Johan Bruyneel talks about 2010 so far

The head of Lance Armstrong’s RadioShack team talks to about the champ’s condition, Alberto Contador, why American rivalries cost George Hincapie the yellow jersey last year–and his new clothing line.

By Bill Strickland

BICYCLING: The first big race of the year, Paris-Nice, is over. What can you tell us about RadioShack so far?

BRUYNEEL: I’m feeling good. On the sponsor side, RadioShack is very happy with the season so far. Some of their executives were in Australia with us and were just so excited. That’s great for our riders to see because the excitement works both ways. The riders can relax and focus on racing without worrying about a sponsor’s commitment or level of interest. RadioShack is planning some big things, mainly in the US, and it will be nice for our team to be a part of this. It’s just a totally different feeling than the last two years. I’m a lot more relaxed knowing that I’m getting the support needed from the title sponsor. The hardest part of the past two years was the relationship with certain individuals of the Kazakh Cycling Federation. Contracts mean absolutely nothing to them. It just became one big massive headache and it’s not fully gone. They still have not honored all their contracts – they still owe me a lot of money! So when the opportunity came up to start a new team with Lance, for me it was an easy decision. I know I would be more at peace if I didn’t have to wake up and go to sleep thinking about how I can get the riders and staff paid. So starting a fresh team with an enthusiastic sponsor is a welcomed change.

Then when you look on the sporting side, it’s been good, but also a bit different in year’s past. With the Tour of California moving to May, we’ve had to readjust a bit. Levi has really changed his training schedule. He’s always had excellent form in February and been able to carry it through March. Now it’s a bit different for him and he is building up towards May and then hopefully will be able to carry it through July. It’s an important race for Levi and our sponsors so we hope to make it four in a row! Certainly it’s always nice to get a win early in the season and Sebastien Rosseler took care of that in Algarve. We’ve had some nice additions with Seba and Tiago Machado who’s also been very impressive. As for Lance, he’s done Tour Down Under and Murcia. I think we need to get some more racing in there so we’re looking at the calendar to see what will fit and work well. We’ve improved his TT position in the off-season and I think we’re ahead of where we were last year. The biggest disappointment has been losing Steegmans with the broken collarbone in Paris-Nice. He’s a great addition to the squad and it was just an unfortunate circumstance with high winds that caused him to crash during the Prologue. Bad timing with the Spring Classics coming up, but that’s bike racing. Sometimes you need a little bit of luck.

Alberto Contador won Paris-Nice, and showed great form. Is this great concern for you?

JB: I don’t expect anything different. Since he’s been with us, he’s always shown great form at Paris-Nice and throughout the rest of the season, so it’s really no surprise. I imagine he’ll be doing the same races and training that he did the last three years. If it’s not broken, why fix it, right? Every team going into the Tour needs to expect that Alberto will be at his best come July. If not, they’re fooling themselves, but it’s also important to look at some of the other competitors out there – the Schlecks [brothers Andy and Frank], [Ivan] Basso and Liquigas, [Cadel] Evans. But I think most of all, you need to focus on your team. You can’t get too wrapped up in the competition at this point. We need to prepare our way and we’ll worry about the others when it’s race strategy time. First, we need to make sure we’re ready to race!

You mentioned Evans in that group. Does that mean you think BMC will make the selection for the Tour? They need one of the wildcard picks to get in.

JB: You’d like to think they will. They deserve to be there, with Evans’ performance the last few years. Then of course you have George [Hincapie], [Alessandro] Ballan and some other really strong guys. To be honest, they have a stronger team than some other teams who will receive an automatic bid. For me, I look at BMC and Cervelo on the same level as the ProTour teams. They may not hold a ProTour license, but they have big enough budgets, enter the biggest races and have great riders. As a competitor, you always want to go against the best, and hopefully beat the best. It will be good for cycling if they’re on the start line in July.

If BMC makes it to the Tour, that’s four American teams in the world’s biggest event.

JB: Yes, and that would be amazing, especially from where we were only a few years ago. As you know, I’m not American, but I’ve been part of an American team for the majority of my directing career. Even with Astana, a large percentage of fans came from America so it still in some ways had an American feeling. I think this really demonstrates the success and growth of cycling in America and will only get more people interested having four teams in the Tour. There’s a lot of good up and coming Americans in the ProTour and I see some in the lower ranks as well. This is a good time for American cycling and I think it will continue to be strong even when Lance, Levi, George decide to retire.

I agree. But we’ve seen that the rise in American teams also leads to rivalries.

JB: For me, personally, no. I don’t think of special rivalries with the other American teams. We want to be the best when it matters most and it doesn’t matter where our competitors are coming from. For RadioShack, our biggest American competitors in the Tour will be BMC. HTC Columbia will go after the sprints and Green Jersey with Cavendish and maybe Greipel. Garmin has had some surprises the last couple of years with Christian and Bradley Wiggins, but now they lost Wiggins, so I’m not sure if they have any more surprises in the bag. And then like I said before, BMC with Evans, George, Ballan and the rest – they’ll be contenders for the GC. But in the end, I think that’s only going to help grow the sport in the US.

You’re right about the growth. But I’m not sure all the American teams would agree with you about the lack of rivalries between all of you. In Stage 14 of last year’s Tour, a lot of people believe that such a rivalry cost Hincapie the yellow jersey, when Garmin worked against his HTC team.

JB: Well I can’t comment for those two teams, but it’s a tactic that I didn’t understand and I think anyone who follows and understands the sport, didn’t either. For a team that is always self-promoting clean and ethical racing, it was a very dirty tactic, with what is to believed the sole intention to prevent another American team and American in particular the Yellow Jersey. It probably did more harm for the sport in American – for cycling and sponsor opportunities. But that’s in the past. Has HTC and George moved on? I don’t really know.

Intially, you and Astana were blamed, as well, and still sometimes are by the public. There was a lot of confusion and controversy about that stage, and the arguments continue to this day. As you know, in my new book about the comeback season, Tour de Lance, I have a scene set inside the team cars that day that definitively shows which team was at fault. You were in the Astana car as a passenger for that stage, running the race tactics, and you had the verbal exchange with the Garmin car – on the roll, during the chase – that, to me anyway, clearly shows who was at fault. Will you be glad for that to be public and settled once and for all?

JB: For me, it’s settled. We had good intentions that day for George and Columbia. It was also good for our overall or long-term GC strategy. I know that, our team knows that and George and Columbia know that.

Moving on to something a little lighter: You’re launching your own clothing line. Who or what inspired that?

JB: Certainly my main job and focus is Team RadioShack, but I also need different challenges in life. In the past few years, the main challenge for me was to revive Team Astana from its dark past and completely change it. It was quite tough in the beginning, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it was a success. Then I had to manage the comeback and still focus on winning the Tour as a team no matter what. This year, it’s establishing RadioShack as we go for another win. But besides the team, I’m always looking for new opportunities and challenges. A big one now still remains a cycling academy in the United States. We’ve had some great meetings with key people and I think we’re moving in the right direction. Then I also took a look in the off-season and saw that there could be a potential opportunity in the clothing business, but more so on the casual side than the technical or racing side. There are a lot of companies on the performance level, but not many who are creating casual cycling clothing. Nike has the great LIVESTRONG line, but that’s more of connection to Lance and the foundation, as opposed to cycling. I wanted to create something that the fans would like, want and be proud to wear. Hopefully that’ll be the case.

And how much input did you have?

JB: I had the most input with the COBBLES t-shirt because that speaks to my roots in Belgium and more specifically the Flanders region. Plus the saying on the back “Only the Hard Survive” is so true. I think that goes for riders and fans. It’s almost a different sport on those cobbles and battling all the harsh conditions. In a way it’s a tribute to not only the sport, but the people. The “ride” line is also one of my favorites. Such a simple and powerful word. In the end, it’s important that I’m part of the process, but it’s something that also involves the cycling community. We had an online focus group that gave some great, honest feedback. Some of the designs I thought were cool, they said “no, people won’t like that,” so we either changed the design or moved on to something completely different. They made great suggestions for new designs and contributed heavily. For me, that focus group was crucial. I think if you’re not communicating with your audience, then you may have some serious problems down the road.

Okay, then, blatant commercial plug time: Where will it be on sale?

JB: Mainly on our online store, which ships worldwide. The prices are in US dollars so it’s very favorable for the UK, Europeans and others to buy. We’ll also be selling at select races, but for sure the best way to get it is online at my store

photo courtesy Sirotti