Johan Bruyneel’s personal website states he is the “most victorious sports director.” It doesn’t distinguish which sport.
As marketing claims go, this is one that is tough, if not outright impossible, to refute. The man has guided four different riders to an incredible 13 Grand Tour victories—each of the Grand Tours with two riders. Since he retired from racing and became a sports director he has only missed a Grand Tour victory in one year: 2006. You’d have to add the resumes of Jose Miguel Echavarri and Cyrile Guimard to even come close to his achievement. Bruyneel is nothing if not a king maker.
As to those other sports, Don Shula is considered the greatest NFL coach of all time and his Super Bowl record is 2-4. Chuck Noll is 4-0 and he’s only considered fifth best. Phil Jackson’s 10 NBA Championships is a record in that sport. It has taken the New York Yankees several owners and 77 years to amass its 26 World Series titles. And based on my limited research, no FIFA coach comes close to these records.
So one can reasonably make the argument that Bruyneel is the best coach in professional sports.
Does a sport director have an obligation to achieve more at a Grand Tour than win the overall classification? Of course, the answer is yes. There are stage wins, classification jerseys and, yes, overall classification places at stake.
What makes the ’86 La Vie Claire team memorable? First, second, fourth and seventh on GC. In addition to Greg LeMond’s yellow jersey, Bernard Hinault took the polka dot jersey, Andy Hampsten won the white jersey for the best young rider, the team took the team classification and Hinault took the combativity award. And then there were the six stage wins: one each for LeMond, Nikki Ruttimann and Jean-Francois Bernard and three for Hinault.
Astana may have gone into the 2009 Tour de France as the most talent-rich team ever assembled, but this was one supergroup that flamed out before the album was finished. Astana had five riders who had previously finished in the top five on GC; ultimately the team placed two riders in the top five. The team’s only two stage wins came at the legs of Alberto Contador.
So how is it that a team with so much promise couldn’t deliver more? There are several reasons. First, the course worked against them. Because Bruyneel places such emphasis on achieving the overall win, individual exploits that gain team members stage wins (such as George Hincapie’s stage win at Pla d’Adet in 2005) were reined in due to the lack of mountaintop finishes. Overall, the team conserved its efforts in order to be prepared to defend the yellow jersey.
Next, the competition was good, really good. Armstrong stated that he was better than 2003; we have no reason to disbelieve him. The Andy Schleck was a little better on the climbs, Wiggins was better on the TT and Contador was better, well, everywhere. It’s tough to win stages if the field isn’t constantly on the defensive. In ’86, LVC had the competition almost invariably on the defensive.
Finally, Armstrong played the role of teammate as it should be played. While some may see him making the stage 3 split as an offensive move, it was really a defensive move—he didn’t instigate the move but made sure not to lose time. Hinault showed what it looks like to have a teammate attack the yellow jersey on stage 19, the day after the finish atop l’Alpe d’Huez when the team’s leadership was supposed to have been decided. Andy Hampsten said it was one and only time he ever chased a teammate.
The difference between La Vie Claire and Astana is one of inversion. On La Vie Claire, the rider who freelanced was the lesser rider, Hinault. On Astana, it was Contador who went off the playbook. However, the lack of stage wins or other distinctions really can’t be blamed on that, it’s the fact that Armstrong simply didn’t attack Contador on the mountain stages.
The greatest failing of Astana in 2009 was Alberto Contador’s attack on stage 17 on le Grand Bornand. Without that attack the Schlecks would not have moved from fifth and eighth on GC to second and third; it is the single biggest reason Andy Schleck finished on the podium.
Attacking and undermining a teammate’s GC position—two teammates’ positions, in fact—isn’t an unwritten rule, it’s written. Don’t take my word for it. Andy Hampsten said, “A racer in 2nd can’t work with an opponent in 3rd to move them both ahead one place.” While the situations aren’t exactly the same, Hampsten was referring to the reason why LeMond wasn’t permitted to work with Stephen Roche in a breakaway in the ’85 Tour.
I know there are riders out there who think Contador’s attack was justified, but it hurt the team by moving Armstrong down a spot on the GC at the finish in Paris and ensured that Andreas Kloden had no shot at the podium. A sweep of the podium spots (even though it was unlikely Kloden would have overcome Bradley Wiggins) would have been an historic distinction in the modern era for Bruyneel. It would have been a fresh feather for the sport’s best director.
So what went wrong for Bruyneel? In short, Contador. Contador exposed his naiveté to team goals following the 2008 Vuelta by saying after the finish of the race, “I will only say that it’s not normal that someone that is supposed to be working for you finishes less than one minute back in the GC.”
Contador was insecure. Why? Team leadership is earned; it’s not an elected office, and had Leipheimer leapfrogged him in GC on the climb up Navacerrada, what would he have had to be upset about? Any team’s first goal should always be to win the race. For some reason, Bruyneel’s goals for the team weren’t Contador’s goals.
Bruyneel’s job was to reassure Contador that he was the strongest Grand Tour rider in the world. Despite more than adequate evidence to back this up, he didn’t succeed. When Armstrong came out of retirement, the problem only got worse. Put yourself in Bruyneel’s shoes. What would you have said to Contador?
I would have told him, “Relax, let Lance play his games and play his hand. It’ll be good for us. It will confuse the competition in the early days of the race. Rest assured, you’re the strongest rider on the team and you’ll have everyone’s full support. And once Lance knows you’re stronger, he’ll have your back.” Had Lance proven to be stronger, Contador’s freelancing couldn’t have done much to hurt the team. At that point Bruyneel would have been free to say, “I’m sorry Alberto, but my first duty is to win this race and you’re simply not strong enough.”
It’s hard to imagine Bruyneel would have said anything different. But whatever he said, it didn’t work. That’s the stunner. Many sports writers would spin this as Bruyneel’s great failure. I’ve met the man and couldn’t say that to his face, so I won’t say it here. Besides, I just don’t see it that way. It’s a miss, something that didn’t go to plan. I’m sure it is a frustration that has him stymied. Imagine playing a game of chess and not being certain where your queen would move next. It might check the king, but leave a rook open at the same time. Thanks bro.
Contador’s actions will give some of the smarter team directors pause. Even if Tralfamadoreans carried the Schlecks off to mate with Montana Wildhack, I don’t think Riis would hire Contador next year. Will Vaughters still want him if he believes he won’t take direction? Rest assured, he won’t have any trouble finding other employment. There are plenty of teams that want him and three or four that could potentially pay him what he’s worth.
The problem is that even if he didn’t need help this year, he’ll need help next year against Saxo Bank, Radio Shack and Garmin—if they don’t sign him. And thanks to that parting shot about not respecting Armstrong (You may not like him, but what sort of rider wouldn’t respect his accomplishments?), we can all rest assured that even if Radio Shack can’t beat him, they will send nine men to ride against him.
What might make the 2010 Tour de France most memorable is if the sport’s greatest director can defeat the sport’s greatest Grand Tour rider … with a lesser rider.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International