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Exclusive interview with Johan Bruyneel

Apart from the occasional blog on his own website, Johan Bruyneel has been virtually invisible over the last 18 months. Wrapped up in several legal battles on both sides of the Atlantic, and in several courts of jurisdiction, he has for the most part remained silent.

In London, where Bruyneel now lives with his family, Cyclingnews was granted an interview.

For legal reasons Bruyneel was advised by his counsel to not answer questions relating directly to the USADA report or the Federal whistleblower case. While that meant Bruyneel could not discuss several topics, he was able to talk about merger between RadioShack and Leopard, the infighting with the Schlecks and Cancellara; the loan money Flavio Becca has still not paid back; Contador almost changing teams, mid-season in 2009; and why Pat McQuaid may live to regret what he said about Lance Armstrong.

CN: We'll start with RadioShack and Leopard Trek. The merger between the two teams and what exactly went wrong?

JB: Okay, well in 2011 RadioShack renewed for two more years and then finally we got to the point where we made that 'fantastic' decision of making the merger.

CN: How did that come about?

JB: Not a lot of people understood but the centre piece to the merger was Trek. We had the usual set up, as always: a team from before with an American company, title sponsor RadioShack, second sponsor Nissan and then Trek, which was a long term partner.

Then all of a sudden we found out that Trek had signed an exclusivity deal with Leopard from 2012 onwards. I guess Trek made that decision based on the feeling that RadioShack would not renew and that the team would be finished after Lance retired. They signed the deal with Leopard for 2012-2014. Their assumption was that they could talk to Becca, smooth things over, and that they would be able to carry on with us. But they were wrong and Becca came back and said 'no, it's exclusive and if the contract is not respected there are going to be consequences'.

CN: Did you need to merge?

JB: We didn't need to merge but at the same time the budget was significantly lower for us in 2012. We still could have had a WorldTour team in 2012 but not with the level of quality in riders that we had hoped for. The biggest winner of the merger though was Leopard because all of a sudden they went from having no title sponsor to having 15 million USD a year extra.

It all happened so fast but it started back in August 2011. The main issue was that we came with RadioShack, Nissan, staff, riders and a lot of money to a team that had no title sponsor and from the beginning it was just a disaster. It was just terrible. In hindsight it has been a very bad decision.

CN: What was the first thing to go wrong?

JB: I guess what the majority of the Leopard members didn't get was that, yes, they had their own little group but the guy who was bankrolling the team [Becca] was looking for money and whether they like him or not, if you have the choice between having a sponsor or paying out of your own pocket you're going to choose a sponsor. We, the RadioShack 2011 part were seen as the intruders and the only thing the Leopard guys never questioned was the fact that us coming to the team meant the team could pay the bills.

CN: When was the first time you spoke to Cancellara and the Schlecks?

JB: That's another thing. So the business deal had been done between the senior management of Leopard which was Becca and two of his business partners. Until that was done there were no talks or conversations with any riders. But in the meantime the rumour was out there, because in cycling its basically impossible to not have anything leaked, and these uninformed riders were unhappy and started to criticise the merger from the very beginning, without having all the information.

But from the beginning you could see that it was going to be train wreck. On the one side there was … this attitude of 'why are you coming to our group?' The merger, it just wasn't a good decision. It was … it was only good for Becca.

I definitely underestimated it. We came into this whole new set up, this whole new culture of how a team is run. That's when I realised that there was going to be this clash. There was no leadership in Leopard 2011. It was the riders who were deciding things. The Schlecks, Cancellara, they were deciding everything and everyone else was just doing whatever they wanted. I could see that from the beginning, and I could see that it was going to be next to impossible to change that habit. It was just a struggle.

CN: At the team presentation in Luxembourg in 2012, what was the atmosphere like? I remember speaking to you and you wouldn't confirm Frank Schleck's race programme and I spoke to Fuglsang and he didn't seem happy with anything.

JB: Nobody was happy. No one was happy with the situation. I guess also because there were two completely different visions of what a professional cycling team was. They criticised me for seeing it more like a company, a corporation that could perform. They saw it like a little family. I can understand that, it's a nice thing to have, but it's not always possible. So there was this huge imbalance.

Both Andy and Frank are good guys and both are very talented bike riders but I thought though that they could do more with their talents. Turns out maybe that's not the case. I definitely underestimated the brother bond they have in everything. I also underestimated the brother relationship with Kim Andersen, who is basically like a father to those two.

CN: At Liege that year Andy said that Kim would be at the Tour, but already you'd stated that Kim wouldn't be there and that Frank would do the Giro. What was going on?

JB: They were a group of guys who were just doing whatever they wanted to do and moving into a system where you don't always get what you want. Now I see they've gone back to whatever they want to do and things aren't going much better. Again I don't want to criticise anyone's habits but things didn't match and it wasn't possible to work together.

CN: What about the decision to send Frank Schleck to the Giro because on paper he could have won that race?

JB: In my opinion, yes he could. He could have won it yes, but it wasn't his goal from the start of the season so he wasn't preparing for it. He could have done better than just going home. I was there when he abandoned. I still don't know if it was planned or not. I arrived the day before and he'd done a good race that day. From there on I thought it was going to be okay and that it was only going to get better. Physically he was there but mentally he wasn't and it was all about the Tour for him. It's a shame because I just wasn't able to get close enough to them.

CN: What do you put that down to?

JB: I put to down to two factors. I'm not going to say it's impossible to work with those guys and I have my own way of seeing things. We could just never find a compromise. I'm not saying it's my fault or theirs, we just didn't click but in everyone's' mind at Leopard I was the intruder.

CN: Were the riders a team?

JB: I think they are now but in the first year of the merger there was a big division. It was like RadioShack and Leopard, different teams but racing in the same jersey. It was the same with the staff.

CN: When did the situation with Becca start to fall apart?

JB: Not really until I left the team. I never had a bad relationship with Becca, on the contrary. Then for some reason we had the issue with the loan.

CN: But just going through it stage by stage, you weren't at the Tour in 2012 because of the USADA report but whose decision was it for you stay at home?

JB: We talked about it and we agreed on it.

CN: We get press releases all the time, and good example came from BMC a few weeks ago, where someone said they were leaving the team but it's clear they were released from their contract by their management. What was the situation with you?

JB: It was after the USADA report came out. When was it?

CN: October.

JB: Okay so I resigned straight after that. We [Bruyneel and Becca] went over the main points but that was it. I couldn't do anything anymore and if I didn't want to harm the team I had to leave. There was too much damage and the accusations were too heavy. It was a mutual decision. I have no hard feelings about that at all.

CN: At what point in 2012 did you realise that leaving the team was a real possibility?

JB: Not until I saw the report.

CN: You must have had some idea about what the report was going to be like. It wasn't… well it wasn't going to be positive, was it?

JB: I can't say anything on that subject.

CN: So can you explain about the loan to Becca and where things stand there. He still owes you money doesn't he?

JB: I gave him a loan and they paid back part of it earlier in the year and the rest was due. It wasn't paid and we had to go to court and there was a ruling that they had to pay by August 5 and I've not seen anything.

CN: Going back to the Schlecks, where did this initial sense of 'we don't want to work with Johan Bruyneel' come from? Was it because they were concerned with the USADA report coming out?

JB: That wasn't an issue when we started to talk in 2011. I think they just didn't want work with me, Cancellara too and that was all clear from the beginning. They really saw it as "their" team and they went far in making a lot of decisions and they wanted to be involved in everything. From the beginning there was no trust.

CN: Did you trust them?

JB: Not necessarily. I thought at the beginning, and again I made some mistakes and I thought it would be simple, so I can blame myself for that part but something like that needs time. I think the new team that's going to be established in 2014, that's going to be one team. It's going to be the Leopard team again as there will be certain people who can only function in that structure. For example, let's say I was still there now one of the things I would have done was send Andy to the Vuelta. He had his issues last year and a bad spring but he in the last week at the Tour there was some improvement. You would think that the condition he built up having missed all the races, the Vuelta would have been good for him. He could have built on that and he could have made up for all the time lost. Instead he's in Colorado and he's far down in that race.

CN: How did the Leopard situation compare to the 2009 situation where you had Armstrong coming back and Alberto Contador in your squad?

JB: This [Radioshack – Leopard] was a lot more difficult. The Astana experience wasn't easy but it was different. I was in charge then. At Leopard I was never really in charge and they just did whatever they wanted to do.

There was of course tension in 2009 but it wasn't an easy situation. Lance had decided to comeback. We spoke and we decided to do it together. It was definitely something that Contador didn't like.

CN: What was his reaction, he found out during the Vuelta in 08 didn't he?

JB: I talked with him there and it wasn't a pleasant conversation. One the one side Contador was super strong and he was getting better each year. Knowing his level and knowing that Lance was retired, realistically and logically there was very little he could beat Contador. The tricky side of the situation for me was the special bond I had and still have with Lance so it wasn't an easy situation to manage but at the end of the day we did pretty well, results-wise.

CN: Was there ever a chance of Armstrong going to a different team other than your team?

JB: There were talks about that and he also knew from the beginning that there would be issues on the team. There were even talks during the season in 2009 of him switching teams mid-season.

CN: Where to?

JB: There were different conversations but nothing serious was done.

CN: We're talking about Armstrong here?

JB: And Contador too. I think he was very close to riding the Tour in 2009 for Slipstream. There were issues at the Giro with Astana not paying and the team was basically in limbo and there was a chance all contracts would have been void and the conversations between Garmin and Contador definitely happened.

CN: Are you just trying to stick one to Vaughters here?

JB: I know it's true. I don't know if Vaughters did the talks. Who is the other guy?

CN: Doug Ellis?

JB: No.

CN: Matt Johnson?

JB: Yes, that guy yes. But it was probably Vaughters who did the conversations because he speaks Spanish but that was going on behind the scenes. Switching teams was a topic because it wasn't really working out.

CN: What do you make of the UCI election?

JB: I think McQuaid is in the same situation as me in that he can't do anything right. Everything he does is wrong for everyone. He didn't do himself a lot of favours with certain declarations – and I don't know him very well and our relationship deteriorated – but he has also done good things for cycling. Let's not forget he was in a very difficult position in 2006 and it's been one thing after another and in my opinion he has done good things for cycling. That's a shame that's been forgotten but I think he's at a point where he's at where everything he says is wrong.

Brian Cookson has the advantage that he comes with no history (except his successes with British Cycling), no baggage so anything he'll announce will be better than what Pat McQuaid might say, at least in the eyes of the public opinion. Cookson is in a neutral position right now, and the fact that he's been seen as the ideal new president is in line with the general desire to see a line drawn in the sand and move away from the past. I think that's a logical human reaction.

CN: Do you think Pat McQuaid handled the USADA investigation properly?

JB: I'm not afraid to say that his comment, and he was maybe pushed into a corner, but the fact he said that "Armstrong had no place in cycling and deserves to be forgotten", he shouldn't have said that, let me put it that way.

CN: Is that going to come back and bite him?

JB: He shouldn't have said it. I think he knows that.

CN: Let me ask this, do you and Armstrong have sufficient information that would affect McQuaid's election and position?

JB: That is not what I am saying.

CN: A yes, or no?

JB: I am not getting into anything like that.

CN: You know what I'm getting at, about the alleged suspicious test?

JB: Listen I'm not interested. McQuaid in general has been a president in a very difficult period but the problem is that he's not been able to pick his battles. For example, the stupid battle he had with the teams about the radios, it may seem irrelevant in the big picture, and in fact it is, but he lost a real opportunity there to get the professional teams closer to him, and because of his insistence and not wanting to consider the opinion of the teams, he lost the support of the teams. Now I know that the teams don't vote on who's elected president, so that's maybe why he didn't think it was too important. Anyway, he's had too many battles. I can relate quite good to that. I'm a bit of the same kind sometimes. If you don't know how to pick your battles at some point you're done.

CN: There's still lots to come out with from all the different cases but is there something that you wish you'd done differently? Are you sorry for anything, any actions?

JB: It is a question I would like to answer in detail but my lawyers won't let me while the cases are going on.

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Daniel Benson
Daniel Benson

Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.