Johan Bruyneel is the winningest team leader in cycling history. In 1998, this former professional cyclist from Belgium looked a struggling rider and cancer survivor straight in the eye and said, “Look, if we’re going to ride the Tour, we might as well win.” Johan became the mastermind behind the success of the world’s most celebrated cycling champion, Lance Armstrong, and together they seized a record seven straight Tour de France victories.
Along the way, Johan Bruyneel brought innovation to cycling and went on to prove he could win even without his superstar: in 2007 he won an eighth Tour de France (in nine years’ time) with a young new team, sealing his place in the sport’s history forever.
“Johan Bruyneel could inspire a tortoise to sprint,” wrote a popular British cycling commentator. Humble but confident, Johan has a remarkable ability to identify talent, nurture and support it, and coach athletes to perform at their highest level.
We recently invited Johan to share his insights into winning on the road, in business and in life. We found out that luck and talent do play a part, but unwavering belief, laser-sharp focus and meticulous attention to detail are the ultimate keys that guarantee success. — J.M.G.
Lance Armstrong in the Pyrenees during the "gueen stage," the hardest mountain stage of the Tour 2005.
Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich during STage 15 in Saint-Lary-Soulan, France. Johan Bruyneel follows behind in the Team car.
Johan Bruyneel with Levi Leipheimer (left) and Alberto Contador (right).
At what point did you first see the possibility of Lance winning the Tour?
As far as I remember, the moment I accepted the job as his director. From our earlier years as colleagues on the road, and then seeing his performances after cancer in ’98, it was clear to me that if we could build on his talent and with specific preparation towards only one goal, which was the Tour de France in July, we could win it.
Lance had never even considered that. At the end of ’98, during our first conversation with me as future director of the team and him as rider, I explained to him how I saw the team and how we should approach it. I told him, “We have to focus exclusively on the Tour de France.” Lance didn’t realize I meant winning the Tour de France. He was happy to be cycling again and wanted to go back to what he knew he could do: one-day races, classics like Paris-Roubaix and certain stages in the Tour.
I can still see his expression when I told him, “That’s not exactly what I mean. I mean winning the Tour, the three weeks, everything.”
I told him that we had nothing to lose. We were an American team and the only way you can get famous in the United States as a cyclist is by winning the Tour.
The nothing-to-lose rationale resonated with Lance because after winning the fight against cancer, he felt he had nothing to prove to anybody.
A big dream was born. We truly believed in what we were going to do and how we were going to do it—and we did it very differently than a team would normally prepare for a season.
How did you go about manifesting your dream?
We analyzed the situation and took a big risk: we assumed that we were going to be, for sure, at the start of the Tour de France, which was not at all guaranteed at that point, because U.S. Postal was a second-division team that did not automatically qualify for the Tour at the start of the season.
It was a very bold assumption, but I figured the French needed American TV and American fans. There’s just no way, I thought, they can leave us home if we have a decent performance level.
It all happened exactly as I envisioned it. We were selected and everything went according to plan. That first Tour de France in ’99 was the best experience and the most satisfying win of all the wins I had in the Tour de France. It’s been eight wins now, but the first in ’99 still leaves me with the best memories.
It was a big surprise—perhaps not for you, but for everybody else.
There were a few circumstances we didn’t plan on that made it easier for us: the #1 and #2 winners of the year before were not in the race this time. Let’s say the competition was a little weaker than we had expected.
We also discovered that we were not prepared to be in the lead of such a big event. We had no idea what it was like to be the leader of the Tour de France for three weeks, not only from a sports point of view, but from all of the hectic busyness around wearing the yellow jersey [designating the overall race leader in the Tour—Ed.].
I remember entering the Tour as director thinking it was a race just like any other, just a little longer. We didn’t have a media person. We were not prepared mentally to face all the stress and pressure. We took it day by day.
So you were able to transfer your belief to Lance—and then the work began. What did that work entail?
It was something I discovered every day. I was thirty-four and very inexperienced as a director. I found out how other directors run their teams, then decided I didn’t want to copy them. I wanted to pursue my own ideals.
I wrote a scenario of what it would take to prepare exclusively for the Tour de France, describing what the ideal circumstances would be. I put myself in the skin of a rider, without having to have to think about other obligations, hurdles or commitments.
A professional cycling team has obligations towards its sponsors. For example, if you have a sponsor from a certain country, you have an obligation to be very present in that country. If you have a Belgian sponsor, you need to have a strong team in all of the northern European classics in the month of April.
As an American team, we had an American sponsor, U.S. Postal. They only expected one thing: to see their name on TV in the month of July, because that’s the only race Americans watch. I used this to my advantage and was able to convince the management of the team that we would focus solely on the Tour. That’s why we were able to do so many training sessions and stage reconnaissances. We went to recon all the different stages of the Tour de France, including the mountain stages and the time trials.
Once we proved ourselves in ’99, our sponsors allowed us even more flexibility and resources to build a stronger team and stronger program. We got bigger budgets every year, until ultimately we had the strongest cycling team in history. But it all started with that crazy dream in which I believed so strongly.
In your book you say, “I committed to an impossible dream with my heart, then turned the entire enterprise over to my head.”
If I hadn’t had this extraordinary level of belief, we would never have been able to win, because there were moments of doubt. There were days where Lance woke up tired and the training didn’t go well and he would ask himself, “Is this really what I’m meant to do?” In those moments, I had to say, “Listen, there’s no way back. We’ve come this far, we just have to do it and see how it works.”
There were also little indications during the month of May, a few moments when I was with Lance in the mountains, which were just remarkable. I thought, “If he does the same thing in July, there’s nobody who can beat him.” It was my job to communicate that to him and transmit my conviction. It was not an act; I truly believed it.
Lance and I had the kind of relationship that felt really good from the start. We found each other and we were on the same wave length all the time, with our agreements and our differences. The intensity of our relationship was key to going fully, passionately after our dream.
Can you describe the connection between Lance beating cancer and what he was able to do afterwards?
Lance had already a very strong mind, but overcoming cancer made him unstoppable. It was clear that he had already beaten the biggest enemy he would ever meet. Trying to win the Tour by beating 200 other riders was not the most difficult task he’d ever had in front of him.
This gave him a big advantage over his rivals. We used it as a mental weapon. Putting myself in the role of one of his opponents, I look at him, thinking, “Hey, this guy beat cancer! How the hell can I beat him?” Lance had the unwavering conviction and belief that he was the strongest. I must add that over all those years he was also the hardest worker of anyone there.
On the way to victory, there were some losses and defeats. What can we learn from losing?
We can learn a lot more from losing than from winning. When you’re winning, you’re on top of the world and everything’s great. The danger—we experienced this in 2003—is that you start to think winning is normal and you take it for granted. If you don’t stay alert or always on top of your game, you forget what happens around you. All of a sudden you’re in front of a fact that you didn’t count on: that the competition is strong, that maybe you haven’t been doing as good a job as the year before or, in the case of a sportsman, that every year you have to work harder in order to stay ahead of the competition.
During 2003 we lost many stages—and we almost lost the Tour. We finally won with a very, very slight margin. On the Champs Elysees, Lance said, “This is the first and last time this can happen to us. Never again.”
It was a very motivating experience. After that, we made every improvement we could in terms of equipment, lifestyle, training and team-building. The result was that 2004 and 2005 were the easiest victories Lance ever had. It felt very comfortable. Everything was under control. The team was great. There was absolutely no problem.
In 2006 I was for the first time in the position of a director knowing beforehand that it would be very difficult to win the Tour; we were no longer the strongest team on paper. During that year I could see the sport from another side. I was able to open my eyes to other things. It gave me a great opportunity to see what all the others did. I noticed that basically they didn’t know what to do, because they were so used to having that dominant figure in Lance and his team around, that they had no idea how they had to win the Tour.
I wouldn’t have been able to see this in the middle of the action, focused on only winning. Stepping back and seeing how others couldn’t do it, it became obvious what we have to do. I learned a lot more in 2006 than in all those other years combined. You have to see all the sides of the business in order to know what it takes to win.
One of the chapters in your book says, “At the heart of winning lies heart.”
I’ve always been very passionate about what I do. Unfortunately, this is what most people lack: passion and determination in what they’re doing.
There’s only one way to be the best: be passionate. As soon as you start to feel that what you’re doing is a job, there’s no way you can win. That’s always been the case for me. I started racing as a young kid and ultimately made it my profession. Then by becoming a director, I could stay in the same world and continue to earn a living by doing what I loved. I’ve always considered it a privilege to wake up every morning and say, “I have no job. I’m just doing what I like to do.” I am very grateful for that, because the majority of society is at the other side. They have a job and wake up in the morning knowing they are going to do what they have to do. That’s not how you breed excellence.
Where do you go from here? What are you going to do with all this experience and winner’s mind?
Running a team is still very challenging, but winning races is no longer my primary goal. You get used to winning, too. I want to go beyond the competition and build a legacy. I would like to create my own blueprint of what I’ve accomplished with athletes and teams, and give that to a broader public. I have plans to start a cycling academy, most likely in the U.S., hopefully in California. I want to focus on education, teaching cycling, team-building and leadership at all levels, from kids to professionals.
I also want to share my message with more businesspeople. A sports team, whether it’s a cycling, soccer or basketball team, is run the same way as any other business. You have to inspire and motivate people, and you have to maintain a certain structure and organization. It’s only the core activity that’s a little different. When I talk with people who run their own businesses, I find that we all have the same problems—and the same opportunities—because we all work with people.