Part 02 – Brian Nygard Interview
Not by luck, but by circumstance, you find yourself dealing with wonderful people…
“Exactly. That’s the whole key to it.”
If you look at riders only, let’s just consider the personalities of the sport – let’s just say the Schleckies and Jens and Fabian… they are so polite and engaging…
“Exactly and I think that kind of personality, for cycling – and for the sport to survive – is an antidote. It’s not just the trustworthiness, but it’s how he is. It’s how cycling can be.
“You can identify with the heroes and enjoy them as people and that’s key. With certain riders at least, I would set that above results. If you have those sort of people, internally they also create a good environment where people perform well.
“Sometimes people move a little too fast, they’re like: ‘Yeah, we run our team like a corporate organisations.’ I say, if you do that you’re really not going to win a lot of races because you’re doing to create a shitty atmosphere. If you have an internal competition – if you alienate riders from the core of actually feeling good around other people – then I don’t think it will work. As far as I’ve experience, not a lot of people feel good in a corporate environment. You don’t inspire people to feel really like they’re in a familiar environment, where they can feel happy. That’s really reflects performance as well. Of course you’d like it to be well rounded: you apply sport science, you try and help them be as good as you can with all the elements that are required but if you lose the grip of actually adding a soul to it – if that’s not already the starting point – I don’t think you’ll win a lot of bike races.”
Did you have to work with Andy very much or what we see is what comes fairly naturally?
“He came into the team as a very young neo pro, at the age of 19. The interesting thing with Andy is that, from day one on the camp, he was never outside the top five of any performance test up hill. We always knew he is an amazing talent. There was no doubt. But going from being an amazing talent, to actually unravelling it, as a bike rider, is a long, long, long process. But the good thing about Andy was that it was easy to not change him.
“Andy is still Andy. He has his feet on the ground. He’s a nice, likeable guy. He is still like that. Of course he’s more mature and he has a lot more experience, he’s seen a lot more things… but the worse thing you could do is to try and change his personality and make him be someone else. It’s easy for him to act naturally. He’s very self-reliant and he’s comfortable with himself. And that adds up to performance gains too. If people don’t have to act before or after the stage, they recuperate better. If people have to put on a façade to the media, I honestly think you lose extremely important recuperation time.
“I’ve always reminded my guys: if you’re a good bike rider, you have to spend time with the media. That’s part of it, you need to do that. And if you’re not yourself, you stress about it and a stressed bike rider at the Tour de France will really really struggle.”
I think we saw an Australian come second in the Tour de France a couple of times because of that situation…
“A lot of things go into winning or losing the Tour but I think athletes are really dependent on their performances in a very short period of life. And they have a lot of things to stress about: in the race is stress, preparation too. Getting fit, staying healthy, being skinny… all those things. I can understand why they’re stressed. If we can help them relax in their environment – and that’s something you can only do if you talk to them and explain how media works how they’re perceived, how important fans are… you’re representing the team but also yourself and you’re really in the spotlight there. So my strategy has to always make them feel relaxed in that environment.
“When you talk to them and make them understand how the media works, then it all happens a little more naturally. Andy is a smart guy, I’ve been very fortunate to work with a few really intelligent bike riders but Andy deserves the credit for being what he is, not anyone else. It’s been easy for him to be himself for other people it’s not that easy.”
So, setting up the team, you just went to Andy and said, ‘Right, this is the circumstance…’?
“They had obviously very big interest in him being part of it though it was hard for the project to imagine them not being part of it.”
But they knew Becca beforehand?
“They had met him. He hosts a lot of hunting in their area of Luxembourg and their father had joined him a few times. But the brother had met him only at informal occasions. They were very sought after riders and Bjarne obviously also would have liked to keep them. There was interest from different teams and it wasn’t as though it was all arranged in advance. An athlete, like I said before, only has a certain period of time when they can be the best they can be, and make history and – of course – money. You can’t just take for granted that people who embark on anything on a whim: ‘Oh sure, I’m in…’
“They [Andy and Fränk] are at a very crucial point in their careers – in different ways, but they really don’t have any time to lose.
“I wanted to make sure that Becca understood, one hundred per cent, what it would take to secure their services. I’m not just talking about money but about the whole project. They wanted to know: will we be able to trust these people and will we be able to perform from day one in this environment?
“We had talks with them and, to their credit, it took a while to convince them. They had they same concerns that I had: if we could make it work in that short amount of time.
“I was lucky that Kim was looking to be part of the project. He’s key in a lot of ways – he’s a very important pillar in their careers – and I’ve worked with him before and we always worked really well together. They were the first two riders who we signed.”
Kim was also comfortable at Saxo Bank, or did he just want to get away or have a change?
“I think that it always seemed to Kim that he would, one day, be the head sports director, that he would lead a team. He’s done that before, and he did a great job with very little money; he got a lot out of a medium-to-strong rider group. He got a lot of results.
“Kim is really good at intuitively managing athletes. He doesn’t have a science or management background, he’s just good at handling people. So, in that sense, he was the perfect guy for them [the Schlecks] to feel comfortable with. They knew me quite well and they’d seen me function in different situations so they knew what they were getting involved with.
“Kim and I are extremely different. I’m a very analytical sort of person. I try to be strategic about choices, covering all angles. And Kim does that as though it’s second nature, by being in a race car. In that sense, I could never be a sports director; I’m terrible at driving a car and I probably would get nauseous if I sat too long in the passenger seat. That’s not what I do. But I would like to be more part of the strategic part and make sure that we implement the right visions and create the right work environment for everyone. And it’s easy for me to work with Kim because we always agree that treating the staff right and getting the right people on board was key.
“I’ve seen a lot of teams where it’s like, ‘If you don’t do the job right, we’ll get someone else.’
“For me, how the soigneurs and mechanics and the whole surrounding staff are is part of the environment of the team. We really wanted to get that right, to have the right people on board. If they have the right emotional and personal equity, those people will freakin’ work all day, all year. If you don’t treat them right and don’t understand how key they are, you’re off to a false start.
“Kim and I agreed on that; we shook hands and said, ‘Let’s make sure that we always stay good friends, that we keep challenging each other and off we went.”
When you’re in a situation of almost having a philanthropic contributor…
“I wouldn’t call it that.”
…because he wants it to be profitable?
“He wants it to be self-sustaining. He sees it, as a lot of investors still do, that cycling is a good investment platform in the sense that you could really offer a nice package to companies to see the possibility of raising awareness, the branding possibilities, employee bonus schemes… etcetera. But when you do that, you also have to think long term. You can’t say, ‘Okay, here’s what I want to do: next week we’ll have a sponsor, the week after we’ll have some riders…’
“It was a very fortunate situation that we had a guaranteed budget, a bank guarantee for four years obviously helped.”
Like Slipstream, like Highroad, like what the GreenEdge hopes to be…
“Exactly. Maybe even Katusha. In a shopping mall, you’ll find no Katusha products.
“It’s an investment project where you create a project that you could potentially grow.
“That’s fortunate because we also give each other a lot of confidence. He [Becca] said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this. How can I help you?’ And working with someone whose heart and soul is as an entrepreneur, we found ourselves pretty much talking the same language from day one.
“I was insistent, also, that we needed to start things from scratch and not just say, ‘Yeah, let’s take four guys from the same team, five guys from another team…’ You either start from scratch or you don’t and the last thing I wanted to hear was, ‘Yeah, we used to do it like this.’ No!
“Of course you want to keep the right atmosphere and you want everyone to get on well together but I would never accept that things needed to be done how it had been done before. No!”
One thing we see early in the team’s existence is a big blank strip across the chest which is clearly waiting for a logo…
“Not necessarily. I’m really happy with how it looks: it’s very nice, and that’s something that’s important to me. Obviously down the line there’s possibilities for investors to come along, big or small, but knowing Becca, it also needs to be the right ones – the companies with a longevity plan, that integrate well with the other partners that we have on board already. With him already having put down the financial foundations, there’s no panic. We’re not going to find ourselves in a difficult situation because we desperately have to sign people to be on the jersey. That makes it easy and it helps us not make bad decisions.”
What do you expect from this year? When will you win your first race? Can you give me your pipedream?
“I don’t like it when people say, ‘Yeah, we want a top five here or to win there.’ I’ve seen teams really falter that way. I have huge confidence in my athletes because they are who they are. But already, at the first training camp, I’ve seen the way the sports directors are happy. They like the situation, the bikes, the elements that they’ve been provided to work with. They appreciate everything around them and that leads me to believe that we will definitely do well. It’s our specific ambition to have the team perform at the level that the athletes used to be at. And, at least hopefully, we’ll be adding something with this project. But to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll definitely win this and this and that,’ is not my style.
“It would be putting a lot of awkward pressure on the riders.
“You can be as good as a bike rider as you can be, and you can be ambitious but you need a lot of luck also. Anyone who has ever put a number on their back – which I haven’t, but I’ve seen it a lot – knows that, without luck, you’re not going to go anywhere.
“You can put a lot of unnecessary pressure on yourself by saying specifically what you want to win in advance. I say that a win could happen any day.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
[Part 03: to be published soon]