then was to get European racing experience with the end goal of a job racing bikes. His first year in Belgium was an eye opener.
“It was way more aggressive than I could possibly have imagined,” Nelson said. “A lot more yelling. A lot more guys really in your face. At first I took it as a negative thing. I took it as these guys going crazy, that there were no rules. But that just shows how much there was to learn. There is a huge set of unspoken rules. That’s why I’m still in the program after four years.”
Each morning in Albuquerque’s Embassy Suites hotel, Moerman has the riders circle up after breakfast. His lectures are half instruction, half motivation. On Wednesday, he explains his rationale for giving his riders hell on Tuesday.
“Don’t misunderstand. I don’t think I’m dealing with a bunch of dumb asses,” he said. “Don’t blame yourself for not knowing. Blame yourself for not learning.”
Riders must apply to join the Academy. After the Albuquerque camp, all riders will go stay for a season in Belgium. The program costs 4800 Euros ($7200), and includes everything (bike, riding kit, medical support, housing, etc.) but airfare and food.
The end result, Moerman says, is an experienced, well-educated bike racer.
He points to pros like Jeff Louder as success stories of his program.
“Americans can pick things up quickly,” Moerman said. “The talent is there, the determination is there. But the structure and the knowledge are not there. I don’t want to offend anyone, but in general, there are very good athletes over here, but very few bike racers, in the true sense of the term. But that should be perceived as a positive. You cannot learn to have talent. You cannot learn to be motivated. A lot of Americans have those things. They’re just in the unfortunate position that this sport is very hard to reach.”
Steven Van Vooren is one of a few Belgians on the team. He won France’s UCI Circuit du Port de Dunkerque last September, and is now talking with pro Europe teams.
He joined Moerman’s program four years ago because no other European amateur squad does what the Academy does, he said.
“European amateur teams don’t bring have this level of professionalism,” Van Vooren said. “I think it’s the best way to develop myself, and learn how to become a professional.”
A big part of the Academy program is Moerman’s hands-on approach.
“In any other sport, you have your coach or coaches on the sideline, correcting the guys all the time on this or that,” Moerman said. “In cycling, a good scenario is if you have a coach that you get an email from once a week. Even in Europe, no one is doing what I do. Going on the rides, correcting all the little details. We’re approaching this as basketball coaches, or football coaches. Addressing all the details to make them better, smarter riders.”
Texan Colt Trant is in his second year with the program, which he first heard about through his coach at MSU, where he has a cycling scholarship. Like Nelson, Trant had a surprising first season in Belgium.
“The racing blew me out of the water,” Trant said. “Here, it’s more of a social thing. Everyone brings their family to the race, says hi to each other. In Europe, it’s war. It’s business. Like Dave [Nelson] was saying, there’s no rules but there are. People jumping in people’s yards at the start of a race, anything is fair game.”
Come the end of this season, Trant, and the other Academy riders, will be a little more prepared for the war.