Q&A with Astana manager Johan Bruyneel
Johan Bruyneel, general manager of the Astana cycling team, is one of the most successful directors in the sport's history. The Belgian ex-pro guided Lance Armstrong to all seven of his Tour de France victories with the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams, and put two Discovery riders on the podium last year, race winner Alberto Contador of Spain and third-place finisher Levi Leipheimer of the United States.
When the team ended its search for corporate sponsorship and folded last year, Bruyneel said he would retire. But he soon changed his mind when the troubled Astana team, wounded by multiple positive doping results, asked him to come in and overhaul the organization. Contador, Leipheimer and several other top riders migrated with him. Bruyneel also enlisted respected Danish researcher Rasmus Damsgaard to implement an independent internal anti-doping program as Damsgaard first did with Team CSC.
Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) organizers initially made the same decision, but changed their minds and issued a last-minute invitation. Contador, who cut short a beach vacation to lead the team, won the race. Astana has logged a number of other major wins this season, including Leipheimer's in the Tour of California. Bruyneel's recently released new book, "We Might As Well Win," details his own experiences as a pro and his approach toward working with Armstrong and Contador. "It's not my memoir," he said. "Basically, I did it for myself, to have something palpable from my career. Some people have pictures, some have trophies. I'm not a trophy guy. A book is a nice accomplishment. I tried to select stories that would inspire people. It's not just a cycling book."
Here are excerpts from interviews with Bruyneel conducted before and after the team's victory in the Giro:
Question from Bonnie D. Ford: Sum up how the season has gone so far after the changes you made.
Answer from Johan Bruyneel: There was a management mess, and the consequence was there was not enough leadership. Everyone was doing his own thing rider-wise and staff-wise. We brought in our Postal/Discovery philosophy and key riders, and new assistant directors in Eki [Viatcheslav Ekimov], Sean [Yates] and Alain Gallopin. One director and one assistant director stayed on, and 16 or 17 riders still had contracts from last year. Other than that, it's all new, with Trek as our sponsor, and the mechanics and soigneurs.
The results are here from the beginning of the season. Everywhere we've been allowed to race, we've been a factor. I'm happy with the way the team has evolved. The results are a bonus. I knew the first year was going to be difficult and there was going to be a lot of work to do to reshape the team.
Q: Contador and Leipheimer won't be able to defend their places on the Tour podium this year. What has it been like trying to support them through that? Is it very different for Alberto -- who's still young -- than for Levi, who's much closer to the end of his career?
A: Levi is definitely a victim of this whole situation. After last year's Tour, it was clear he could be on the same level as Alberto, so it's more difficult for him and he's more angry and disappointed. Alberto got over it a lot faster. Levi is a pro, and I have to admire his will and dedication to fight what we felt was an unfair decision. He won the biggest race of the spring [the Tour of California] and made a big statement, and it couldn't have come at a better time. I think he has some things to look forward to later this year with the Olympics and the Vuelta.
I'm a little bit disappointed in the way [the Amaury Sport Organisation] have been treating the matter. We had a meeting with them in December like every other team, Alain Gallopin and myself. We tried to maintain a line of communication since that meeting. We passed them a lot of information on the restructuring of the team and our anti-doping program. I never got a response from them and we didn't find out we were excluded until 15 minutes before the announcement.
It's been very difficult for me personally, but I can put that on the side. I would be lying if I said our relationship was the best, but I can live with that.
Q: Would the decision to exclude you have been more palatable if other teams that had doping problems last year also had been excluded?
A: That would have been a logical decision, and I could have accepted it. I cannot accept it now. The team's motivation went up a lot after that announcement -- we wanted to show who we are and what we stand for. We go to races where the atmosphere is positive and we're welcome. If I took up this challenge, I took it up with all the pros and cons. I knew this was a possibility. You plan for it, and it's OK.
Q: How did you decide to sign on with Rasmus Damsgaard's program?
A: In my opinion, it was the best available program with extensive and severe testing. It was something we really needed to do because of what had happened with this team. He did a speech [to the team] and explained his vision, that the testing is done to try to determine [blood and urine markers] that are anomalous, and that 90 percent of the tests are out of competition. It's costing us about 300,000 Euros [$468,000 U.S.] this year. The guys are not complaining even though sometimes they're double-tested.
People had their own ideas about Postal and Discovery, and since our team is still performing very well, this is a good answer to the critics we had before, when Lance was around. It's not only a way to prevent doping, it's a way of showing what we did before was valid.
Q: One thing you've always been known for is very methodical preparation for races. What was it like to go to the Giro with almost no advance notice, and then win it?
A: It was a sweet victory. I definitely wouldn't call it revenge, but almost. We tried to be as methodical as we could under the circumstances. We knew the team wasn't prepared, we knew Alberto was definitely not prepared. We knew we had to do things a certain way, to get him to the race relaxed and go day by day. It would have been a big mistake, for example, to focus on the team time trial the first day. Then we would have had the [leader's] jersey and the pressure of defending it. The first week, we deliberately laid low.
A lot of people were happy for us. I even got congratulations from managers of two French teams, and that's the first time that's happened in a long time.
Q: At an ASO press conference a few days ago, [Tour de France race director] Christian Prudhomme said that if Astana has good results this season, and doesn't have any doping problems, "We will doubtless make another decision next year."
A: Well, condition No. 1 is fulfilled, if you consider winning the Giro a good result, along with other races like the Tour of the Basque Country and the Tour of California. Condition No. 2 doesn't make a difference, since we know any team that has a doping problem would not be invited to the Tour.
Q: He also said, "We have nothing against Alberto Contador ... it's the repeated problems the team had in 2006 and 2007."
A: I completely disagree with that statement and I actually think they used that as an excuse to only punish us. If they didn't invite us, they shouldn't have invited High Road [formerly T-Mobile] or Cofidis or Rabobank. Astana had no doping problems in 2006. Astana came in to save the team after Liberty Seguros pulled out before the Tour.
Q: If Astana is asked to compete in the 2009 Tour, would you accept?
A: If we're invited, we'll definitely go. No matter what my relationship is with some of the people inside ASO, the Tour is the Tour and it's the biggest race.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at email@example.com.
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