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An Interview with Johan Bruyneel
By Cathy Mehl
Date: 1/16/2005
An Interview with Johan Bruyneel

As I sat down with Johan Bruyneel in Solvang at the Discovery Channel Team training camp this past week, I mentioned that he was a little late arriving at camp last year due to the birth of his first child, Victoria. He smiled, said yes, and said now he would miss her first birthday, and probably her first steps too, as she's about ready to walk.

The busy life of a Directeur Sportif includes making the hard decisions concerning family and the team. In all my research on Johan, I knew he approached his job with skill and professionalism, displaying more than a little Dr. Phil-type psychology when getting the most out of his riders.

Johan Bruyneel. Click for larger image.
Photo by Cathy Mehl.

After noting to him that I thought the team looked great and that I love the new Discovery Channel Team kits, we launched right into our interview.

JB: Yeah, I like it. You kind of have to change the chip in here (pointing to his head) as we are used to so many years of blue. Now it remains to be seen how it will be in the peloton. I think it's going to be good. I like the simplicity of the jersey with the big logo, its clean, light color. I like it a lot.

I know it's the same team, with the exception of the new riders, but it does kind of feel like the dawn of a new day. A new team for your guys.

JB: I think that is what was needed for a big company like Discovery Channel, to completely change everything, instead of keep talking about Postal.

Except we need a good nickname. Like we had "Posties." What are you going to be now?

JB: (Laughs) I don't know!

I think you should sit around one night and have a few beers and get creative... How did Discovery Channel come about as a sponsor? Did they solicit you?

JB: Yes, yes they did. We pitched a lot of companies and sometimes it had been really close. But you know, it's not easy. It's a big decision. You need the right person and the right moment. And they called up Bill Stapleton after an interview he gave in USA Today about the team and how we were looking for a new title sponsor. They called.

When I first heard Discovery was going to be the sponsor I commented that I thought they would be a great sponsor. They have such a good image.

JB: Yeah, and it's well-known. Also, in Europe everyone knows Discovery.

Ride prep at the Discovery camp. Click for larger image. 
Photo by Cathy Mehl.

You have a lot of new talent on the team. How do you go about researching the riders and deciding who you'll bring into your fold? Do you have a staff that is doing that for you?

JB: No, I do that myself. There are a few guys that we have been following for a few years already. Popovych. Savoldelli. There were a few times we were close to have them coming to the team and so now finally they are here. For the young talent, we do some research, we talk to people. Before we select we test them.

You mean they try out for you?

JB: No, we do an effort test. And selecting riders is all about what the sponsor wants. We are lucky because Discovery is global, so we can get riders from everywhere, which is great. It's unlimited in terms of finding them because it doesn't matter where they are from.

Is your Asian rider the only one in the professional peloton?

JB: No, there are more. And there are two Japanese professional teams. They aren't with the ProTour. And there are a few individuals that are with smaller European teams.

Do you personally have a lot of interaction with these new riders coming into the team or do you have staff that does that?

JB: Until now we have always tried to keep in touch with all of the riders, but from this year on we're going to do it differently. The group has grown so much. So there are four directors: me, Dirk, Lorenzo and Sean. And we're going to each have a group who we will follow all the time. Because otherwise the risk is too big that we'll concentrate on the core group and forget about the others. And that's not good.

Yeah, I remember when you first started coming here to Solvang for camp, you could all go out on a ride together. But now you have two groups.

JB: Right. And we communicate a lot between each other, with the directors, so that's how we'll have to do it now. I think it's important that the guys feel that they are followed up and taken care of. I remember that from my days as a rider. You need to feel like there is someone that is interested in you and thinking about you and what you've been doing today. But with 28 guys, it's just impossible!

Yeah, you probably don't WANT to hear from 28 of them!

JB: I'd love to, but there are just not enough hours in a day!

The team ride Wednesday. Photo by Cathy Mehl.

Right - you'd never see your little girl! I know that you're the Director and the tactician, but sometimes it seems like you have to be the psychologist, too. It seems like you are good at approaching your riders and encouraging them. You seem like a great motivator.

JB: I think it's important that you try to know each individual and know what their weak points are, what they care about, if they have problems, whatever. That you know their personalities. And once you know them then it's just a question of which button you have to touch to motivate them. And everybody is different. With some guys you have to be tough with them, really be hard on them. There are other guys - you can't do that or you will have the opposite result. You have to know when you have to put the pressure on, and when you have to leave them alone to relax. That's why it's important to know the new guys.

The returning guys - we all know how they are and how we have to take care of them. That's why it's important that we have these two weeks here. Now we are kind of in an observation period. We saw the new guys in a small group in Austin. Now we see them in a bigger group and there is a little more pressure. After one week being here we start talking to them and talking to them about what our plans are, what we expect from them, what they expect from the team. And hopefully when we leave here we have an image of how everybody is. Sometimes it takes a year to know somebody.

It seems you don't expect too much the first year from the younger riders.

JB: Oh, no, not at all. I mean, I expect what's needed to expect, but it's not like they have the pressure on and I don't expect miracles. I think that's something that I have been trying to pass to them from the beginning. We have people on the team who have to wear responsibilities and who have to be sure that everything works and they can kind of roll into it and see how it works. And when the time has come for them, when they have matured a little bit, then we can expect more. It's a good feeling to have a group behind (these core riders) to have a vision two or three years from now.

Your next set of great riders.

JB: I think we have a few guys who can be the next group. Well, right now I think we have three generations.

I've heard you say you think Popovych can be a great Tour rider.

JB: I think so, I think so, yeah.

What do you see? You must have an eye for talent. What makes him a quality Tour rider?

JB: First, you can see he's a great athlete. He's not just a fragile person, he has a strong body. He has a strong mind. And since the amateurs, he's been a champion. He was World Champion and he won big races. Since he turned professional he's been performing very well with a small team that I don't think was the ideal environment. And he's still relatively young.

So I think that in 2 or 3 years he can be the guy. On the other side, he was really motivated to come to our team. He wanted to come to our team. And that's also very important. He didn't go after the money because there were offers that were way more interesting than ours and he still decided to come here.

Yaroslav Popovych. Courtesy Team Discovery Channel.

He saw a value beyond the money, then, which probably raises his integrity in your eyes.

JB: A young rider has to be ready to invest in his future. He could probably choose for the money and make the wrong decision, or choose for a good contract but not the best, but he chooses the environment he wants to be in. And the fact that he believes in our system has worked a lot for me.

You've done something right and someone outside of your system has looked at you and seen that. That's really great. I know it's common that riders come and go, but was it difficult to see Floyd go? I mean, were you expecting him to leave?

JB: Yes, yes. It's something that we've gotten used to. We build somebody, and they grow with us, and at a certain point he becomes very popular and he leaves. I've seen it every year.

Was it disappointing with Floyd?

JB: Well, it's always disappointing. I mean, you put a lot of personal efforts in there, you take it personal, and that's what makes if difficult when you see somebody leave like that. In Floyd's case we could have forced him to stay with us, because we had the rights to match any offer and we were ready to match the offer financially. So we could've said this is the situation and you'll stay with us.

But after talking a long time with Floyd I had the feeling he wanted a change of environment and I decided not to match the offer. We went apart in a great atmosphere. But I had the feeling that if we would have forced him to stay, part of his mind would've thought he wanted to go elsewhere, and in that case I prefer that they go.

When things started to derail there with Phonak, did it cross your mind to try and get him back?

JB: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And in Floyd's mind also. We talked.

I'm surprised he's going to stay with Phonak.

JB: I'm not surprised. At that point the financial things come into play again, and in December there are no teams that can get to the market of June and July. We were in the same case. I mean, the door was open for Floyd, but we were not able anymore to play with the same numbers.

Stay tuned for Part Two - Johan talks about Lance's schedule, the team's Grand Tour leaders for this year, cycling's "doping" image, being on the Alpe d'Huez last year, his own riding career, and more!

Discovery bikes. Click for larger image.
Photo by Cathy Mehl.

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