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Mont Ventoux
Photo ©: Sirotti

An interview with Johan Bruyneel, November 8, 2004

Keeping the spirit alive: Confident about Discovery & 2005

By Tim Maloney, European Editor

Next season, a newly renamed team will join Jacques Anquetil's St.Raphael team, Eddy Merckx's Molteni squad and Bernard Hinault's La Vie Claire outfit as one of the top Tour de France formations of all time as a new partner, Discovery Communications, takes the place of US Postal as title sponsor for 2005 and beyond. Cyclingnews recently sat down with master tactician Johan Bruyneel to discuss the transition to the Discovery Channel Cycling Team in 2005.

Armstrong and Bruyneel: two of a kind
Photo ©: AFP
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As the team manager who has masterminded Lance Armstrong and the United States Postal Service teams wins in the last six Tours de France, Johan Bruyneel is cycling's equivalent of the manager of the New York Yankees baseball team.

A forty year-old Belgian who lives in Madrid, Spain, with his wife Eva-Marie and ten month-old baby daughter Victoria, Bruyneel enjoyed a solid 12 year career as a pro cyclist with teams like O.N.C.E. and Rabobank, retiring in 1998. Bruyneel then teamed up with Armstrong, taking over the reins at USPS in 1999.

Armstrong told the Washington Post's sports columnist Sally Jenkins that "Johan Bruyneel is the first person who put Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France in the same sentence," while Bruyneel recognized Lance's possibilities even before he was officially on board as USPS director six years ago this month.

"Everyone knows about Lance as a person and as a rider," said Bruyneel in the press release that announced his arrival at USPS in late 1998.

"For me, (Lance) is the rider of the year. His most important race next year will be the Tour de France. I have already spoken with Lance about this and he is aware that next year he needs to concentrate on the Tour, especially following his effort at this year's Tour of Spain. His performance in the mountains was incredible... we have some great possibilities to do well in the Tour de France."

Cyclingnews: Johan, I understand your team roster is now complete for 2005 with 26 riders.

Johan Bruyneel: Yes, we've got 26 riders; normally that's the way it will be, but number 27 could be Ryder Hesjedal... he's still deciding if he wants to ride the road (full time) or also ride mountain bikes.

"If Lance is ready to go bed with the Tour and wake up with the Tour again, it means that he's going to go for it."

CN: You have added a Japanese rider to the roster, Fumiyuki Beppu... how come?

JB: Discovery is very interested in Asian markets and they asked us to find an Asian rider... I did some research and we decided to sign Beppu for two years. He was the best option; he's a good young rider and he has European experience.

CN: What about the rumors that Mario Cipollini and Ivan Basso might be signed by Discovery?

JB: We did talk to Cipollini, because in the beginning when we were putting together the team we were thinking about it; he's a big name and a big champion and I think he deserves respect, certainly in terms of his contract and we were not in a position to make him a fair offer, which I would feel comfortable with.

CN: What about the Ivan Basso rumors?

JB: Those were just rumors... they're not around anymore. A guy like that... I think all the budgets are closed at this point.

Still the leader
Photo ©: CN
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CN: With Lance Armstrong the clear leader for the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling team, how does the uncertainty in his program affect the your program for 2005?

JB: The big difference for Lance from other years is that we're going to start the season without a specific goal as he usually did. For the last six years, from December until the end of June, Lance went to bed with the Tour and woke up with the Tour and everything that went with the Tour. It's going to different in 2005; if after three months of the season, Lance is ready to go bed with the Tour and wake up with the Tour again, it means that he's going to go for it. And if not, Lance will find other races, another direction... maybe as we've spoken of in the past, in a few months, about the hour record. That could be a big challenge for Lance... if he doesn't think he's ready to do the Tour. But it's too early now to say.

CN: Has the turmoil and uncertainly surrounding the ProTour affected your program for 2005 at all?

JB: Well, I think that the three Grand Tours will be in the ProTour.

CN: So you think the organizers will reach an agreement with the UCI?

JB: I think so... and we've already made our plan for 2005 by recruiting riders to be ready for the ProTour, with the three Grand Tours, so we'll do all three big Tours.

CN: Johan, you've had an incredible record as a team manager over the last six years with six consecutive Tour wins, a championship calibre management performance in any sport. How do you expect things to change as the USPS team changes to the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling team and will you change your style at all?

JB: Well...change...I don't know. The sponsor will change, but the people are still the same and it's my wish and my ambition to keep working the same way I've been doing until now. Discovery understands our program; I've explained it in detail and they like it so I hope I can work in the same direction and doing things in the same way.

CN: Johan, in some ways, you are like Phil Jackson, the coach of the Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan was at the peak of his career. You have been a key influence that has enabled Lance to dominate the Tour de France for much of the last decade. So how do you build the next Tour champion?

Popovych - a Tour winner?
Photo ©: Olympia

JB: I think there's a guy that, in my opinion, I have a lot of confidence in for the future, also for the Tour, maybe not in the near future. Popovych. I think he's a potential Tour winner. I tried to get him two years ago and it didn't work. But this year, we came to an agreement easily as there was the desire from both sides. (Popovych) turned offers that were way more interesting financially to come and ride with us. He's a guy that knows what he wants and I'm very, very excited to see that. I don't know him very well yet, but I think (Popovych) can become a big one.

CN: How will you motivate a rider like Popovych?

JB: Well, first he has to get into our program and we have to adapt him to the style of our team and if he has other thoughts, I'm always willing to listen because I think I can learn from everybody. This team has shown that we know how to win an important race and (Popovych) is the prototype rider, the kind of guy who has all the qualities to win a big stage race.

CN: Will you attend the first training camp of the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling team next month in Austin, Texas?

JB: Yes, of course...

CN: What kind of vibes are you hoping for from the first get-together from the new team?

JB: I have no specific doubts or fears that someone isn't going to fit. In our recruiting, we also base it a lot on if a guy is going to fit in or not. I just want to get the guys together and let them have fun; the fact that Lance is around is a big factor.

It's good to get the guys together and get them going - I don't expect anything else. I think if we can keep the same atmosphere and the same group spirit and the same drive, and I'm very confident we can. I think it's important to have a sponsor with prestige; and Discovery is a company that I personally as a rider would be honored to have on my chest. The fact that the riders are proud to wear the Discovery logo is important and I have no doubt that we will keep the core together, add some new guys and keep the same spirit.

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