Behind the Scenes, Bruyneel Keeps Armstrong in Front
By Sally Jenkins
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page D01
To fully appreciate how much Lance Armstrong owes to Johan Bruyneel, maybe you'd have to watch Bruyneel steer a speeding car with his knees as he chases Armstrong through curvy mountain roads while juggling two-way radios, a cell phone and a map, and calls out tactical orders to the cyclist. Or maybe you would have to go back to those days just out of the hospital bed, when Armstrong couldn't imagine winning a bike race, and was just content to win his life back, until Bruyneel suggested he might be capable of more. Who, exactly, is Johan Bruyneel? "Johan Bruyneel is the first person who put Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France in the same sentence," Armstrong says.
It was 1999, and Armstrong was a mentally fragile and physically depleted athlete who wasn't sure he had a future in cycling after almost dying of cancer. None of the major teams would give him a job, so Armstrong accepted an offer from the U.S. Postal team. Bruyneel was Postal's new directeur sportif, cycling's equivalent of a head coach.
In their first meeting, Bruyneel said to him, "I think we should talk about the Tour de France."
"Okay," Armstrong said. "Maybe I could win some stages."
"No," Bruyneel said, "I mean the whole thing."
Since then, Armstrong and Bruyneel have become professionally inseparable, as Armstrong has won five consecutive Tour de France titles. Should Armstrong win a record-breaking sixth title, as he is seeking to do over the next 10 days and thousand miles through the dire ascensions and swooping descents of the Pyrenees and Alps, Armstrong will be called the greatest cyclist in history. But Armstrong would be the first to tell you cycling is a team sport, and that while he's the one who rides the blacktop and climbs the jagged icy peaks, without Bruyneel, he might never have won a single Tour much less have a shot at a record. Though Bruyneel is unrecognized outside of his own sport, he has been to Armstrong what Phil Jackson was to Michael Jordan, an arch-strategist and a critical influence, who has taught one of the all-time greats how to get the absolute most out of himself, and without whom he might have been considerably less great.
Tune into a Tour stage on the Outdoor Life Network, and you will see Bruyneel, the field general for the Postal team, chasing Armstrong in his follow car. Cycling is as deeply intricate as it is fast-moving, a game of high-speed improvisational chess, and Bruyneel is the one who moves the pieces. Each year, Bruyneel studies the Tour route, determines which stages Armstrong should try to win, organizes pre-Tour training camps, and selects the eight other riders who make up the team. During the Tour itself, each morning before every stage Bruyneel announces the team strategy and appoints roles to the riders.
As they race, it's Bruyneel's job to control the pace and tactics of his riders, while he also keeps track of the rest of the field, nearly 200 others. He gives orders in five languages over his radio, while following the race action on a small mounted TV on his dashboard. He maneuvers riders, launches attacks, and fends off the attacks of others, all in the name of getting Armstrong to the finish line safely and in front. He also manages a staff of mechanics, marshalling food, water and mechanical aid from that careening car.
Bruyneel does all of this with a demeanor that is impassive, almost toneless. Bruyneel is stolid Belgian with a shock of brown hair, a cleft chin, and when he talks to Armstrong he has a habit of mixing words from several languages into a kind of cycling pidgin. He and Armstrong are not particularly alike: Armstrong is excitable, aggressive and high spirited, while Bruyneel is imperturbable and methodical in crises and during a race is serious to the point of being deadpan. It's a trait Armstrong likes to play with.
The joking term on the Postal team for feeling good on the bike is "no chain," meaning, pedaling feels effortless. Two years ago, in the midst of a rather tense Tour stage, Armstrong got on his radio and called Bruyneel.
"Uh, Johan, I need to check something on my bike," he said.
Bruyneel began barking out orders, organizing the other riders and mechanics to go to Armstrong's aid.
"No, no, I don't need all that," Armstrong said. "I just need confirmation of something."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company