Johan Talks Book and Team Astana

Johan Talks Book and Team Astana

Astana’s  General Manager Johan Bruyneel returned to some familiar territory for the start of his American tour promoting his new book, “We Might as Well Win.”   However his trips to Austin in December’s past involved Lance Armstrong and the newest talent for Teams USPS and Discovery Channel, and not the 100F temperatures common in June.  But that didn’t deter a couple of hundred fans from rallying at LA’s new bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s, to meet the 8-time Tour winning director.  We sat down with him just prior to talk about his book, and how he saw the state of Team Astana midway through the 2008 season…

When people ask you about the book, what do you tell them?  What separates this book from all the others that are on the shelves these days?

Well, first off all there are lot of stories in there that have never been told, and then there are some stories that have been told but I explain them from another angle.  What I am trying to tell people with this book – and I only found this out in hindsight  – was that everything we did filtered down to four or five things in order to be very successful.

To be honest, while we are doing it we didn’t really even realize it because we were so busy.  But when you look back at how we did things, you can really note we did this, then that, then this, and so on and then when you see it repeated you know you have this recipe for accomplishing significant things.  And I think the proof in this is that we’ve been able to repeat these results after Lance has gone.

When I was reading the book, I was actually surprised that you spend considerable time talking about losing, and what you took from that…

I think that we probably learn the most from losing.  It’s pretty easy to say that when you’re winning, everything’s fine.  The only time you actually rebound and land with your feet on the ground is after you’re coming back from a loss, or when you somebody is beating you in a way that you didn’t expect.  For example, I think we learned the most from our Tour de France experience in 2003.  Lance was not so good, and when he was really struggling to win the Tour you could see we were back into reality and we had to refocus and not take anything for granted.  And then you saw that in 2004 and 2005 things were relatively “easy” – but I mean that only in that we learned from 2003 and moved on.

And of course we learned the most in 2006 after Lance had retired and we were not the dominant team.  For the first time in seven years, we saw things quite literally from a different angle.  It was the perfect year for me to put myself in the position of our opponents and be able to analyze what were lacking, and what we needed to do.

So yes, I think you learn a lot from losing, and I think especially to win a big Tour – a three week long competition – that it compares to many things in life.  Simply put, you cannot always win.  Sometimes you will lose, sometimes you have to give, but it’s what you learn from those times and how you then apply that later on that ultimately determines your next victory.

 

How have you taken that mindset from winning eight of the last nine years at the Tour, to a big setback by not being allowed to race this year?  Do you have to just find other ways to win?

I honestly don’t see this as a big setback.  It was something that we knew was a possibility, that the Tour wouldn’t accept us, but I don’t see it as a big loss.  I think the losers are going to be the Tour as they are going to miss having us.  When I look at what we have done this year, focusing on other races, I think we’re perfectly fine.  In fact at the end of the day, I now see it as a win.  When I look at it in the context of what I wanted to do when I took over running Team Astana, you’ll remember I took a lot of criticism.  People wanted to know why I was doing this, after all the trouble this team had had, there was no way this team was coming back.  I knew it was going to be a challenge but once you break down the situation, and you know where the problems are, then hopefully you know what you have to do to fix it.

  And if you have the capacity to do this, and you do it often enough, then ultimately you will succeed, in my opinion.  I gave myself a year, basically not worrying very much about the sports side of the story.  Don’t get me wrong, I still like winning races, but that’s not the whole story.  If you win 9, 10, 11 Tours that doesn’t really change anything.  What was the real challenge to me was taking on the team, restructuring it, and making it healthy.  And then of course we had to work on the image.  That was my focus for the year, and after six months I already think we’ve faired a lot better than we could have dreamed of, let alone after one year.  The team is perfectly good, we’re winning races, and our image is as good as we could get, especially when you compare it to last year’s season.

  We have earned respect.  I see it at the races the way the fans appreciate us, and I hear it over the phone with the number of calls I get from riders that want to join our team.  Some thought it would never happen, but we’re the popular guys again!  So I think that what the ASO did to us, they actually did us a big favor.

What do you think the keys were that allowed you to rebuild the Astana team that was into the respected team it is now?

Again, like it is in life, a lot of things had to do with perception.  And perception is not changed overnight.  The first and one of the most important things we had to do, given the history of the team and the situation I took over, was to subscribe to a very strict anti-doping program.  I checked out three or four, and the one from Dr. Damsgaard was in my opinion the best as it’s been proven that it works.  And then when you add in the biological passport, the testing is so intense, and the two combined make for a very important step in terms of professional and public perception.

But what is very important is that now, with the strictest test in place, we are still able to perform at the same top-level as before.  This is both good for Team Astana and it is the perfect answer to all the critics we had with Discovery Channel and US Postal.  This is the proof that these criticisms were unfounded.  Because if they were true, then the performances should have been the opposite.

The key group to look at is the group of riders we brought to Astana from Discovery.  The results have been amazing this year with victory after victory, but if we had brought this group over to the new team and accomplished nothing, then the critics would have said, “There, see, we were right!  They’ve been tested so much more and now they’re nobody.”   But that is simply not the case.

And personally I am very happy with this as well.  I feel that I have an “open account” with a lot of people in cycling, and now it’s proven that there’s nothing there. 

…it wasn’t only the Tour,though, that you weren’t invited to.  The whole season had to be rescheduled…

Yes, we’ve had a lot of obstacles to this season.  The biggest of course was not being invited to the Tour, and then all the other ASO races, and then the Giro, Tirreno-Adriatoco, Milan – San Remo, and so we had to quickly focus on other races like the Tour of California, the Tour of the Basque Country, and Romandia.  But what has made us so popular has to be that eight days before the Giro, that race changed their mind and we accomplished this amazing win for Alberto Contador with great team support.  I don’t know why we got the last minute invitation, maybe it was our our results from this season that spoke for themselves.  But I do think that the ASO decision was a factor in the initial exclusion.

You see, the ASO had to have a valid reason not to select us, and so they said that it was based on the events of 2007.  But then that should have excluded Teams Rabobank, Cofidis, Saunier Duval, and High Road – and it hasn’t.  But then they said to us, well it wasn’t only that, it was 2006.  But that’s not true.  There was no Team Astana in 2006.  This sponsor came in to help save a team, which you’ll recall was Liberty Seguros – and yes, Liberty had problems.  So now it’s not Contador, it’s not me, it’s Astana – the name “Astana”.  And that’s just not a valid argument.

This lead to an influence of the Tour of Italy that ended in us missing their early associated races.  Not only that, but they said that the quality of the team we would bring would not have been not good enough to be competitive at the Giro (inferring Astana would save the best riders for the Tour de France).  And so after the ASO decision, I said to the Giro organizers, “OK, if that’s the case then we’ll come to the Giro with Contador, Leipheimer, and Klöden.”  And initially we got no answer – nothing.  And then the week before the race we got word from the Italian organizers, basically giving us an ultimatum with no chance to negotiate.  They saw they had the chance to get the winner of the 2007 Tour de France, which of course was very good for their race, but Contador – nor anyone else on our team – was very well prepared, and yet three weeks afterwards we win the 2008 Giro d’Italia.  For me, I think that’s the best answer to any of the criticisms we have had to date.

So what’s next?  You said you gave yourself one year to set certain goals with Astana, and you’ve far exceeded them.  Does that mean you step further back from the team, or do you go on to something new outside of the team?

No, no – in this first year we have accomplished so much, but I haven’t had the chance to build the team.  That process takes multiple years.  I had the guys from Discovery that I wanted and were available – remember that guys like George (Hincapie), Popo (Yaroslov Popovych), and Stijn (Devolder) had already committed to other teams.  So we had guys with contracts we had to honor through 2008, and I can tell you that’s going to change for a number of guys.  We will see a big change again, essentially going down in number as we just can’t carry 30 riders on our roster, that’s just the nature of the sport.  However I don’t see us signing on any “big names”, I think with the riders we have, we are just fine.

So let me compare this again to real life.  I couldn’t just walk in and change everything and expect that to be the only answer in the long term.  You can’t just fire everybody and bring in a new staff and expect to succeed forever.  Yes, we had to take decisive action initially, but it takes time as well.

How has your relationship with the principle sponsor Astana, been?

It’s good – it’s very good.  And now, of course, after winning the Giro everything’s great!  (laughs)  They hired me to bring this team back to where it belongs, and now after six months we’re not only respected for all our accomplishments, but we’ve won the first Grand Tour and we’re the favorite for the third one, so I think we’ve delivered on all sides so far.  We kept the Pro Tour license, the team is working well, the image is back, and the results are great.  What more could we ask for?

But through all the turmoil of this year, I continue to see the positive side.  Maybe it’s good that we’re viewed as a bit of an underdog.  You know, it’s a pity that in professional cycling today, when you don’t win you’re the good guy, and when you do win sometimes you’re OK, but when you do win too much, you’re the bad guy.   But bit by bit, we are making our case and people are seeing that this doesn’t make sense.  We won the Giro, barely – maybe that was a good thing!  (laughs) And if I have to look at where I think our team and our organization is today, I think it’s a very good thing, and that there is a bright future ahead for our sponsors, our riders and  staff, and most importantly for the fans of cycling.

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