Johan Bruyneel has admitted that he and Lance Armstrong were perhaps "far too arrogant" before being caught and banned for doping, yet the Belgian team manager remains proudly defiant, insisting that "our team did not invent the system, it didn't start with us and it didn't end with us."
Bruyneel retired as a rider in 1998 and immediately teamed up with Armstrong when the Texan made his recovery from cancer. He managed Armstrong's teams for a decade and then also worked with Alberto Contador until doping allegations emerged in 2012. The Unites States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) banned Bruyneel from the sport for ten years in 2014. USADA said "Bruyneel was at the apex of a conspiracy to commit widespread doping on the USPS and Discovery Channel teams spanning many years and many riders."
Bruyneel has kept a low profile since then but he was in Belgium for the Tour of Flanders and was spotted out riding on the route a few days before the race. He also went for a ride with race organiser Wouter Vandenhaute, who had provocatively invited Armstrong to his race and its suppporting events despite criticism from UCI president David Lappartient.
Armstrong was due to appear as a guest of honour at the Tour of Flanders Business Academy event on Friday but pulled out citing family reasons. He is due to go on trial in Washington DC on May 7 following the federal whistleblower suit sparked by former teammate Floyd Landis. The trial will decide if Armstrong and former team owners Tailwind sports defrauded the US Postal Service by concealing his doping activities to maintain the sponsorship. Unless a pre-trial settlement in reached, Armstrong could be liable to pay up to $100 million if found liable for the entire amount of damages alleged.
Johan Bruyneel, is listed as a co-defendant in the trial but Cyclingnews understands that he has not been called to Washington to give evidence.
In a two-page interview with Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad newspaper on Wednesday. Bruyneel argued his case, suggesting that the doping scandal wrecked his marriage and cost him a fortune. Yet he remains defiant and provocative.
"I still can't say everything about the case because it is still running but I do know that Lance and our team did not invent the system, it did not start with us and it did not end with us. It is easy to blame Lance and the team for everything that went wrong in cycling but sorry: I do not agree with that," Bruyneel told Het Nieuwsblad.
"I think it's striking: Lance lost seven Tour victories but none of the riders who finished behind him claimed the victory, why is that?
"Oscar Pereiro built a business around his victory in the 2006 Tour. If you can claim that you won the Tour, even though you weren't on the podium, it can change your life. Still, nobody does that for the seven Tours from Lance Armstrong."
Bruyneel was also asked about his Twitter account description which still reads: "Proud ex-manager of my dear friend Lance Armstrong, winner of seven Tours de France. No hypocrite."
"Well, who else won?," he asked. "There is so much hypocrisy. [Bjarne] Riis wins the 1996 Tour, admits he doped, but he can still keep his title. It's ASO who determines who can keep their wins, and who cannot.
"For seven years we raced 3500 kilometres, suffered for three weeks and finally nobody won the race. No winner in all those years, that says enough to me."
Regrets? He's got a few
It has been suggested that Armstrong is still considered a pariah because of the way he bullied and intimidated his rivals and the media. Bruyneel often behaved in a similar way with rival team managers, his riders and the media. He now seems to regret that.
"I do not want to call it intimidation but rather arrogance, which I took part in and that was completely wrong," he said.
"We've made a lot of enemies, that's a fact. I'm sorry and I can't undo that anymore. We were in a daze, the focus was solely on results. I'm now embarrassed about how I behaved."
Bruyneel has lost weight in recent months after increasing his rides, often with his young son in Spain. After being suspended by USADA, he lived in an exclusive part of central London for several years but now spends more time in Spain to be close to his family.
"Emotionally, it has all been very tough in recent years. You try to hold on to yourself or to hang to that image you portray outwards but it has been very difficult and it still is. It has changed me as a human being," he said.
"The financial damage for myself is very high, much bigger than everyone thinks. The USADA report was published in 2012 and since then I have lost a lot of income."
"I don't want to complain but the whole thing cost me my marriage, it was the giant drop that tipped over the bucket. I learned who my real friends are, and there are very little in cycling. I had a hard time to deal with that."
Zabriskie and Landis make his blood boil
Bruyneel confirmed that like Armstrong, he has apologised to former team soigneur Emma O'Reilly. However Dave Zabriskie, who claimed in his testimony to USADA that Bruyneel pushed him into doping, is still considered an enemy.
"I'm never going to apologize with him. His story is utter bullshit," Bruyneel said.
"There's not a lot of people who know about this, but I went to CIRC. I talked with these people for two days. I emphasized that Zabriskie's statement was my most fundamental objection in the USADA file.
"Things happened, but never in this manner. For me, that story is unacceptable. If a conversation tilts towards David Zabriskie and Floyd Landis, then my blood starts to boil. I can't talk about it. They both deal in marijuana now. That says enough."
Armstrong has also been involved in more recent accusations that he may have used a hidden motor in his bike as early as 1999 – his first Tour de France victory.
The Texan has always denied the claims and Bruyneel also hit back at any suggestion of mechanical doping alongside the doses of EPO and blood bags that were used.
"It's easy to kick someone who's laying on the ground," Bruyneel said, still defending Armstrong.
"It started with the broadcast of 60 minutes last year. Then I contacted Istvan Vargas (the former racer and Hungarian engineer who is alleged to have created the first forms of mechanical doping). I asked him directly: is there something that I don't know? Did you ever get to deal with Lance Armstrong?
"I think I knew everything about what was going on, but I also contacted all the mechanics. None of them ever heard about this. It shouldn't be too difficult to find someone who wants to harm Armstrong but neither (French journalist) Philippe Brunel nor 60 Minutes found someone who confirmed the story.
"An engine in 1999? Impossible. It would've been known by now and technically it was impossible; not with the size of the batteries back then. On all the major races there was a liaison from manufacturer Trek on site too."
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