This is the third (and final) instalment of an interview with the current manager of the Leopard-Trek team, Brian Nygaard. The Dane is apparently set to join the GreenEdge team as its PR manager in the Australian outfit’s debut season next year…
The interview was conducted in January 2011 during the Santos Tour Down Under.
Is there going to be a clash because of what you did to Bjarne [ie. recruit several star riders from the Saxo Bank-SunGard team, including the Schleck brothers, Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O’Grady and Jens Voigt]?
“I think we would lose a lot of energy if we raced against a specific team. We race in the peloton. When the gun goes, we try and win or do the best we can. I’ve seen other teams clash by not necessarily wanting to win, rather wanting another team not to win. That’s so far from how I think and, knowing Bjarne and most of the teams I’m familiar with, it’s not how they think.
“It would be also taking the mickey out of the fans if there was to be some sense of rivalry that didn’t actually exist.”
You said at the launch [of Leopard-Trek] that there’s a lot of bullshitting in cycling. It seemed almost as though you had specific references. Can you give me one example?
“Unfortunately some of the bullshit has turned out to be necessary. I would just like people to be able to turn on the television and watch fairly simple, uncomplicated but really beautiful and exciting racing. Unfortunately, now, when you open the newspapers and read about racing there are things that tend to reproduce themselves: discussions about who gets to be part of what race, where are we with this doping case, what race organiser is angry with this federation… and ultimately it’s just for the fans who are just stuck with cycling.
“There is a huge fascination with cycling and there are a lot of passionate people involved. We should not take that for granted. When people turn on the TV and when they go to races, we should show them an exceptionally good time. That’s also what the riders really want.
“It’s not as though there’s a discussion that I’m not interested in taking a part in but I don’t want us to lose the focus.
“Of course we need to talk about the radio ban but I’m not going to use every single opportunity to talk about it. I just want to solve the problem. Sometimes you just want to solve a certain issue behind closed doors, sometimes you have to involve the media because they are also part of what makes cycling feasible. But I think sometimes we tend to overfocus on the problem. Too often we sit there with our arms crossed, and see cycling as one big dog fight between political organisations.
“Cycling has survived because people race bikes and it’s amazing to look at. Let’s not forget that.”
In your quest to acquire a license in the debut season for Leopard, and have some surety to be in races is something that you’ve managed [to work with the UCI] with apparent ease. I know it’s unbelievably complex. Can you talk about that process?
“It is difficult and in a lot of ways is should be. We’ve seen that there was a lot of outrage when certain teams didn’t qualify and that takes a lot of time. When you actually sit down and study the rules and figure out what it’s about, you realise it’s about having a strong enough team sporting-wise. I admit it right now: it should be more transparent. Definitely!
“Then there’s administration, ethics and finance.
“We know where the markets are. But it’s not as though you hand in your application and you don’t hear anything for three months. There are certain steps to follow all the way through and you get fairly constant feedback from Ernst and Young whenever you submit something. It’s a controlled process. I can assure you, there’s no favouritism. It’s not a case of, ‘Oh yeah, if you guys do that, you’ll be all right.’
“Apart from the sporting aspect – which I think could be more transparent – it is, all in all, a fairly transparent process. You need to have your shit together, as it should be.
“Riders need to know they’re going to race if they sign a contract.
“Sponsors need to make sure that they actually get the value that they expect to get.
“It should never be easy to get a license to run a bike team at any level. Maybe you could set up a system where controls are embedded in the process at certain points, so that the process doesn’t get hindered by bureaucracy or by certain things being unnecessarily complicated. But I knew that it was going to be a huge project and that was my first priority. Then you catch on to the other things: you need busses, cars, bikes, offices, computers, credit cards… all those things, but you’ve also got to keep your eye on the prize.
“I never took anything for granted.
“As you know, it’s just basically hard work. But going to the licensing commission in Geneva is almost like going to court. You have the tribunal: the UCI on one side and myself and my technical manager on the other side. Being there, and being extremely well prepared – knowing exactly what it was about, knowing the rules, knowing we did a good job – was the key. I can say it now: acing it was one of the best career moments I’ve ever had. It felt so good!
“It reminded me of going to university, going to an exam and knowing what it’s about and believing that I would get it all right. That’s how it was.
“We got back to the office in Luxembourg and, at about 12 o’clock and we continued working. There was no time to rest on laurels. It was just, ‘Right, we got that. Good. Next?’ But it did feel good.”
How do you think we can revolutionise the coverage of cycling?
“What makes cycling a very popular sport in a lot of ways is the ability of fans to get close, or at least feel as though it’s possible. Physically, they can be part of the show: they can stand next to the road and watch the biggest stars just ride by. Even in the start and finish areas, it’s possible to get very close.
“That element can be integrated in a lot of ways.
“What teams – and anyone else who is involved – need to understand is that it’s all about the end user. If the fans aren’t switched on, people don’t show up to races because they no longer feel that they can get close to the action, we’re not worth our bread and butter. It’s that exact part of cycling that we need to exploit. We would never, for example, want cycling to turn into football (soccer) where everyone is isolated, there’s little interaction with the fans, there are stand-offs with the media… we want more.
“Cycling is a physically very demanding sport and the athletes are under a massive amount of pressure just to finish a stage of the Tour. So, from a team perspective, we need to understand that, ‘No, we’re not going to compromise that and make it harder, and make you lose bike races because you have a camera on board.’ We would just like to make it more accessible.
“People would understand cycling better.
“We are on unchartered territory now. What we’ve seen in 2010, with the explosion of social media, is just starting to happen. Lance used Twitter to announce his comeback campaign… that is just one example of the future direction. We will probably look back in very few years from now and all these things will be obvious. ‘How come we didn’t do that earlier?’”
How come we didn’t use radios? Oh, we did… only we were told not to use them. How come we didn’t have cameras on bikes? Oh, the UCI wouldn’t allow that…
“There are two trends in cycling: traditional and contemporary and this is a good way to combine them. There is the anti-technological movement – let’s get rid of race radios and bike technology – which I really don’t agree with. There will, and should always be, demand for technology. It’s possible to make bikes stronger, lighter, safer… don’t try and stop it, try and work with it.
“Cycling has taken so many hits. I don’t think a lighter bike is going to change the way we perceive cycling. If we integrate technology in a smarter way and, at the same time, do it from the spectators’ and fans’ perspective and make it more exciting. You and I are very old in that sense: if you look the nine, 10, 11 and 12 year olds… their expectations when they turn on a TV or they go to a website are completely different that what ours were just a few months ago. We need to respect that. Those are the people who want to catch on to cycling now. And we need to make it a lot more exciting than just doing it from the standard.
“I think we need to take that extremely seriously.”
Do you think there’s scope for a stronger, more persuasive rider union? It seems, at the moment, that riders are getting whipped around all over the place.
“It’s the same situation for both teams and riders. We are competitive when we put a number on our back. For the rest, even from a theoretical perspective, we have a common interest. I insist on the simplicity of that. Of course sometimes we compete about the signing of certain riders, or compete about a certain sponsor, but for the totality of it, the teams all have the same interests at stake. And I cannot believe why there is still a competitive jealousy from a negative perspective that is really cut-throat. There’s no need to take that competitiveness from a racing into making cycling more exciting for the fans and give more value for the sponsors. And, above all, for the riders to have a safe and good work environment. But for it really to work, the initiative has to come from the bike riders and they need to understand that they might have to do certain things that might not give them an immediate benefit but for the long term it’s part of the future of cycling.
“It probably needs to come from the younger generation of riders. The harmony amongst the riders is not strong enough but they need to invest in that. Athletes can be very demanding individuals because they have a certain amount of time – they need to be as good as they can be in that time – but they need to invest time and a little bit of their pay cheque as well and just set up that kind of structure.
“For it to work, it shouldn’t be that some one has to come along and make it happen, they need to organise it amongst themselves. Certain people can help, but if the initiative doesn’t start with the riders I don’t think it’s going to amount to anything.
“Now there are just too many four-letter organisations in cycling which the riders can’t even keep track of. I don’t understand why there’s not a more cohesive approach. Maybe it will come when people start seeing enemies everywhere: seeing the UCI as an enemy, the ASO as an enemy, the media and so on. We all need to stop victimising ourselves and get back to the right focus.
“It sounds a bit airy-fairy but ultimately it shouldn’t be. My starting point, however, is: let’s not make it more complicated than it already is.
“Sometimes discussion needs to happen internally and not half-way through the media: ‘This guy sucks and that organisations sucks and whateverthefuck…’ there are certain behavioural things that need to change so that we can see a common interest and debate. We can even work with disagreement, but it must come from discussion. When you have a disagreement, you can logically break it down and work out the parts that you do not disagree on and you build on that. The long terms goals for cycling… no one can disagree about those. Find me anyone who disagrees about the long term goals of cycling and I can tell you they haven’t thought enough about it.”
To conclude, the problem is that everyone is the most important aspect of cycling: the media, the fans, the riders, the management, the support staff…
“Tell me one team that doesn’t think ‘Should we make cycling a better investment? Yes!’ ‘Do we make cycling doping-free? Absolutely.’ Should we make riders perform in a good environment that’s good for the fans? Yes.’
“If people don’t agree with that, all right – go elsewhere! Do something else. If you think hard enough about it, it shouldn’t take that long for us to discover that we all have a common interest.
“People are so used to having a one-year economy so they are so highly strung and defend their own interests. ‘We can’t do that, because we have to race that event!’ Or, ‘We have to get that sponsor…’ People often compromise their long term goals because they can’t be sure that they’re in it for the long term span. Sometimes I can see that it’s difficult also. The goals of the long term are hard, but they are fundamental and they shouldn’t even be there to be discussed. I’m adamant about that.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold