Dave Richardson interviews Johan Bruyneel, General Manager Team RadioShack
Johan Bruyneel is credited with turning Lance Armstrong into a ‘prepared and efficient rider.’ Indeed, Armstrong has stated that he would never have won a tour without the guidance of Johan. The record books would suggest that whilst Armstrong was a (very) successful rider before rendering to the tutelage of Bruyneel, it is only after the two came together that he became a legend in the world of cycling. So what did Bruyneel do? How did he turn Armstrong from a stage winner to a Tour winner? At this juncture, we cannot forget that Johan was himself a successful professional cyclist. He states that he was no Armstrong, he even suggests that he wasn’t particularly gifted, he wasn’t very strong and he wasn’t very resistant. Of course, these are all relative states, and as a two time stage winner of the Tour de France I sense that his perception of himself is relative to those around him at the highest echelons of their profession. However, it is clear that he knows about cycling, the cyclist, and about how to be a successful rider. Johan was, and still is, famed for his tactical intelligence. It is perhaps such intelligence that is the primary cause of his prolonged stay at the cycling world’s top table. So is it Armstrong that made Bruyneel appear to be a sporting director with a magic touch or is it Bruyneel that made Armstrong, amongst others, a legend in his own lifetime?
Lance Armstrong would appear to be forever grateful for the guidance of Bruyneel. However, it appears that it was Armstrong himself that was a significant catalyst in Johan’s transition from professional rider to sporting director and now general manager. Johan recalls the convergence of the two men as something of an incidental coincidence. Bruyneel recognised that his professional career was drawing to a close in the late 1990s, and indeed was preparing himself for ‘some sort’ of post-career transition in professional cycling. At the same time, Armstrong, making his comeback after recovering from cancer, was unhappy with his existing situation in his ‘small’ American team. ‘He (Armstrong) called me up and we talked a little bit and I saw an opportunity and I took it.’ It all sounds fairly straightforward and simplistic, ‘The team was already built for the year after so I didn’t have any influence in the composition of the team. The riders were there, the staff were there. So I basically rolled into it without knowing what I was rolling into.’ However, some groundwork was in place. Before taking up post, Bruyneel sought advice from his ex-team directors; those that managed him. ‘I needed a little bit of advice on what exactly the role of a sporting director entailed.’ A now reflective Bruyneel draws on his own experiences as a cyclist, ‘I had those people around me for all my career but then once you, all of a sudden, terminate your career you realise that you’ve never even asked yourself the question, “what has to happen around me to make everything happen?” Because as an athlete you’re selfish! I think all athletes are selfish because you’re just busy in your own world 24/7 with yourself and you never ask, “how does everything fall together here and how is everything organised so that I have all the possibilities and everything’s prepared for me.’ Some people may call this selfish, some may call it focused, others may call it ignorance or naivety. Whichever way you view it, as a practitioner or as a manager, you need to get it (at some level). Athletes need to focus on their job. The athlete is the star and you play a supporting role. You are an important component of the success of the team but ultimately you are not the star. Bruyneel intuitively realised that it was he who was now responsible for managing the world around his stars (cyclists) so that they could focus on their main function; winning. He also realised that organisation, management and structure, and the management of people in particular, was something he needed to know about. To this end, he reached out to a good friend of his father, a successful businessman, with experience in a number of different companies and with particular experience in America, the home of his new team, ‘I spent some weekends with him (father’s friend) in the off-season just getting some basic guidelines and basic advice from the real world, not from sports… then I put together a plan and mixed the sporting experience with what this guy told me and that’s how I started.’ Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this intuitive search for a more business oriented approach to managing performance was that cycling, at this time, was typically, devoid of structure. In those days, the cycling teams were run by ex-cyclists. To some extent they still are run by ex-cyclists. Some are now more educated, more enlightened others are not. In effect, the teams were a function of their own craft, history, entrenched and intuitive practices. We’ve heard this before I’m sure … Bruyneel brought something different to professional cycling; structure, leadership and purpose. There is a sense of humility in this transatlantic journey. He was a successful, recently retired, European professional cyclist. At first, he was able to manage by putting himself ‘in the skin of the cyclist’, he was closely connected, he could empathise with his new team and as a result his approach was accepted and embraced by them, ‘I think that there was a little bit of luck, plus I was in an American team where there was basically no cycling culture so anything that came from this Belgian guy who was going to teach them how cycling really worked was like the bible … I was very fortunate actually to start in that kind of environment and on top of that I was lucky enough to have a great athlete like Lance Armstrong.’ In 1998, the United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, with Armstrong as the lead rider and with Bruyneel in his first year as Director, won the Tour de France. From here you keep growing. As you grow the importance of good management, leadership and direction becomes greater. In the early days, as the sporting director, Bruyneel did everything including coaching, scheduling and even some pseudo counselling. As the organisation grows people need to take care of the different sectors of the organisation. Bruyneel recounts the words of his father’s friend as he outlines his management philosophy, ‘the key to organising any group of people no matter how small it is, is that within every single sector there needs to be one person responsible … so that’s how I started. I gave people responsibility for their own worlds, for example the massage therapist, the mechanics, the medical staff, even the cyclists. There was a person responsible or a leader for every single thing because I think that the key to being a good leader is being able to find people that can take responsibilities away from you, people that you trust and that basically adhere to the same principles.’
The evolution of professional cycling, as with other professional sports, has been exponential. Bruyneel is currently the general manager of Team RadioShack. He now oversees up to 7 sporting directors. It would appear that the ‘novelty’ of organisation and structure has been embraced, by some at least. Bruyneel also recognises that all of these ‘leaders’ are not just clones of himself. He employs (intelligent) ex-cyclists (not necessarily elite, professional cyclists) into his team, with a range of distinct skill sets; tacticians, organisers, leaders. Above all, he surrounds himself with people he believes to be loyal and who he knows will be respected by the cyclists. Bruyneel’s success is not just in the structure itself, but in his understanding of what is required to be the best cycling team. He is intrigued with the minutiae of the cyclist’s day-to-day existence. He is insistent on spending time in preparation for the event or the tour ahead. His is studious to a point that you have to create an environment with no surprises. Every situation has a solution and a set of contingent solutions for every eventuality, ‘…you have to have the knowledge of what we are going to expect during the whole Tour de France, for example. We need to know the course, we need to know what the key stages are, you need to know how your competition is, what have they done, how does their team work, how do they think. It’s a studying process which requires a lot of energy, a lot of attention to detail and basically being passionate about studying the whole environment.’ Such attention to detail resonates with the interview of Mark Cavendish at the recent Leaders event. Cavendish too, engaged in an intensive and intricate study of the event, the course, the turns, the finish, his key opposition and their every movement. No surprises! Whatever you do, we have a counter move, a counter strategy that enables us to win. I wonder whether such a ‘studious’ mind set is a practice peculiar to professional cycling or a trait of successful cyclists. Perhaps other sport, coaches and athletes should take note of such a meticulous approach to the study of the opposition (i.e. teams and individuals within teams).
The Tours themselves are intense, protracted and arduous tests of endurance. So any preparation has to consider being on the road for 3 weeks at a time. Bruyneel refers to his team of around 30 guys, 9 riders and 20 or so support staff, as his extended family. He needs people that are familiar and loyal to him and his team. The intensity of such an existence is peculiar to professional cycling. The social context of managing an elite team of riders and support staff through a 24/7 existence for up to 3 weeks cannot be ignored. Bruyneel offers a sense of meticulous planning, an astute tactical mind and studious intent. He also surrounds himself with people and riders that ‘personally’ fit with him and his team. He wants talented people, but talented people that ‘fit’ his organisation.
Some days after the interview, I learn that Bruyneel will have a new team for 2012 – Team RadioShack-Nissan-Trek. I am made aware that he will team up with Andy Schleck. Andy has finished 2nd in the Tour de France for the past three years. It would appear that Johan’s role will be to help navigate Andy to his first Tour de France victory. Such an achievement would be Johan’s 10th Tour de France victory as the Team Manager (i.e., 7 with Lance Armstrong and 2 with Alberto Contador). I can’t imagine this being a big surprise. Johan’s ‘story’ continues…
Dave Richardson PhD is a specialist in youth development, organisational culture and community and the assistant director of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University
The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Performance.
THIS MONTH’S ARTICLES:
DAVE RICHARDSON & MARK NESTI: FROM PRACTICE TO PERFECTION – WHAT DID WE LEARN?
PROZONE ANALYSIS: EFFECTIVE ATTACKING PLAY
RODERIC ALEXANDER: EXETER CHIEFS GO FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH