Bruyneel, Discovery reveling in new Tour freedom

Updated: June 30, 2006, 7:38 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

Faced with the cycling equivalent of losing Michael Jordan, you'd think Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel would be clinically, or at least competitively, depressed.

Instead, the wily Belgian sounded jazzed up on the eve of the Tour de France.

"The less people talk about us, the better," Bruyneel told reporters on a conference call last week. "It's not our role to control the race this year. It's our role to disturb the race from Day One.

Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesDiscovery director Johan Bruyneel said he has many attacking options at this year's Tour de France.

"We are in the same situation now as all the other teams were when we had Lance ... We're going to try to be as strong as possible in the last week, and hopefully we're going to be able to pull it off, being underdogs at the start and winners at the end."

Bruyneel and the team that has won the Tour seven straight times will be without one Lance Armstrong, but they're also liberated from the rigid game plan they've followed and the baking spotlight that has followed them since Armstrong pulled off his shock victory in 1999, less than three years removed from his cancer diagnosis.

The frantic, yellow-braceleted mobs around the Discovery bus at the race starts and finishes should thin out. Gone will be the bodyguards at the team hotel and the TV crews sifting through team trash.

Discovery's all-for-one approach has been junked, too, in favor of a multipronged attack. Although none of the team's Tour riders has Armstrong's invincible balance of climbing and time trialing ability, four or five are capable of placing high in the overall standings. Bruyneel won't rank one of his riders above another, but it's clear Armstrong's loyal friend and selfless sidekick George Hincapie is front and center.

The team's depth gives Bruyneel the freedom to improvise daily. He could send someone up the road in a breakaway, forcing other teams to decide whether to expend energy chasing them.

A fluke stage win, a little luck, tired legs on other teams, and a decent performance in one or both individual time trials could add up to something, although Bruyneel is far too canny to say what.

"I have a dream scenario in my head," he said. "I prefer not to reveal it. We are in the same situation now as all the other teams were when we had Lance. I'm going to be open for everything. Whenever an opportunity gets there in front of us, we're definitely going to take it. Before, we had opportunities but couldn't take them because we had one goal and one obsession."

Hincapie, the 33-year-old Queens, N.Y.-born son of a former Colombian amateur racer, gradually has transformed himself from a one-day race specialist to an all-around rider and finished 14th in his 10th Tour last year.

He's not nearly as explosive a climber as Armstrong but can hold his own with his grinding style, as he proved last year when he stayed on Phonak rider Oscar Pereiro's wheel after an early breakaway in the Pyrenees and sprinted around him in the last few yards to win on the hardest day of the Tour. Hincapie also has been refining his time trial technique.

What once seemed unthinkable is now possible to gangly, affable Hincapie, who is on everyone's list of Tour contenders thanks to his own ability and the winning tradition of his team.

"Of course I dream of it and I think it's possible, or I wouldn't have been working and training as hard as I have been," Hincapie said. "I've never been in this situation, so I don't know how I'm going to respond when I'm climbing in the big mountains."

Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesOnce Lance Armstrong's shadow, George Hincapie could emerge as a winner for Discovery Channel.

Ten weeks ago, Hincapie's chances of making the starting line didn't look so good. His most recent attempt to achieving a lifelong goal -- winning on the cobblestones of the venerated Paris-Roubaix race -- ended disastrously in April when the steerer tube on the fork of his bike snapped about 30 miles from the finish of the 160-mile race. Hincapie suffered a severely separated shoulder and torn ligaments in the ensuing crash.

"Paris-Roubaix was a bad day for me and the team, a day I want to forget," Hincapie said. "I was probably in the best position of my life to win the race. I try to look at the positives. My handlebars broke when I was going I don't know how fast, and I could have been hurt a lot worse."

Hincapie was able to avoid surgery and began training again a week later. Veteran Tour commentator Paul Sherwen was impressed with Hincapie's 10th-place finish at the Dauphiné Libéré, a traditional Tour tune-up, in early June.

"If he can get his head on straight about being a leader, he could create a big surprise," Sherwen said.

Bruyneel said he thinks Hincapie is actually in better racing shape than he was a year ago at this time.

"He had to work very hard to recover from this injury, but it also made him more focused on what's ahead of him," the director said. "He could have lost morale a little bit and showed up at the Dauphiné at 70 or 80 percent. But he showed up very strong, and for me, that's a very strong message."

As poetic as a Hincapie charge for the Tour title might be, Bruyneel is reserving the right to decide well into the race -- perhaps even after Stages 10 and 11 in the Pyrenees -- who on his team looks the strongest. That could include Ukrainian rider Yaroslav Popovych, two-time Tour of Italy winner Paolo Savoldelli or Jose Azevedo of Portugal.

Discovery might jell to support one rider at that point. Then again, Bruyneel might keep firing different guns on different days to win individual stages or aim at the team classification, awarded to the team with the lowest combined time.

"They can basically see who can follow the wheels through the first set of mountains," said Davis Phinney, the first U.S. rider to win a road stage at the Tour 20 years ago. "I think they would like George to be that guy. Popovych hasn't had anything exceptional [this season]. Savoldelli showed in the Giro that he doesn't have the quality to climb or time trial to the level of some of these other guys.

"It's something different, but Johan Bruyneel is a smart guy, and he'll take advantage of what they have to offer."

One person Bruyneel might confer with is Armstrong, his close friend and part owner of the team. Armstrong has said he might not attend this year's Tour because of other commitments and his contentious relationship with race organizers, who openly celebrated his absence at the announcement of the 2006 route.

"If I have a difficult choice to make, I'm not afraid to call him and ask his advice," Bruyneel said.

Discovery's supporting cast comprises seasoned pros Bruyneel said can "ride together and think strategically on the road." No one embodies that more than almost impossibly durable Viatcheslav Ekimov, who, at age 40, will be racing in his 15th Tour. The Russian, who is approaching Dutch legend Joop Zoetemelk's record of 16, missed last year's Tour after crashing during a training ride with Armstrong in Texas.

Rounding out the roster are flatlands worker bee Pavel Padrnos of the Czech Republic; a new Basque team member, Egoi Martinez, whom Bruyneel described as "an aggressive climber"; Jose Luis "Chechu" Rubiera of Spain, a key Armstrong aide in past years; and maturing Spanish rider Benjamin Noval.

Discovery's new tactics will require considerable physical and psychological agility from riders used to lining up single file in the famous Blue Train to help Armstrong steam to victory, said former U.S. Postal Service rider Jonathan Vaughters.

"It will be an open race, an interesting race," Bruyneel said. "I feel good about this because if [you] see all those contenders, I think we have four of them. No other team has that luxury."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.