Who, exactly, is Johan Bruyneel?


by Sally Jenkins

To fully appreciate how much Lance Armstrong owes to Johan Bruyneel, maybe you'd have to watch Bruyneel steer a speeding car with his knees as he chases Armstrong through curvy mountain roads while juggling two-way radios, a cell phone and a map, and calls out tactical orders to the cyclist. Or maybe you would have to go back to those days just out of the hospital bed, when Armstrong couldn't imagine winning a bike race, and was just content to win his life back, until Bruyneel suggested he might be capable of more. Who, exactly, is Johan Bruyneel? "Johan Bruyneel is the first person who put Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France in the same sentence," Armstrong says.

It was 1999, and Armstrong was a mentally fragile and physically depleted athlete who wasn't sure he had a future in cycling after almost dying of cancer. None of the major teams would give him a job, so Armstrong accepted an offer from the U.S. Postal team. Bruyneel was Postal's new directeur sportif, cycling's equivalent of a head coach. In their first meeting, Bruyneel said to him, "I think we should talk about the Tour de France."

"Okay," Armstrong said. "Maybe I could win some stages."

"No," Bruyneel said, "I mean the whole thing."

Since then, Armstrong and Bruyneel have become professionally inseparable, as Armstrong has won five consecutive Tour de France titles. Should Armstrong win a record-breaking sixth title, as he is seeking to do over the next 10 days and thousand miles through the dire ascensions and swooping descents of the Pyrenees and Alps, Armstrong will be called the greatest cyclist in history. But Armstrong would be the first to tell you cycling is a team sport, and that while he's the one who rides the blacktop and climbs the jagged icy peaks, without Bruyneel, he might never have won a single Tour much less have a shot at a record. Though Bruyneel is unrecognized outside of his own sport, he has been to Armstrong what Phil Jackson was to Michael Jordan, an arch-strategist and a critical influence, who has taught one of the all-time greats how to get the absolute most out of himself, and without whom he might have been considerably less great.