For seven years, the Tour de France was the playground of Lance Armstrong. The architect behind his seven Tour victories was team leader Johan Bruyneel. After the fall of the American by the Usada report, which uncovered a long-term structural doping network in the team, Bruyneel was also portrayed as one of the greatest devils of cycling. For nearly seven years, he was silent about the report that turned the entire sports world upside down. Now that he has been suspended for life, he wants to talk about the illustrious years. For the first time he gives text and explanation about his role to this newspaper.
They were spoiled years in cycling. In 1998 the entire platoon was on fire, just before the Tourstart near the French-Belgian border. Festina caretaker Willy Voet was arrested with a trunk full of doping products. It was the start of a year-long witch hunt in which it became increasingly clear that cycling was pretty rotten.
Bruyneel cycled for a week in this illustrious ‘Tour de Dopage’. Due to the injuries he had sustained during a crash in the third stage, he was forced to give up in the Pyrenees. Two days after the complete Festina team had been taken off course due to all the doping problems, Bruyneel got off the bike. Less than a month later, the West-Flemish reached an agreement to join in 1999 as team leader of the recently cured cancer patient Lance Armstrong at US Postal. There didn’t seem to be a better moment to do a major cleaning.”Cycling doctors are often portrayed as Frankenstein”
“In that Vuelta, a month after the doping Tour, we already realized that nothing had changed in the peloton,” Bruyneel looks back. “The Festina Tour had not banned the prohibited products from the pack. It had only ensured that no more doping was used in France. In Spain, on the other hand, you did not have to worry. There, the possession and use of doping was not punishable. “
“As a rider I knew about the hat and the brim. After all, I was a pro in the epo era for years. So I speak from experience. As a young rider you go through a process. Before you become a professional, you have had to make many sacrifices. You even have to give up your studies to pursue that one dream. Then you come to the big boys, and you discover that certain things happen there. You see that men who unloaded the wheel from the amateurs, now suddenly drive five kilometers per hour faster. When you start asking around, you will hear which products make the difference. No, there was no taboo about epo in those years. It was an untraceable product and easily available in enough places. Then it’s pretty simple to roll into the use of epo. “
“It was also nothing new in cycling. Every era has its own systems. From alcohol, amphetamines, hormones, anabolics, blood transfusions, corstisons to epo and back to the blood transfusions. All Tour winners took the resources that were available in their era and that were not traceable in those years. In recent years I have for the first time the feeling that there is actually a different culture and mentality. When a new unspeakable panacea now comes, athletes will always grab it again. But because of the difference in mentality, the scope will never be as large as in the epo years. ”
“From my own experience I knew which paths riders follow to get to epo. I understood the question of the riders who knocked on our door. If you did not participate in this medical supervision, you were driven in all directions like a ball in a pinball machine. If the riders in those years could not submit the request for medical assistance to the team, they went looking for themselves. Then you ended up with quacks like Eufemiano Fuentes or you started injecting epo on your own. That’s why I have such a problem with the conclusion that there was a doping program within our team. You could get Epo in many countries at the pharmacy and everyone could actually inject it themselves. It was nothing complicated. “
“If the question came from a cyclist, you knew that” no “was not an answer. When riders start to work themselves, the problems really start. The future of the team was compromised when we were confronted with a positive doping test. Certainly with a US government company like US Postal as a sponsor. For us there were two basic principles. The health of the riders should never be endangered and a rider should never test positive. That is why we did not set our hematocrit limit at 50 as the UCI did, but a lot lower at 48. “
“The only doctor we knew who vouched for this was Michele Ferrari. I am proud to say that in all those infected years, no one in our team has ever run any health risk. Cycling doctors are often portrayed as Frankenstein. But the doctors I know, in those years, watched that their riders didn’t do strange things. “”If you didn’t do anything as a team, it would happen behind your back”
“It is difficult for the outside world to imagine the culture that prevailed in cycling in those years. There were young riders who literally begged us to participate in the medical program. I want to refute a story from the Usada report because it personally damaged me. David Zabriskie emotionally states that I forced him to use epo. That’s a big bullshit! I have witnesses who can confirm this. Zabriskie was still a talented rider in 2004 when I spoke to him about a contract extension in the Eneco Tour. In the Tour of Spain he called me to his room again. He wanted to talk about the next season. I indicated that I had promised earlier that I wanted to renew his contract. “No, no,” he answered. “He needed boom-boom, the things like the big boys in the team ‘, while he pointed to the veins on the inside of his arm. That is the man who later blames us for imposing something on him. “
Bruyneel strongly denies that the Usada report states that within the US Postal Team you had to participate in the doping program to be eligible for a place in the Tour selection. “The big boys who came from other teams knew how the top in cycling was put together. Nobody was shocked by what happened to us. With the hand on my heart I can say that I have never obliged or encouraged anyone to do or take anything. The riders have always been the begging party. We have never put a gun to someone’s head. “
Who was then responsible within the team for that medical supervision? Leader Lance Armstrong, the doctors or you as the first team leader?
“That responsibility did not lie with one person. It played throughout the entire coaching team and everyone dealt with it in a responsible manner. I knew what was happening, but I am not going to talk about others. Everyone must decide for themselves what they want to say and bear their own responsibility. It is against my principles to tell others. “
But shouldn’t you have sounded the clock about those conditions in the pack? Shouldn’t you have warned authorities?
“The whistleblowers? Who are they? These are the men who are caught themselves and then walk around with frustration. Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and David Millar started talking after they had hit the lamp themselves. Again, it is not in my nature to refer to others. “
You cannot deny that you have caused enormous damage to cycling. Don’t you regret it?
“It is true that we have caused damage to cycling. But that was because we were part of a generation. A generation that did not choose to cycle in the epoch era. Everyone was confronted with this problem that has been insoluble for years. We had to deal with this undetectable product and had to find a way with it. Like everyone had to in those years. From riders to doctors to managers. Everybody. If there was a choice, really nobody would have chosen epo. But if you wanted to keep cycling at the highest level, you couldn’t help but participate. It is very difficult to explain which inner struggle you were in. That is why I am now writing a book in which I try to explain what happened in the mind of a young athlete in those years. ”