Johan Bruyneel Interview
While the Astana riders are finishing their last races of a very successful 2008 season, the Astana Team management group is starting to focus on 2009. Johan Bruyneel took the time to answer some questions about the 2009 season and the arrival of seven-time Tour de France Champion Lance Armstrong.
The World Championships do not involve the pro cycling teams, but instead the national cycling teams, yet you were in Varese. What was the purpose of your visit there?
It was a good time to have a meeting with all ProTour Teams and the UCI. Almost everybody agreed to continue with the ProTour project. We are still working on some of the details with the UCI, but I’m happy to report that the war between the UCI and various race organizers seems to be over. The teams have united and the state of cycling is in a better position now compared to a few months ago. Hopefully, it will continue to improve and the sport will move forward and not be brought down by these political battles. I also had the chance to take in some of the racing and of course answered questions about Lance’s arrival.
Yes, speaking of Lance – The team has many clearly established leaders and a lot of people now fear that Armstrong's arrival will divide the team. You must obviously feel differently?
Yes, if I felt this way he wouldn’t be riding for Team Astana in 2009. Actually I feel that the riders and staff will benefit more from his presence. He is much more than just a physically talented rider. His race preparation and understanding of his surroundings are second to none. It’s the little things that separate him from other riders, and a lot of those things I refer to happen off the bike – talking with the media and motivating teammates. He has a charisma that makes people want to go to war with him; sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the team. It’s not a common characteristic and I think a lot of riders, especially the young ones, can learn from him. Now having said all this, 2009 is not 2005. Lance must prove that he has the physical ability to win big races. Some people question his age, but look at David Rebellin and Juan Lllaneras. Lllaneras just won an Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing at 40 years old. I’m more concerned with the lack of racing for the past few years. This may be tough to overcome, but then again knowing Lance, he’s conquered bigger hurdles.
Alberto Contador has been your main leader the past couple of years and Levi Leipheimer is worthy of being called a leader as well. Now with Lance’s arrival, Alberto’s leader role may be in jeopardy. Many people feel that Alberto deserves to be the leader of the team in 2009.
Alberto has had a great year and I’ve read some reports that he is extremely frustrated with the situation. First, I am always careful of what I read in the press as often times words and meanings get distorted. Even more so when translated to different languages. Personally, it’s quite amusing to see a statement in Spanish and then read the English translation. But yes, Alberto has had a magnificent year and is currently the best professional cyclist in the world. Developing him into a champion has been a very rewarding personal project. But people need to remember that I’m employed by our Kazakh sponsors, not Alberto Contador, not Lance Armstrong, not any one rider. That being said, the interests of the team are my top concern. At the end of the day, the strongest rider will be supported, regardless of that person’s name or what they’ve accomplished in the past. I think we just saw the perfect example of this. It’s no secret that Levi Leipheimer could have won the Vuelta, but it was clear to the team directors that Alberto was the strongest rider. Levi even held the leader’s jersey on two occasions, but we knew that Alberto was the strongest and worked to support him. We have some big names and great leaders on the 2008 squad. I think adding one more only makes us that much stronger.
Have Alberto and Lance spoken with each other lately?
Not that I know of. Alberto finished the Vuelta and shortly thereafter went to Varese for the Worlds. I imagine they will talk soon and then see each other at our first training camp in December. This is when the directors and I will discuss the 2009 season with the riders.
Is there a fear within the team that Contador will leave Team Astana because of Lance Armstrong's arrival?
I have read the reports that teams are interested in Alberto. Of course teams are looking to create conflicts between the two in hope that Alberto will leave, but Alberto signed a contract with Team Astana through 2010. Most riders sign two-year deals, but Alberto insisted on a three-year deal based on the strong team we established to help him win the biggest races. I have invested a lot of my time into Alberto’s development and he will remain with this team for the next two years. Actually, it’s pretty simple – there’s a contract and there are no options to leave.
What do you expect from the comeback of Lance Armstrong?
Well I certainly don’t have any doubts about Lance’s motivation and dedication. These are intangibles I would never bet against. The question remains if he can be at the same level or similar level after a few years away from the racing season. That’s an answer no one has right now, but I do believe Lance will be competitive. How competitive is something we will all have to wait and see. I’m excited for his comeback, not only for what it adds to the team, but also to the sport. No other person has such an impact on the sport on a local and global level. Plus his goal to make cancer awareness a global campaign is certainly very admirable. Our team will do our best to support this project.
But the question remains, is Lance Armstrong prepared to work for other riders like Alberto Contador?
That’s a question that Lance answered himself last week in Las Vegas – Yes. He knows that the decisions are made in the team car and he understands the philosophy – the same one we’ve always had – we work for the strongest rider. This is not the first time that big names have all been on the same team. It has worked out in the past and I’m confident for the same in 2009. The media is looking to pit these two riders against each other. It’s the end of the season and they need something to write about.
Until now, you have 21 riders for 2009. Will you be adding more riders to the 2009 Team Astana roster?
Yes, five more riders will join the team. Another Spaniard, Jesús Hernández who is a good climber and the regular training mate of Alberto. Then four neo-pro Kazakh riders, who showed a lot of potential last year on the Kazakh Ulan Team. It is the goal of Kazakhstan to develop the next generation of professional riders so we took a close look at many young Kazakhs and believe that these four are ready to take the next step in their cycling careers. We’re excited for them to join our squad and we will continue to work with them on their development.