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Discovery Channel and Team CSC press conferences, July 19, 2005
Two teams, two styles - one leader
On the second rest day in Pau, the teams of Discovery Channel and Team CSC were separated by less than 20 kilometres, but their press conferences were in stark contrast with one another. Anthony Tan reports.
Over at Discovery, where Lance Armstrong and his team were staying at the luxurious Hotel Navarre, it was essentially a one-man band with Johan Bruyneel fronting for question time, while down the road, at the far more modest Novotel Lescar, CSC came to the table with their remaining eight men, team director Bjarne Riis, and a complement of personnel.
"We are a team, this is the way we do it," said Riis rather tersely.
"When there's a press conference with Lance, you have Lance and that's it, or if Lance doesn't want to be there, there's Bruyneel. But we are a team, this is the way we do it - it doesn't mean we have to be the same or opposite - he does what's best for him, and we do what's best for us, and nothing else."
The response came about when a journalist posed the question of whether Ivan Basso, currently sitting second on the general classification in this year's Tour, is simply too nice a guy, and whether his friendly face and demeanour prevent him from really taking the challenge to Armstrong - a man who admits he doesn't like losing anything at all.
Said Riis: "You need the legs, not the face. You cannot be somebody you're not. You are what you are, and cannot pretend you're somebody else."
Basso refers to the '96 Tour winner as his 'boss'. "In this last week of the Tour, and I told my boss Bjarne my feeling and my sensations, and he does the programme."
One would never hear those words coming from Armstrong's mouth, and his role in the decision-making process in his years with US Postal and now Discovery Channel have led to that same nickname, even though Bruyneel plays down the 'Boss' tag and what goes along with it. "That's not been the case," he said.
"We've talked a lot about certain decisions, but when it was really serious, Lance knows when I'm really serious and not going to be flexible on a decision, and he has always respected that."
However, Bruyneel then admitted that the 33 year-old Texan is already "very involved" in the team for next year, commenting on how much effort he's putting into how the team will be structured and run. "It is remarkable how much work he's putting into the team for next year. He wants the team to be successful when he goes and he's always talking to me, saying: 'Let's get this guy or that guy, or this guy would be good for us.' He's constantly talking about his team for the future."
Asked if Armstrong's reputation of being inflexible and difficult to work with is indeed true, Bruyneel unsurprisingly denied ever encountering such a situation.
"For me, it's been very easy to work with him; I've had more problems working with other people on the team than with him," he said. "I think the quality that brings us together is that when we really want to pay attention to detail, when we really go for something, we set up a plan and we do everything to follow the plan and don't improvise - just do something and see how it works."
Continued Bruyneel: "It's a remarkable relationship we've had and it's worked from the first moment. I just passed through his life at the right moment, and we started together. I had no experience [as a DS], he had no experience [at the Tour] or not much - but it worked. We had some differences, but they weren't big differences. I had my vision and he believed in it."
No doubt it's a large reason why the two have been a winning combination the past six years, and why they've come to the Tour with arguably the strongest team each time. Certainly, after George Hincapie's demonstration of power and strength only yesterday to win the second stage in the Pyrénées, it's difficult to see otherwise, even though both CSC and T-Mobile have been particularly strong, the former more so in the first week, and the latter in the second.
Riis doesn't quite see it like that.
"He says it's the best team he's ever had, but I don't think I've seen that this year," he said. "But still, he has a very strong team."
"I think we have a team that can control the race. The first week, we could sit in the front and protect the yellow jersey, but at the same time, we were able to protect Ivan to be in the front [of the peloton]. We have a strong team who can protect, defend or attack," said Riis.
So far though, with the exception of one stage, Lance and his Discovery Channel team haven't appeared to be in any difficulty, and have controlled the race whenever they've needed to. Today, Basso confirmed to Cyclingnews that over the past two mountain stages, where he was the only rider capable of matching and attacking Armstrong, not once did the American look like he was in any trouble, whether it was following his wheel, taking a turn in front, or matching an acceleration.
"Yesterday [Stage 16], I did 100 percent, I went full gas. The last two days, we try to put pressure and I tried, T-Mobile tried, and he doesn't get dropped. I see Lance each day very, very strong. When he passes me [to do a turn], he goes at the same speed."
If there is no more to give, what can he do to try and beat Armstrong over these next few days?
"Drop him by 10 minutes, I think that would be a good thing," said Riis sarcastically. "To drop him in the mountains, we've seen it's not easy."
"I start today. I do the stage today," Basso then joked, which brought down the house with roars of laughter.
Riis added the difficulty lies not so much in racing against Lance, but beating Lance. Irrespective of the strength of his team, Armstrong has shown time and time again that he is the best time triallist, the strongest climber and the smartest rider - for six years straight. How can one compete with that?
For Bruyneel, the biggest challenge is not winning a seventh consecutive Tour as a directeur-sportif, but what he will do and who he will do it with when Armstrong retires one week from now. "That for me is the difficult thing," he admitted. "To really find somebody to work with in the same way, because we really have a close relationship.
"I start from the idea that we cannot replace him; if I look [around me] to try and find the same type of guy, I don't see him right now. There is not a second one in line to really step up and do what he has been doing. So we have to do different things. Already, there are some people in the team that can try and step up and take the responsibility, although it's something very difficult to do - deal with who's to be the next leader of the team. Or, we can try and find somebody else, who is not on our team. The second option is not the case for the moment."
The Belgian said the team, regardless of who they acquire or don't acquire, will simply have to change their mindset a little, lower the bar accordingly, and be happy with lesser though still important achievements - such as a Classics victory, a Grand Tour win at the Giro or Vuelta, or a top-five finish at future Tours de France.
"I think we all have to change our minds a little bit when Lance retires, put the limit a little lower and be happy with other things," Bruyneel said. "We can still be winning big races, but there cannot be guarantees of big possibilities, like we have now. It's difficult to step back and be happy with not so much, but I know that [winning the Tour] is not going to be possible for a while."
How serious Armstrong was about naming his best friend George Hincapie as a successor to the throne of leadership within Discovery Channel is still not clear. However, Bruyneel did mention that if he were to forget about the Classics - a big ask - and focus more on stage races, he could go as far as a top-five position on the classement général. "In the Spring Classics, if George focuses on them, there's quite a lot of guarantees he's going to be one of the best in the peloton; being a stage racer, we still have to wait. It's something to consider and we'll talk about it once the Tour is over.
"But it depends what we expect and how high are our goals after Lance," added Bruyneel. "Do we focus everything on the Tour again? Do we want to be a complete team? Are we happy with somebody who can go top five in the Tour, because that can be a big accomplishment also for any team. If that would be the case, then I think George could do it."
After his performances to date, it appears inevitable Basso will win his first Tour de France sooner rather than later, maybe even next year.
"I think every year, I'm more ready, and when I went to the Giro this year, I had a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure to win the Giro. I think next year, when I come to the Tour, I will have more pressure than two years ago or this year, but I also have one year more experience," he said.
With CSC announcing their continuing sponsorship of the team until 2009 - along with Basso re-signing with the team, also for the next four years - there's ample time and opportunity for this to happen - and quite possibly more than once