At the beginning of the 2011 season, Rob Arnold sat down with the manager of the recently created Leopard-Trek formation Brian Nygaard. The team was contesting it’s first race and the Dane arrived in Adelaide, South Australia, midway through the Santos Tour Down Under after attending the training camp Mallorca. Nygaard had been recruited by Flavio Becca to manage the team but he made a point of not taking any equity in the start-up venture. After one season on the job, he’s said to be moving to the GreenEdge and doing his original job in the cycling world, team PR.
After several weeks of speculation laced with plenty of denials, it was announced on 5 September that the Leopard-Trek squad would effectively merge with RadioShack for the 2012 season and that the management responsibility would fall on the shoulders of Belgium’s Johan Bruyneel. Now that Nygaard is moving on, it’s worth reviewing what his thoughts were at the beginning of the 2011 season… here is the transcript of the discussion that took place at a juice bar near the Adelaide markets this January…
By Rob Arnold
Question. I get a little tired of reading release after release stating that you were ‘former PR guy of CSC/Saxo Bank’. We know that now. Could you remind me of how you came into cycling?
Answer. “It happened by chance really. Often in life, you can have plans for what you want to do and how you want to sort out your career – and then stuff happens, like life. I had been studying philosophy and was about to embark on a PHD project and I wanted to be an academic; I realise now, that it was not because it was something that made me particularly happy, I was just good at it. And then it was my plan to work with that.
“I was good at being academic. I was good at sorting out things. I did an MA in theoretical philosophy so it was sort of logic and things like that. I enjoyed it but if I look back now, I’m a million times more happy doing what I do now. I was young back then.
“Anyway, I was en route to doing the PHD, I spoke quite a few languages, did a bit of freelance journalism, was invited by a team to help out at the Tour de France in 2001. I had a great time! We were there, we won two stages, a lot went on, and it was a completely different environment for me and I really liked it.
“I liked being a bit of an ambassador. It was like having an embassy function.
“I’d explained to journalists how riders function and I’d explain to riders how journalists function.
“I hadn’t an insight into either professions but it was easy for me to see when things went wrong. I had a feel for it and I remember telling some journalists, ‘No, you don’t understand what went wrong… this and this and this happened.’ I caught on to that quite fast.
“I was 25 then.
“I did the Tour and had a really good time. It was a bit of an adventure, really.
“The day after the Tour, I was offered a job. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll think about it for a couple of days’. And I thought really hard for a couple of days because I was in the business of thinking anyway. I could always do a PHD, I could always be an academic. This I can’t do whenever I please, no one is ever going to ask me this again. So I eventually said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it on one condition: I want to move to Italy.’
“I didn’t really know why, but I liked the idea of it. And they said, ‘Yeah, sure. Whatever. You’re on.’
“So I moved to Tuscany and lived there for many years and I did the job and I really enjoyed being at the races. But more and more, what I enjoyed was the strategical part of it, the communication part of it. I loved the racing but when you’ve been X amount of times to the Tour Mediterrenean or Paris-Nice, things start to blur into one. It was great being part of a team and being part of a winning team, especially, but the difficult situations were what I enjoyed the most.
“I did that for eight years and I realised I couldn’t keep doing that; I’d seen all the problems, been part of all the winning teams in the biggest races… so something else had to happen. Then Sky came along, I really liked the project and immediately got along well with Dave [Brailsford] and Shane [Sutton]. I have a lot of respect for both of them. And I was like, ‘Okay, if I’m ever to find a way out of cycling it’s going to be by teaming up with a global media company like Newscorp and Sky.’ I thought I could do that, for sure, for a couple of years and then we’ll see. That functioned really well. It was a very different environment and I learned a lot. It was a very different mentality, a different approach; it was good seeing another side of cycling. It also made for different corporate demands.
“By the time I joined Sky, I was an established person in cycling. I had to work hard, very hard, but I didn’t have to fight to say my opinion as I did for the first year or so. I was learning the culture and the British way of doing things was very different to my approach. I learned a lot from it. I didn’t really consider it too much though, I was too busy thinking where it would take me in life and then I got a phone call in April and Flavio Becca wanted to meet me for some advice.
“Like anyone I thought, ‘Why not?’
“Kim Anderson had given him my phone number and I know that Kim wouldn’t hand that out to anyone he didn’t trust and, typical Kim, he hadn’t told me anything about it.
“Then, we met up and I thought that I’d be giving a little bit of advice about setting up a bike team, there’s nothing wrong with that. He had completely different plans for the meeting. After about three hours of talking, I wanted to do it. And I had to give it a bit of a think, because it’s a nerve-wracking idea, setting up a bike team at the very high level in half a year…”
You talk about difficult times, and I don’t really want to hark back on the CSC days too much, but I’m curious about your experience. Watching you in Strasbourg [at the start of the 2006 Tour de France when the CSC team’s leader at the time, Ivan Basso – and a host of other pre-race favourites – was sent home before the start after being implicated in Operacion Puerto], I found it impressive that you could remain so calm. It’s difficult to hold a straight face when you’re under pressure…
“But I was calm and that kind of helps. Also, you know that, in those situations, it’s down to you. You can either handle it, or you can’t.
“You know that you’re there to help a really big project – the best athletes in the world, in that case – and to give advice and cut through the crap. In a situation like that, you have to say, ‘Now you do THIS…’ and you stick with that. You make sure you don’t let people down.
“Okay, sport is sport. But the media is such a big part of it and I’ve been of the opinion that it’s not like media a communication is not like an add-on, an appendix – something you do when you’re done with what you have to do. It’s part of it. Especially in management. Now I see that: communication is an essential part. It’s an integrated part of everything you do. And in all situations, especially sticky ones, it was down to me. And I was… it was like, how can you be an athlete and not like to ride the biggest races? That’s when it’s hard, and when it’s difficult is when you get motivated. And it worked the same for me: I was super motivated in that situation.”
In that particular circumstance: did you know Basso had seen Dr Fuentes?
“No. I had a feeling that something wasn’t right. Often there are rumours, often there are things being said… you hear a lot in cycling. Unfortunately you also hear a lot of lies – both in terms of speculation and also in terms of the riders.
“I just had a feeling that things weren’t right. There were some things that didn’t add up. There couldn’t be that many rumours coming out without either someone being completely mistaken – the rumourmill or Basso – and I think that when you help people formulate a good communications strategy, you also have to be there performing it. I think the only way that we could push the message through was by being open, not by deflecting any questions.
“That’s why I said to Bjarne, ‘Now we go to the press room and we’re not done until the last journalist is done asking questions.’ We won’t decide when that happens. We’ll stay put.
“I didn’t say, ‘Oh, you have to tell this lie and that lie,’ because Bjarne looked me in the eye and said, ‘This is the situation.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s go and face the music then.’ In that situation it helps to take an external perspective and if you push the media expectation on that person, you make them realise how important it is – right now – to accept that part of it.
“I didn’t have equity in CSC. I was there to perform a job. I know that Bjarne was shattered because he had to risk losing a big part of his life; I wasn’t, I was just doing my job. Bjarne might feel like, ‘Okay, this is really sticky, I’d rather not do that…’ But I had to, and I had to tell him he had to: that was my job.”
Was that the most difficult? Or was it the admission about 1996 [when Riis confessed to using EPO when he won the Tour de France as a cyclist]?
“I think for the admission of 1996, we had the privilege of a sequence of events that led us there. It was the domino effect: a lot of stuff happened and it was about time and, psychologically, Bjarne needed to do it for himself. Reading his book now, I can see that that’s what happened.
“The Strasbourg thing was different. It boiled up a little bit in May at the Giro. We heard a few things and then it died again. Then, it exploded later. And the convenience/inconvenience of having the hotel next door to the press room gave it a very physical effect as well. There as so much drama, there was the chance for so much footage to be made. The whole situation was kind of like civil war.
“Things tend to get quite hysterical at the Tour, as you know, for better or worse. You have so much attention and the journalists have so much pressure to deliver. And the teams are also there to perform. So when I consider the two, there is no comparison: Strasbourg was much bigger, that was a bomb and it felt like it. (Listen to Brian Nygaard in Strasbourg, from 07/08/2006.)
“It gets a bit that way in the press room sometimes. Rumours recreate themselves, they carry different weight at certain times. Journalists need to be produce and they need to confront people with the rumours and tell us about them. The one thing I know, and I don’t want to offend anyone, but media behaviour is – to very large degree – completely predictable. If there’s this story out, this rumour, then this media will react like this and this.
“The media serves a certain purpose. Of course, there’s a commercial interest because newspapers sell, television networks get ratings, etcetera, but media has a certain function in society. That adds a lot to it all. They have to deliver so media behaviour is predictable. So, if you can factor in all the elements, you can realise essentially what’s going to happen.
“But, looking back now – and don’t get me wrong – but it was a fantastic experience. It’s easy to say that now because it’s behind me; luckily. The people who needed to take a ban, they took it. And cycling has changed, and that’s one of the reasons I’m still involved and I enjoy being in it. There’s definitely challenges but I think a lot has started to happen.
“It probably took a year for it to really start to take off, with us introducing a grassroots biological passport and then the real system being implemented. Luckily as every year passes, we’re further down the line.
“Doping was probably systematic in cycling; we’d foolish not to think that. But now anti-doping, finally, is systematic.
“Before anti-doping was like blindfolded fishing, hoping that one day you’d catch something but it was a bit like luck. Now it’s like you’re in an aquarium looking at all the fish and, if you see something weird, you can pick it up and look at it and put it down again.”
This is sounding like your speech during the launch of your team [Leopard-Trek in January 2011].
“Exactly. I really like that picture. It’s something that we have to take extremely seriously but when you sell cycling to potential partners, to the fans and the media, you don’t have to feel like you’re selling something that has no guarantees. I can’t give any full guarantees because human behaviour has certain flaws for better or for worse but it comes with a different kind of insurance policy.
“Stupidity is pretty hard to insure against. But we live in a structure where there is some hope.
“When I hired riders, and Kim and I were looking at the rider profiles, you could see what you were dealing with. We demanded access to riders’ biological passports. We had people who know stuff about that and look at it and if there was something – even if it wasn’t really close to being nasty, just reminiscent of a grey area – then it was no way, we’re not interested.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
[Part 02: to be published soon]