Books are weird. An author thinks he's written a book about X. The espresso-slurping marketing droids hawking the book write a cover blurb that says it's about Y. And when the reader reads it she discovers it's actually about Z. The reviewer? He thinks it's about time he went and got some fresh espresso. He's gonna need it for this one.
Title: We Might As Well Win - On the Road to Success with the Mastermind Behind a Record-setting Eight Tour de France Victories
Author: Johan Bruyneel (with Bill Strickland, intro by Lance Armstrong)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin / Mainstream
What it is: Cycling as something between Sun Tzu and Who Moved My Cheese. Or, more simply, the motivational, planning and administrative secrets of Johan Bruyneel.
Strengths: Either you buy into this management self-help guff or your don't. What's stronger than all those Tour victories?
Weaknesses: Either you buy into this management self-help guff or you don't. Those Tour victories as a management aid? Give me a break!
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)
I once worked in a company where Naomi Klein's anti-marketing diatribe, No Logo, was used to come up with marketing ideas. In A Peiper's Tale, Allan Peiper criticises Willy Voet's Breaking The Chain because he knew someone who used it as a guidebook to doping, trying out just about every drug Voet mentioned. And, somewhere in the back of my mind, I seem to recall reading once that Lance Armstrong's It's Not About The Bike was a favourite among the type of person who reads self-help books. None of those authors could have foreseen the way their books would be read. Stories like that, they'd probably have made Barthes laugh like a loon.
Johan Bruyneel thinks that We Might As Well Win is a management self-help book. Think somewhere between Sun Tzu and Who Moved My Cheese. We Might As Well Win is not Bruyneel's autobiography, it's not even a memoir of his Tour victories. No, it's just a look at some of the lessons learned from some of the things he's done. The problem is, most any cyclist reading it will judge it for the things it doesn't talk about. The deals and the doping. Manolo Saiz and Michele Frerrari. The real secrets at the heart of those Tour victories.
How - to just try and look at it the way Bruyneel thinks we should - does cycling become Sun Tzu? Try this lesson: "If I need to bump a rival's car to get to my rider, I will do it. If I need to hurt someone's feelings to preserve what's best for my team, I will not hesitate to do it. Winners often leave behind some damage. Whatever you're doing, you have to focus on the win." Or consider some of the aphoristic chapter titles: ‘to earn confidence, confide;' ‘lose a little to win a lot;' ‘when failure is inevitable, limit the damage;' ‘if you're breathing, you still have a chance to win,' ‘everything but winning is a distraction.'
Let's look at just one chapter in particular: ‘trust people - not products.' If you've read Dan Coyle's Lance Armstrong's War, you'll know all about the shit that works and the shit that doesn't. And you'll know about the F-One project, the attempt to build a super-fast time-trial bike. Bruyneel offers additional info on that story.
The F-One project grew out of the realisation that, while every piece of Armstrong's kit had been optimised, no real thought had been given as to how all the different pieces worked together. You had the fastest time-trial helmet in the world and the fastest pair of sunglasses, but the one couldn't fit inside the other as snug as it should. So all the equipment sponsors were made to get together and we got something out of The Right Stuff, the best and the brightest and a practically unlimited budget all being focussed on one simple task: make Armstrong go faster.
The bit I love about the F-One story is how they even had a body-double for Armstrong. "A forty-one-year-old triathlete from Vancouver named John Litherland turned out to have nearly the same body dimensions as Lance, right down to the slight bump both riders got in their backs when they arched forward over their handlebars." When you consider all the millions and squillions of conspiracy theories that have swirled and swooshed around Armstrong, I find it amazing that no one's ever suggested he didn't actually ride all of those seven Tours himself. Who needs a rest-day oil change when your body-double has ridden the first week of the race for you? I can't wait for the tell-all biog from Litherland: ‘I Was Lance's Double.'
In the end the F-One project turned into a farce. On paper and in the wind-tunnel it produced a massive time gain, but on the road it sucked royally. The minimum cost of the project? A million dollars. The big lesson is nicely summarised at the top of the chapter, for those too busy winning to actually read the whole chapter: "Technology can help you win. So can a team bus. A solid recruiting programme. An inspiring mission statement. But none of these things actually do the winning. A million dollars can't ride a bicycle. Neither can a million bits of data. Races aren't contested in wind tunnels. It's people who perform."
But We Might As Well Win isn't just about lessons to be learned. There's mega-bucks to be made on the motivational speaking circuit. So Bruyneel is also selling himself in the book. This should come as no surprise to anyone. He was after all a student of marketing before he turned pro: "I loved the way ideas could be brought to life and communicated to people, the way a good marketer could bring excitement to any subject. There was something about the logical, methodical flow of progress from an idea's conception to its presentation to the public that appealed to me." Marketing's loss was cycling's gain. And I guess it must have been nice having something else in common with Hein Verbruggen, the man from Mars®.
In selling himself, Bruyneel doesn't try to rewrite history, turn himself into a better cyclist than he was. As a rider he's best remembered for two Tour stage wins and a fantabulous crash. His chief role was to act as road captain. He admits this. As a directeur sportif, clearly he's been a little bit more successful. And he's quietly modest about this success: "The Tour de France became my crucible, I emerged from it as the most successful team director in history." It's reading a line like that that I almost wish I was a statto at heart and could bother me arse to do for directeurs sportifs what The Virtual Musette has done for cyclists and rank them historically. My gut instinct just scoffs at Bruyneel's claim. All I need is the empirical evidence to support such scoffing. I do know though that I rate someone like Cyrille Guimard higher than I'll ever rate Bruyneel.
Some of you may disagree with me on that and are probably reaching for your slide-rule and your graph paper. You'll argue that seven Tours with Armstrong, two Tours, a Giro and a Vuelta with Contador, a Giro with Savoldelli and a Vuelta with Heras are not to be scoffed at. And - like Bruyneel himself - you might even point to the successes of those who have graduated from Bruyneel University: "If you could somehow gather together into a single squad all the racers who've left our team, that roster would rank as one of the world's most impressive list of victories; our ‘ex-team' would be better than most current teams. From 1999 - the first full season Lance and I worked together - until the team disbanded at the end of 2007, racers who left us won the Tour of Italy, the Tour of Spain, the World Championship, Paris-Roubaix, Ghent-Wevelgem, Paris-Nice, two Tours of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, three Tours of Romandie, the Tour of Luxembourg, the Dauphiné Libéré, two Olympic medals, several national championships around the world, the Tour of California, the Tour of Georgia, the leader's jersey of all three of the Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain) and multiple stages in all three Grand Tours as well."
Them's a lot of successes. But what also of that other squad of racers who've left Bruyneel's teams? You know the one. Andreau. Basso. Beltrán. Boonen. Heras. Hamilton. Hincapie. Landis. Livingston. Mondini. O'Bee. Padronos. Vasseur. Vaughters. And now Contador. On that, Bruyneel is rather silent. He can take the credit for what riders do after they leave him but no responsibility. What matters is that "not a single rider on US Postal or Discovery had ever tested positive for doping while on the team."
Bruyneel acknowledges that doping happens, but distances himself and Armstrong from it. We get the well-worn (practically threadbare) argument that Armstrong "was the most tested athlete on the planet; he had never failed a single in- or out-competition drug test." What we don't get is an acknowledgement that there was no EPO test before 2001 and there still isn't a proper test for autologous blood transfusions. This is one of the unvoiced lessons of We Might As Well Win: control the flow of information.
Ultimately, on doping, Bruyneel plays the victim card: "Imagine that, in the absence of a body or any other evidence or factual proof of a crime, and despite the lack of official charges by the police or prosecutor, your neighbour suddenly accused you of murder one day - and the local papers and television blared the news as if it were true. How would you feel? What proof could you offer beyond the lack of proof?" But is he really living a Kafkaesque nightmare or is this Rear Window and we just need to send Grace Kelly over the garden wall? Time will tell.
I mentioned earlier two names that Bruyneel doesn't - Saiz and Ferrari. Is it fair to criticise Bruyneel for not mentioning them? Bill Strickland - Tour de Lance author and Bruyneel's ghost-writer - thinks not. But the funny thing about Saiz is that he is mentioned, twice. Just not by name. He's merely Bruyneel's ‘directeur sportif at the time.' Bruyneel seems to place Saiz in the same camp as David Walsh - someone you can refer to but not actually name. If I'd paid a little bit more attention when reading Freud and Lacan I'm sure I'd jump to a very interesting conclusion about that.
Ferrari ... maybe Strickland's right to argue against criticising Bruyneel for not mentioning him. What I find funny there though is how success has many fathers. Ferrari, Carmichael, Bruyneel et al... they've all championed themselves as the true champions of the seven Tours. And Bruyneel, by adding an eight with Contador (and a ninth since this book was published), is clearly the biggest daddy of them all. At least in his book.
* * * * *
As someone who doesn't particularly like Bruyneel and who despises management self-help books, I knew when sitting down to read this one that I was not exactly the target audience. So it would hardly be much of a surprise if I didn't particularly like the book. But ... well Bill Strickland is the book's saving grace for people like me.
Strickland has an ability to write a racing scene that just sucks you in. In We Might As Well Win he takes one of Bruyneel's two Tour stage victories - the 1995 win into Liège, when he and Miguel Induráin had powered away from the peloton - and over six pages tells it as a story. Strickland's style is novelistic. He tries to climb inside the mind of Bruyneel and tell what it was like to ride that bike on those roads that day. It's as close to Tim Krabbé as you get without reading The Rider.
For me, a cynic and a sceptic, those six pages made all the rest almost worth it.