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Astana: A new start

An interview with Johan Bruyneel, February 2, 2008

The new Astana general manager Johan Bruyneel could very well have been off taking a tropical vacation on this cold January day, rather than following riders on a frigid training ride in Albuquerque, New Mexico up into the snow-capped mountains. After all, he had retired last year. Despite twice retiring from the sport: first as a rider, then as a director, Bruyneel never left cycling for more than a few weeks. Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo found out what keeps driving the Belgian back to the sometimes crazy world of cycling.

To Johan Bruyneel, getting into cycling could scarcely have been avoided. After all, his father was president of one of Belgium's most hard-core cycling clubs. His cousin, Georges Van den Berghe was a team-mate of Eddy Merckx, and had ten days in the yellow jersey in the 1968 Tour de France. However, Bruyneel hardly planned to become a professional, never sought out a position as director, and thought he was through with cycling before he accepted the position of general manager with Astana.

For the man known as the tactical genius behind Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories, Bruyneel seems to have let the winds of fate decide his career rather than actively seeking out his path.

"In Belgium it's natural to become a soccer player or a bike rider. Those are the two big sports. I was successful without really trying - at the same time I was racing I got a degree in marketing, and when I was in my last year as an amateur, I got two good results and was asked to become a professional," he said, clearly understating his early results.

After a career which spanned ten seasons, included a stage win in the Tour de France in 1995 and a podium finish in the Vuelta a Espana, Bruyneel suddenly decided it was time to quit. In his final year, he admitted that he mulled over the idea for most of the year before stopping short of the season's end and hanging up the bike. "I decided to retire from one day to the next. I knew I wanted to retire. All of a sudden, I just felt I had to get to the end of the year, but I didn't really like it anymore."

Before he had time to even think about what was next, the answer presented itself to him. "When I was 34, I retired, and three weeks after I got a call from Lance Armstrong and an offer to become director, and since then it's been quite a ride." The ride reached its peak with eight Tour victories, but then came crashing down last year.

Bruyneel knew that the Discovery Channel was not going to renew in early 2007, but had to spend the season in uncertainty wondering if anyone would take its place. The sponsor search looked promising several times. "A few times we were pretty close," he explained. "There was one particular sponsor who was almost ready to sign, but a week after the Tour de France things changed. We had won the Tour, but there were certain questions [from the sponsor], one of which was 'can you guarantee us you're going to be in the Tour next year', and we had to say no, and that was it."

One might think that the end of the team was the reason Bruyneel announced his retirement, especially since both events were announced within a day of each other, but Bruyneel admitted he was ready to retire weeks before the team was disbanded - in fact, he knew in the very first week of the 2007 Tour de France.

"After three or four days in last year's Tour de France, I remember calling my wife and saying 'next year, you can count on me to be home more, because I'm done'," the 43-year-old admitted. The decision was made before the Tour even dissolved into the surreal mess which followed the announcement of Patrick Sinkewitz' positive test, before Alexander Vinokourov's positive and the exit of Astana, the positive of Crisitan Moreni and Cofidis' exit, and the Rabobank's team jettisoning Michael Rasmussen - and far before Alberto Contador strode victoriously onto the Champs-Élysées.

"We weren't in a position where we were going to win - I didn't even think we were going to win the Tour - but it was just to be back in the biggest event, feel the atmosphere... I've been with the same people for nine years - not the team, but the other team directors, the press, whatever. I just was thinking it was time for something else."

This is not the normal reaction for any team director, and least of all for the director of the team which was about to win the Tour. "It's been a lot of years and a lot of pressure, and a lot of joy and success but also a lot of negatives. I just felt I didn't want to do be there anymore, so why should I still do this?"

"Even before winning the last Tour, I thought, after winning seven - it's hard to do better - but even winning the eighth time reinforced my decision [to retire]. Because to me it was the ideal time - [we won] seven with one guy, with Lance. A lot of times people have said 'you're not that good, you had the best guy. Anyone could have done it.' For me it was a good way to finish it off - now I have another guy and he won too, so I must not be that bad. It encouraged my decision. Seven with Lance, one with Alberto - the circle was complete."

Even though Bruyneel is back at the training camps, still sitting in hotel lobbies surrounded by riders who are constantly grazing at the buffet, still spending hours in a car behind riders, and still doing interview after interview with the press, he feels that his days of having a direct say in the race operations are over.

"As of today, I personally feel like I have retired as a director," he declared, but it was clear that at times he has trouble separating himself from his former duties. "I'm making a transition because I have to - I have to get used to it, but the sports side is something which is not my responsibility anymore. I'm trying to be the political guy who tries to fix things."

When he made the decision to retire as a director, once again he had no clear plan of where he would wind up. "Of course, you start to think, what am I going to do? Do I take some time for myself? Do I want to stay in the sport - [the answer was] probably yes, but you don't know yet - if so, which function?"

Not two weeks after he retired for the second time, another offer fell into his lap. "I've always been a guy for opportunities, and for some reason the opportunities have come in front of me at the right moment," Bruyneel smiled. "At that moment I really didn't know what I was going to do - just like when I retired as a bike rider. Not two weeks after I got a phone call from Eki [Viatcheslav Ekimov]. He had been contacted by Kazakhstan."

The rest, as they say, is history. "My first retirement was three weeks, and the second time it was two weeks," Bruyneel said with a laugh. But why Astana? After years of fending off insinuations and allegations of doping with Armstrong, and then the supposed Operación Puerto links with Contador, why would he choose to run a team with such a tarnished reputation?

"To me it was a surprise. I'd been following the news [about the doping positives], and to me the logical thing was that team was done. That was what really caught my attention - why did these people [the Kazakh government] want to go on?"

Bruyneel didn't exactly jump at the opportunity, but he didn't discount it either, and decided to follow up on the offer. "I was invited to go over there and talk to them and see what was really behind all this. I just thought the team was built to support Vinokourov and Kashechkin, and that's also why I thought it would go away. But then I found out that was not the case."

What he found in the former Soviet Republic surprised him. "Cycling is very popular in Kazakhstan. It's one of the few countries where there's a pyramid - where there's a really big base and a very nice structure with cycling schools, amateur teams, semi-professional teams and professional teams - all with the country behind them. There are no commercial entities."

Bruyneel was lured by the fact that the government was supporting more than just its two best-known and now disgraced riders. "The fact that they wanted to keep going after everything that had happened and regardless of the fact that their stars were not there anymore for me was really the thing that made me change my mind."

After being away from home for so many years, first as a rider, and then as a director, the decision to head out back into the fray of professional cycling was surprisingly easy. "My wife actually encouraged me to do it - I'm not sure if she was afraid that if I'm sitting too much at home I'm going to be difficult to live with," Bruyneel joked, "but I'm planning to be at home more. I'm not going to be the guy in the car on the road all the time. I'm going to be present at some races but it's going to be select events."

Bruyneel couldn't have asked for a better situation in which to make the transition from director to general manager. One of a manager's hardest jobs is securing sponsorship and keeping it. But with the support of the Kazakh government, Bruyneel did not have to worry about that. "I don't have to satisfy the commercial interests of my sponsors. Of course they [the Kazakhs] want to see their name out there and be successful, but it's not the same as having to satisfy a sponsor who wants to get the maximum return out of their investment."

However, Bruyneel still has plenty of work to do to pull together a ProTour team in a few short months. Since a few people he knew had just lost their jobs, this made his life a little bit easier. "I set up a new organization built from scratch, and took over some riders who still had a contract. But I've tried to put as many elements in there that I knew from Discovery.

"This year is difficult, it's a difficult start. It's not a team that we built - we had to take over certain things that were in place already. Kind of like when I came to US Postal, I got a team presented to me which was in place, and then I brought in some new elements, but now I can bring in more new elements. The majority of the staff and of the core group of riders, about 60-70% of the talent is new, and those are the people that I brought in."

In Bruyneel's days with US Postal and Discovery Channel, he had to share the leadership with his star rider, Lance Armstrong. Some might even say that Armstrong was more the Boss than Bruyneel, but that will not be the case at Astana. "It's different - it's not like the Lance days. Lance was a strong leader - we also have strong leaders, now, personality wise, but everyone's different. I feel like there's one boss of the team, and that's me. And then on the sports side, there's another boss and that's [directeur sportif, Alain] Gallopin. You can't compare it with the Lance days."

In part two, Bruyneel talks about Astana and doping, restoring the reputation of the team, Operación Puerto, and the politics behind the ProTour.

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