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An interview with Johan Bruyneel, February 3, 2008

Always looking forward, not back

Astana team general manager Johan Bruyneel spoke with Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo at the team's camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In part two, he talks about the doping issues and the political problems which are plaguing the sport. (Continued from part one).

Johan Bruyneel
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Astana's new general manager Johan Bruyneel clearly faces an uphill battle in trying to restore faith in his new Astana team. It is not just because Astana had three doping positives in 2007 - Matthias Kessler (testosterone), Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin (blood transfusion) as well as the implication of Eddy Mazzoleni in the 'Oil for Drugs' scandal - but also because he himself became damaged by the constant doping allegations against Lance Armstrong.

Added to that, the positives of riders who left his program and then tested positive like Roberto Heras and Floyd Landis, and the unceasing Operación Puerto which continues to threaten the reputation of Contador, and Bruyneel's task is all the more difficult.

However, Bruyneel is determined that he can salvage the reputation of the team, and believes that the sport as a whole can clean itself up and restore the faith of the fans, but he begs patience in what will be a slow process.

"I cannot go any faster than time allows us," Bruyneel sighed, looking tired at the prospect of answering yet another question about the doping problem. "We haven't been competing yet except for Tour Down Under, but we haven't been on showcase. I am going to try to show everyone that we're a new team. Although we still have some riders from last year, it's a new structure, new management.

"Although we know the reputation of Astana in 2007 is not good, unfortunately I cannot change that. The good thing is I don't feel responsible. I know it's a problem I have to solve, but I feel like we have made all the right steps to have a new start. Sometimes it's frustrating when everyone makes the link to 2007, but I have to ask everyone to forget that - I cannot change that."

Will throwing money at the problem make a change?

It is unlikely that the year 2007 will ever be forgotten, not just because of Astana's problems, but because of the rest of the turmoil in the sport, which culminated in the yellow jersey being fired while he was on the verge of winning the Tour. At the same time, it was the year which some teams finally took responsibility for their own future, starting with Team CSC hiring Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard to start the anti-doping program which Astana has also adopted under Bruyneel.


"How can you expect that the fans will understand it, the press will understand - even the investors."

- Bruyneel is confused with recently proposed changes to the calendar as well.

"This is what we have to put in place if we're going to have a chance. I said it from the beginning - we're spending 460,000 euros on antidoping policies - Damsgaard and the biological passports. The ProTour teams pay 120,000 euros each for the passports - which is basically exactly the same as what we have for Damsgaard. We're doing double, but that's the way it is. On top of that, we spent 40,000 euros on a sophisticated whereabouts system."

Bruyneel has faith that the new paradigm of testing will change the sport, and the riders attitudes as well. After the team's first camp in Spain, Damsgaard starting the random testing process, and Bruyneel was quickly impressed. "He found riders everywhere: there were guys in South Africa, Mallorca, America - all of a sudden I got a bunch of messages saying 'I had a visitor'." The UCI even showed up the morning after Damsgaard's visit to camp, and while the riders may end up looking like human pincushions this year, Bruyneel thinks it's a necessary process. "It's not fun, but that's what they have to deal with unfortunately. It's difficult."

Johan Bruyneel rallies the troops
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The system contrasts Bruyneel's former team, which never had a formal testing program in place, but he hinted that they had their ways of knowing when a rider was up to no good. "We had our own internal rules, and I've never been vocal about it, but I can say now that we made certain decisions based on our own internal system; not selecting a rider, firing a rider, not renewing a rider... a rider who was selected for a certain race and we thought something was wrong, we sent him back home."

"You can never be sure [if someone is clean] because you're dealing with individuals," Bruyneel admitted. "The system doesn't have to be that sophisticated to know what's going on - if someone is doing something that is not right."

The unceasing Operación Puerto

The fact that one can never be sure has certainly come back to haunt Bruyneel when he signed Ivan Basso to the Discovery team after he'd been implicated in Operación Puerto and then cleared, only to have the rider ultimately confess to the charges and leave the team. The Spanish investigation is still far from over, and the reportedly 6,000 page long dossier could hold further problems for Bruyneel and his star Contador.

"It must either stop or go to the bottom," Bruyneel declared of the case. "It's been a year and a half but it just keeps dragging. Two big names have been taken out of the sport: Ullrich and Basso, but if there's 6,000 pages and 200 blood bags, I would assume it's not all from Ullrich and Basso. One way or another it has to stop."

Johan Bruyneel and Alberto Contador
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The case has threatened the reputation of many riders, and while some, like Basso, Jörg Jaksche and Michele Scarponi, have admitted to involvement, there are dozens others who were named but continue to assert their innocence. Five others were initially named, but then were removed from the case, among them Alberto Contador, Allan Davis and Sergio Paulinho, all of whom were part of the Discovery Channel team in 2007.

"A lot has been written about Contador being named, and he's made certain declarations about it," Bruyneel explained. "He was a young rider along with other riders, for instance Allan Davis, who happened to join a team [Liberty Seguros, under Manolo Saiz] where we discovered certain things have happened. But I'm sure Contador has never been involved in Operación Puerto. If his name has come up for some reason, it would be up to the UCI to give their arguments, but a week after [it came out in 2006] his name was taken off, and there has to be a reason for that."

Now that Contador is defending Tour de France champion, there is speculation that the team could lose its invitation to the Tour if the matter is not cleared up. Indeed, the team was left off the list of team's invited to the Giro d'Italia - an announcement which was made after this interview took place.

"If there's any other questions from whomever, he offered after the [2007] Tour de France to answer any questions, to give his DNA, whatever he needs to do prove he was not involved," Bruyneel explained. But it is clear that the case is a constant source of frustration and confusion, especially now that the Italian Olympic Committee [CONI] prosecutor Ettore Torri has said he will question non-Italian riders and even seek disciplinary proceedings against them.

"I was surprised to see the CONI statement," Bruyneel said. "I don't really understand what the Italian Olympic Committee has to do with something that happened in Spain with riders from other countries. But Contador has said, if somebody calls to ask him questions and has the authority to do that - this prosecutor Torri - if he has the authority to do that, Contador has no problems going to talk to him and tell him whatever he wants to know."

Bruyneel is anxious to get the posturing out of the way and just sit down and straighten things out once and for all. "I would rather than reading it in the press and then nothing happens, and then one month later reading it again, say 'OK, this is it, come here I want to talk to you, let's get it over with!" When asked if he would like to just schedule a meeting, Bruyneel said, "If it will end it!"

Alphabet soup

Contador's chances of defending his Tour title may well fall victim to the sport's other major problem, the battle between what Bruyneel calls "the alphabet soup": The ASO [Tour de France organiser Amaury Sport Organisation], UCI, AIGCP, ICPT, CUPT, MPCC - the list of acronyms goes on and on, and not one can impart any sense of unity into the sport's governance. The Grand Tour organisers are adamant that they will control who gets invited to their events, and do not wish to be told what to do by the UCI.

Bruyneel and Contador
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After the recent proposal to create a new calendar for the Grand Tours and 'monuments' as a way to solve the ProTour/Grand Tours battle, Bruyneel was approached by Levi Leipheimer who was confused about what that would mean for the riders. "I was saying the other day to Levi," Bruyneel recalled, "honestly I don't understand it anymore. I cannot follow it anymore. For those of us inside, we're supposed to know how things work - we're supposed to understand who has the authority, what are the rules - we don't understand it anymore."

The confusion isn't just for the teams, but for everyone trying to follow the sport, Bruyneel insisted. "How can you expect that the fans will understand it, the press will understand - even the investors. It's very complicated - there are so many different players: teams, sponsors, organisers, riders, the UCI - all these other organizations just make it more complicated."

Bruyneel listed off the organisations involved, and found none of them with the power or the ability to push the sport into the right direction and have peace between all the various groups. "The AIGCP, or Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels, that's all the professional teams. It's supposed to be a union - but it's nothing like a union, it's just the opposite, it's people trying to kill each other."

"The ICPT - that's the ProTour teams, who have made their own group," he explained,"but it's only about commercial interests of the teams. It has nothing to do with the regulations. It's basically a group of teams together to see what kind of business value we have in our sport that we can work with."

While the ICPT does not have solving the current situation in its mission, the AIGCP, in theory, should be the body which would bring all sides together and come up with a solution, but Bruyneel revealed that there is so much unrest between the teams at the moment that they have not come together to solve the problem.

"There is no way cycling can do something as long as the teams are fighting each other. In our sport, since we are depending only on sponsorship and have no other income to speak of, and it's a constant fight to renew, there's no way to say we're going to do this all together without having to keep sponsorship in mind."

For this reason, the teams and riders take the fallout from the decisions of the UCI and of the race organisers without any power to influence them. Staging a boycott of a race would be out of the question. "You can't just tell an organizer we're not going to show up because then if you don't participate, your sponsor will be angry and then he'll go away. In other sports like tennis, or soccer, they can stop and people will have to at least listen to us. In cycling, you cannot think about that."

As a general manager, Bruyneel may well find himself at the center of some of these battles, but he knows that he cannot make any progress by himself. "I'm in a different position now. As long as there is no unity among the teams I cannot help change anything alone. First there needs to be the teams sitting together and demand that, for instance, 'hey, ASO and UCI you're going to sit down in this room with us and you're not going anywhere until something gets done, otherwise we all stay for one month at home'."

Johan Bruyneel at the press conference
Photo ©: Jon Devich
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Bruyneel seemed a bit hopeful about the concessions by the UCI recently, but said that it will take much more to fix the situation. "There are so many things that have happened and so many things that have been said - so much damage has been done. It's going to take a lot. The Grand Tours and the UCI have to be flexible and open to dialogue. They don't have to be friends, they don't even need to be business partners, but there has to be concessions on both sides."

As for moving the Grand Tours and monuments from the ProTour to their own calendar, Bruyneel isn't convinced that this is a good direction for the sport. "All the big races should be part of one calendar. If we create a calendar here and another calendar next to it, people are not going to understand."

"Why are other sports successful? Why is formula one, golf or tennis so successful? It's because they have tournaments which are uniform. They're in different places but the event is the same. People understand it. Here, you ask, with this race 'what is its category, which teams can participate, what does it count for?'It's too complex."

Still, Bruyneel hopes that the debates will settle down once the racing season kicks off in Europe and everyone can focus on the new season.

"There's always a lot of things happening when people have time on their hands in the off-season. Other things have to happen in the media. Hopefully when the season starts we can start talking about the races. At least the teams are all on the same line as far as doping prevention. Bruyneel is hopeful that as long as the sport keeps pushing ahead, things will be OK.

"We don't look backwards we look forwards. As long as we keep looking backwards we have no chance, that's my opinion."

Return to part one of the interview.


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