At the recent RadioShack-Nissan-Trek training camp “The Boss” Johan Bruyneel was open to just about any questions. A collection of around a dozen journalists assembled in the Diamante Hotel in Calpe, Spain for a good old chat.
Can you explain how the combining of the two teams all happened?
“How it Happened! How much time do we have?
“It actually happened by coincidence and a little by surprise, as far as I’m concerned. But then if you think about it, it wasn’t so much of a surprise.
“We had the team Leopard-Trek in their first year, who in my opinion had a pretty good season; first of all they had good riders. It’s easy to criticise the lack of big victories, but if you think how close they were; Cancellara gets second in Milan-San Remo, third in Flanders, second in Roubaix, to name these three big races.
“Andy gets second and Frank third in the Tour de France. So, I wouldn’t say it was a disappointing season, any team would have been happy with these results, but the big victory was not there.
“We on the other hand had a commitment before the Tour de France, at the end of the month of May we had the commitment from RadioShack and Nissan to renew for two more years and we had the common factor which was our bike manufacturer.
“We have a long history with Trek and that is how we actually got together. It started with an idea, maybe a crazy idea, but sometime when you start to talk to different people about a crazy idea it doesn’t seem so crazy or impossible anymore.
“We got together to talk and it looked like this could be something that could work and if it does work it’s something that could be good for everybody. The talks were happening with Flavio Becca, the owner of the team, with Trek and our other sponsors.
“Everybody was open to consider it and to think about all the advantages and they could see it was feasible and it was something we could bring to an end. Then you start to work on it and it’s not so easy!
“Now we are sitting here after four months of hard work and I’m happy about the result. It was a long process and some people don’t like certain new ideas, in general change is something that frightens people, you get out of your little comfort zone, but I think change is good, if you keep doing the same thing for years and years you keep getting the same result, if you don’t try anything new you won’t get any better.
“Now we even have this Continental team (Leopard-Trek development team). When I think back to when we started to talk in August, we have come a very long way; we even have our WorldTour license.”
You say change frightens people, did it frighten you?
“Frighten me? No!
“Let’s be honest, something like this, putting two groups together, immediately your reaction is what is going to change? Certain people knew that their job was going to be on the line, which obviously made for some unhappy people, other people who for a long time had been in the same system, both from the RadioShack team or the Leopard team, knew there was going to be changes, so at the end of the day I know there are people who have not liked this.
“On top of that, the complicated part of this was bringing an operation like this to an end is that in the beginning its a secret and a confidential operation which at some point is not confidential anymore and the fact that we could not openly communicate about it definitely made things more difficult.
“Like a lot of stuff, I read in the newspaper first and then it happens for some reason. I wasn’t really worried about that, because I knew I would be able to sit down with everybody and explain; how it happened, why it happened and even people with doubts and criticisms, mostly due to a lack of information, would understand everything and maybe change their mind about it.
“So all those conversations have happened a few months ago when we had our first team gathering in Belgium and now basically we are working on the physical aspect of getting ready for the season. It’s bringing two groups together and I’m very happy with what we have accomplished during those three days in Belgium and what I’m seeing here.
“It’s something you can’t force, you need some time and that’s why I think it’s very important that they spend time together on the bike, rather than doing other stuff. It’s all about feeling comfortable and every professional cyclist feels comfortable on a bike, that is their comfortable environment, so spending four or five hours on a bike together every day and it something that just needs to happen and by the time the season starts we are going to be one group, one solid unit and ready to go.”
What about the doubts of Fabian Cancellara who said that he didn’t want to work Johan Bruyneel?
“Yeah I read that somewhere, maybe it was in his book, probably?
“Again, I don’t go off what’s in the media, I’ve had conversations with Fabian and he has never mentioned to me that he had questions or doubts. I think he had doubts in the beginning about what was going on with the team and rightfully so, like everybody else.
“But doubts about him wanting to work with me, is a question you would have to ask him. It’s not something he has put to me, maybe it’s in his book, and I’ve not read his book. [“It’s not in the book”, commented one of the books co-authors Christof Gertsch].
“Well I’ve not read it. [”you can get it in Flemish now”]
“I read German also! What is in the book? I’m suspicious! Does he say that? We have the author right here so, did he say that? [“It’s not quoted”]. Anyway it’s something you would have to ask him.
“All the conversations I’ve had with him have been very positive. After having received all the explanations and being reassured that he was going to be well taken care of, because I think that is a priority for every champion, every bike rider, every athlete.
“I flew over to Zurich to have a long talk with him, long before we spoke in Spa and we spent time together in London recently looking at the time trial course, and I see a very motivated Fabian Cancellara. So he is ready for a great season and happy with his environment.”
Talking of Cancellara, you said you don’t have so much experience with the Spring Classics. How can you and your team help him improve that little bit to close the gap that was there last year?
“I don’t have but we have people that do!
“Fabian doesn’t need to prove anything; he has shown over the last 5 or 6 years that he has been one of the strongest guys in all these Classics that are suited for him. So I think it’s more of planning and creating more of an environment for him to perform at the highest level.
“If you talk about the race it’s self and if you look at his top three places from last year in Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Roubaix I wouldn’t say he made any mistakes, I think he was a little bit lower than he was the year before and probably not as fortunate.
“If you add to that the fact that the team last year had some bad luck, they had some crashes and some people they were counting on for the Classics were not available, but definitely he didn’t have the support he needed to be the real favourite of the race.
“Add to that; in Harelbeke he made a big demonstration, that could be the only mistake he made, if you feel so super and you are at level then you must win the race, but obviously after that victory it became clear to me that it would be very difficult for him to win Flanders because there was only one guy in the race. So at some point he was isolated in the race and he had no more help, but he did the right thing, he was alone against four or five other guys from other teams and he attacked!
“Unfortunately nobody was able to go with him and ultimately everything got organised behind him and he was tired at the end.
“My job is to make sure the team is strong, which is part of what I’m trying to do now and get the strongest possible team of riders that are available now to support him and make sure the planning goes OK and he has the right people around him; staff, mechanics, soigneurs and if he is motivated and works as hard as two years ago, he will be at the same level.
“I think the support is stronger than he had last year, but it’s not ideal. Let’s not forget that we could not add people to the roster, we had to free-up spaces on the roster because there were too many people, but I think overall that the support he will have this year in the Classics will be better than last year.”
You have lost Stuart O’Grady, will this be a problem for this kind of race?
“Obviously Stuart O’Grady is a great experienced rider and he was a big help for Fabian last year, but the problem was not having a guy like Stuart O’Grady, the problem was all the those other guys behind.
“I saw that O’Grady was working too early in the race and I think it was the combination of two things; maybe the depth of the team was not there for the Classics, but above all having that sole favourite role because of winning those two races the year before. It was everybody against Fabian and everybody against Leopard, so it was difficult.”
What would you have said if you had been in the Leopard team car at Harelbeke?
“In cycling if you can win an important race you have to take it.
“You never know what can happen, the next day you can crash or a car can hit you and you could be out for three months. He had to handle the role of the favourite after what he did the year before and the demonstration in Harelbeke.
“I remember I spoke to somebody from Leopard before Flanders and I told them straight; it’s going to be very difficult for you guys to win.”
What do you think of the situation of Alberto Contador and would you like him to start the Tour?
“Definitely! In my opinion, the best rider in Grand Tour over the last 4-5 years is Alberto Contador.
“For the whole world and for cycling, it would be very negative for Alberto Contador to be sanctioned. The problem in the “Case Contador” is that it is not a clear case, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it one and half years later and we are still talking about it, it is not a normal case, I wouldn’t like to be the judge, but first I hope he can demonstrate his innocence.”
Assuming that Alberto Contador will be on the start line of the 2012 Tour de France, how can he be beaten?
“I think everybody can be beaten. If Contador is at the top of his level it is difficult to beat him, man to man. Its true there quite some time trialing, but there is a lot of other stages, moments, strategies that can be employed to gain or lose time.
“So obviously Contador is the strongest rider, if he is at the top of his game; he is one of the best climbers, one of the best time trialists, he’s won the Tour three times, plus Giro, plus Vuelta, but I think our strength is our team and we will have to use the strength of our team to attack him whenever we can.
“So where that will be I don’t know, but that is definitely what we will have to try because if we wait for the time trial or a mountain top finish, then its man against man and it’s very difficult. So we will have to use our strength as a group to attack not only Contador, but also Cadel Evans and other favourites.”
As you will be riding as a team, is it possible that you would sacrifice Andy?
“Well… normally not, unless there is a strategic opportunity where you say; this is the moment, everybody is dead, we just have to do something and then we have to make a choice.
“In theory, if you look at the history of everybody and at the age of everybody, Andy has been tree times second in the last three Tours, so he is the logical leader and I don’t think there is anybody else that has been close to winning the Tour except Andreas (Klöden) who was two times second, but I think he was never close to winning because there was always a serious time gap, and Andy has his age in his favour.
“But those are the two guys who will have the most chances on our team, Andy and Ardeas, they have the results. Personally I think we can put together a very strong group of who can put the pressure on and keep wearing out the other teams and leaders and sometimes you have to gamble and lose everything, but maybe we have a chance to win also!
“If we play safe and we calculate and we just race at strategic points, which are climbs and time trials then it’s going to be difficult to win. We will have to be smart and we are going to have to gamble and have to risk losing everything by trying to win.”
Is it an advantage for you to have worked with Contador, to know what he likes and what he doesn’t like?
“I could say the same about thing about Riis, no? He has worked with Andy and Frank… so I think we are even!”
People say that Andy and Frank are too close in the race, if Franks isn’t going so well Andy wont attack. What is your opinion on that?
“I’ve heard those comments; I’ve not seen those doubts about attacking personally.
“If at a certain moment we have a chance to attack in the Tour and we can gain time then we will do it, we are not going to think about anybody else. After so many times being second there is only one thing that counts and that’s winning.”
Can you give an example of the changes you made with the Schleck brothers?
“There is a lot of changes in the team around them, the organisation is different, we started to train earlier, last year they went in the snow which I think can be a good thing, I’m not saying their approach last year was bad. I want them to be ready, be at a certain level all the time, to avoid that we have to have a race against the clock to be ready.