By Tim Maloney, European editor
Lance Armstrong spoke with Cyclingnews earlier this week to shed some light on the recent accusations from former USPS rider Cedric Vasseur concerning his non-selection to the TdF and related issues.
In a phone interview from his home in Girona, Spain, where the three time Tour De France champion is preparing for his '02 racing debut in Milano-San Remo next week, Armstrong emphatically stated that, "I have nothing personally bad to say about Vasseur; I don't want to knock the guy, but we (USPS) didn't do anything wrong here. And I don't deserve this I've gone out of my way to do things in this sport that are non-traditional to motivate my fellow team members."
Cyclingnews: What is the situation regarding the accusations about prize money from the TDF and Cedric Vasseur?
Lance Armstrong: "As far as the actual prize money awarded by the STdF that we won (in '00), this has all been distributed. Vasseur has absolutely gotten his share of the prize money. The (TdF) tradition is, well, that riders like Miguel Indurain and Greg LeMond would not take any prize money when they won the Tour and I have respected that tradition. It's like $400 grand and that gets split between the riders and there is a part for the staff, too. Above and beyond that, out of my own pocket, I have put in an additional $250 grand (for TdF team riders) myself. That is unprecedented in cycling; nobody does this. So it hurts when Vasseur is quoted calling me a cheapskate, well, that's just not acceptable."
CN: Vasseur claims that he was never informed (by USPS) as to why he was not picked for the 2001 Tour De France.
LA: "The basis of this is that we (USPS) have to decide who is strongest; who gives us the best chance of winning the Tour. There are 22 guys on the team and 13 don't go! The unfortunate thing is that Cedric was disappointed; he is French and the Tour was starting (in Dunquerque) where he lives but this (disappointment) will happen again. We can't take everybody."
CN: Well who makes the decision who rides?
LA: "People think I make the decisions at USPS on who rides the Tour; that I say who does and doesn't go, but I'm a rider, not the boss. Sure I have input but it's not my position to make this final decision. Vasseur's statements reek of bitterness here. I can understand he was upset that he didn't get selected, but we (USPS) have an obligation to our sponsors, our fans, the race to field the best team; to take the best nine guys and guy number ten - he doesn't go!"
CN: Were there some cultural differences here?
LA: "No! He (Vasseur) took this personally and it wasn't. He is from that area and it was the TdF. But we just can't take those kind of things into consideration. Cedric Vasseur was brought here (to USPS) and was viewed as an important part of the team. He was well paid and we had a lot of hope that he would live up to our expectations."
We then spoke to USPS Director Sportif Johan Bruyneel. From his office in Spain, Bruyneel offered his view of how the 2001 TdF team selection process worked.
CN: How did you make your final decision about the TdF team last year?
Johan Bruyneel: "There are a lot of parameters we have to take into account during this process. I mean, we can't tell you all of them either, but there were 11 guys that could have gone (to 2001 TdF) but unfortunately, only 9 guys could ride, so Vasseur and (Matt) White had to stay home. It was a hard decision. There was some criticism of me, especially in France, for taking Chechu Rubiera instead of Vasseur. Rubiera was injured, he hadn't raced in a month, but we knew in the team from the doctor and his training that he would be good later on. The first week, we told Rubiera to stay quiet and he did; he was losing 15 minutes per stage, but he came around and rode very well."
CN: What about Vasseur?
JB: "Like I said, it was a very hard choice for us."
CN: And Vasseur's comments to the media in Dunkirk?
JB: "Our team policy is that is OK to answer questions but we were surprised when he went off and did a solo press conference in the TdF press centre!"
CN: What about the prize money issue ?
JB: "There is no contract about the prize money between the riders and the team; instead there is an agreement between the team and the riders at the beginning of the season about the prize split that happens at the end of the season. This I can assure you absolutely, that Vasseur got all the money from the USPS prize fund, including the 2000 Tour de France. When a rider leaves a team, he has to sign a release to the UCI saying he has gotten everything that is owed in salary and prize money and Vasseur did. As for Lance, he choses to put in more money out of his own pocket (for the TDF) and that is his business as to how he doles it out."
USPS team operations manager Dan Osipow echoed Bruyneel regarding Cederic Vasseur's comments to the media in Dunkirk last July.
Dan Osipow: "USPS cycling team does not have any specific media policy regarding our riders. However, we were extremely disappointed in Cedric's judgement to address the media the way he did on the subject of his non-selection to compete in the 2001 Tour de France."
"I'm sure Cedric was disappointed and upset about not being selected for the Tour team, but so were other team members as well. We were mainly disappointed with his judgement of holding a press conference to criticize the team selection; he did not alert any of the team management of his decision to do so."
"Not every rider needs to seek our permission to speak with a journalist, but in this case, to discuss Vasseur's non-selection to the race to the journalists in the media center without getting our OK, was real poor judgement on Cedric's part."
The consequences of Vasseur's impromptu airing of his grievances with USPS to the French media were unforeseen; besides the derisive whistling that greeted the defending champion USPS team at the team presentation in Dunkirk, there were more sinister currents behind the scenes.
Separately, Armstrong added via email on the consequences of the bad vibes last year in Dunkirk.
LA: "I think it's ironic that Vasseur has criticised the bodyguard issue. He was the VERY reason we had to have one. After he incited such hostility with the French fans after his press event, we (USPS) started to receive threatening calls, faxes, emails, etc, along the lines of 'Armstrong WILL NOT finish the prologue', etc. So with the security of the team and me and perhaps my family at stake, and with such threats looming, we had no choice but to protect ourselves by hiring a bodyguard."
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