Friday, September 18, 2009

Johan Bruyneel - Coming to an End

By Johan Bruynell

After reading Wednesday's story in Telesport about the Astana Cycling Team being on the edge of the abyss, I feel it’s time to look back, from my perspective, on the two complex years I’ve had with Team Astana.

Let's go back to 2007 - Full of ambition I took over the Team (after the Discovery Channel Team folded) having the hard job to change the image of the team from negative and polluted to beloved and being one of the world's most popular teams. A challenge that I was proud to take on. After only six months, we were successful in both - performance and image. Even today, I am still most proud of what we’ve accomplished.

We continued working and as many of you know, won the three Grand Tours: Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, as well as a lot of other races. The image of the team was excellent! The only time our image suffered was during the period from April to July 2009, when the hard working riders and staff were not compensated. This of course was not the fault of the team itself, but I was still embarrassed and quite humiliated by the situation. It's not easy telling the staff and riders that another month has gone by without pay. By putting considerable pressure on our title sponsor, we were able to reverse the situation and start in the Tour de France. Though the situation was "resolved," the repurcussions were very harmful to my future with the team.

As many of you may have guessed, I will leave Team Astana on December 31. With this departure will come mixed feelings. In a sportive way, we accomplished something phenomenal and the team became loved by many - in Kazakhstan and throughout the world. However the frustrated feeling I have is dominant. In 2008 the financial issues already existed, but I was able to keep it out of the press. I always had to fight some people about not respecting agreements. When you take a step back and look at it, the Astana Team had no less than four managers in four years, and I think this only indicates that something is fundamentally wrong.

It’s a real pity because I really think this Kazakh cycling project is beautiful and has a lot of potential for the sport and country. I don’t want to blame the Kazakhs in general. Most of them have the best intentions, especially the Ministry of Sport who is committed in an incredibly positive way. However, around the cycling team, there are two or three people causing constant problems and thwarting our plans. Because of their power I was always fighting a losing battle. In the end it cost me my health. The last months I was physically knocked out. It's no longer worth jeopardizing my health.

For me, the press conference of Alexandr Vinokourov at the beginning of the Tour was the last straw. He claimed that I had to leave the team if I wouldn’t allow him to join Team Astana. However, when I accepted my job as manager of this Team, it was my clear demand that I would never be obliged to accept him in the team - this was agreed upon by the Kazakhs.

It all ended different as I wished. Vinokourov is on the team now and that is exactly the reason why I am leaving. I will finish the season and my last day with the team will be December 31, 2009. I am staying till the end of the year because I am the head of a group of people whose job I want to guarantee. They too need to be paid till the end of the year.

I guess the question many of you still have - is whether the Astana Cycling Team has a future? To be honest - I do not know. I do want to emphasize that all my praise goes to Rini Wagtmans. With only good intentions, he ironed out a lot of inequalities. When he can take over my management job, I believe the Team can survive. He knows the country and he knows how the system works. He understands cycling. It will not be easy but Rini can count on my support in the coming months. One of the conditions for Team Astana’s ProTour license is that there should be a credible management in 2010. This is the first and most urgent move that needs to be made. If Vinokourov believes he can take over the team, I wish him luck.

I do not want to end this blog on a bad note. I do want to thank all my family, friends, riders, staff and most importantly, you the fans, who have supported the Astana Cycling Team for the past two years. Your support has not gone unnoticed!


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