Still Starstruck – Team Discovery Channel Press Conference

Wow. Just wow.

So, like I mentioned last night, I got an e-mail asking if I’d like to phone in to Team Discovery Channel’s pre-Tour de France press conference, specifically mentioning the “Race to Replace”. I replied – the phone conference was during lunch, and I figured that the worst would be that I’d be out some cell phone minutes. As soon as they asked for cash, I was planning on hanging up.

So, at lunch I debarked down to my local satellite branch of Brogan’s office, ordered up a large cup of hot, black, and bitter (just like my soul! and it was in the 60’s), sat out on the porch, and dialed the number.

“Passcode?” the voice on the other end asked. I answered.

“Name?” Bill Jankowski, of course.

“Publication?” Uh… Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, Cycle, Cycle, Too. (Man, I wish I didn’t have such a ridiculous blog title.)

“OK, well, I’m going to put you on hold, and it ought to start in a few minutes.” Thanks.

I’d called in five minutes early, like the publicist had suggested. After about 9 minutes on hold, I was about to hang up, thinking that someone had actually done a credential check and was saying “Who is this guy?” Then, someone actually picked up and started talking.

P.J. Rabice, Disco’s Press Director started off, saying that the major focus of the conference was to discuss the goals and ambitions of the Discovery Channel in the tour, but he wanted to clear up the whole “Race2Replace” thing, which I’ll do here, ’cause, let’s face it – if it gets me access, I’ll shill. There’s two separate but equal things going on. The first are a series of “Webisodes” at detailing the season. I’d post glowing reviews, but they run painfully bad on my aging G3 iBook. They’re OK in Safari, but if someone really wanted to send me a MacBook, I’d appreciate it. Until then, I’m saving my pennies, ’cause we’re buying a new roof.

The other part of “Race2Replace” is a “consumer event” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August – hopefully we can get someone from the RBF there. It’s a charity ride, but there’s also a chance to win a spot to ride for Discovery at the US National Time Trial Championships. Which is pretty darn cool, much akin to giving the passcode to an actual press conference to a less than two-bit blogger in the middle of nowhere, Connecticut.

So, then PJ opened up the floor to questions. And, first out of the gate was Dell, from the USA Today. My jaw completely hit the table, and I about dropped my phone, realizing that, indeed, serious mistakes had been made and I was in way over my head.

The first questioner wanted to know if Johan was feeling any increased pressure from the Discovery Channel. Quick answer was – no, not really after Lance’d set the record. Disco’s happy that there’s a strong team this year.

The representative of The Discovery Channel, Derrick something or other, did hit on a theme that was near and dear to my heart, though. He said something to the effect of “The Discovery Channel is in the business of storytelling, and this year there are many compelling stories to be told.”

(Jank’s editorial aside: He’s exactly right, in more ways than just shilling cycling. We’re past the distribution hurdles that drove last century’s mass media; there’s far less of a hurdle in distribution, less of a hurdle to find content that’s interesting to a given individual. What’s left is pure competition, and the people who are going to win audience are the ones who can tell the best stories. The production qualities separating “professional” from “amateur” will no longer be orders of magnitude difference. Content and passion are what will win audience. The question is: given vastly increased supply, and vastly decreased demand – as more and more consumers become producers – will there still be a market? Or, will we go back to the pre-Industrial model where entertainment and information are secondary markets, done by many, many individuals for a tiny audience?)

Bonnie asked if there were a change in mentality or game plan without Lance. My line was muted, which was fortunate, as I said “Duh” out loud, making the other woman sitting at the sidewalk tables stare at me. Johan redeemed the question, though. He mentioned that Discovery is going to get to improvise this year, but that he’d give Discovery an edge since they had experience on their side. There’s personal ambition to be played out (Back to storytelling!) by guys like Hincapie, Popyvich. And with the pressure off, there’s teh chance to exploit weak moments (not to name names, but to quote Bruyneel, “Name of Ullrich, name of Basso…”

I cracked up when Johan mentioned that the Discos were going to “Think like they did”. The guy sounds pumped to have the pressure off, and Lance back stateside. He also brought up, and kept bringing up (a little bit of bitterness?) all the chances that Discovery hadn’t been able to exploit while defending Lance.

Kip, from Velonews (Be still my heart!) asked George Hincapie about his training following his solid showing at the Dauphine Liberie. George gave the rundown – he’d taken a couple of days easy, practiced for the Team Time Trial, ridden recon on all the stages in the Alps, and was taking easy days until the tour starts next week. (Side note: I’ve still got nothing but awe for Hincapie, but the guy doesn’t give good press bits. It’s not that he’s a poor speaker; he’s just completely level emotionally, and very to-the-point. No bravado, no swagger. Just plain old competence. He’s got legs).

Guy named Ed asked Johan how he was going to play the race, and what he’s told the team. Johan said he selected this team differently from any of his other teams, looking to stack it with riders who could think “strategically”. Again, he emphasized that they were going to try to avoid missing opportunities to attack, to join breakaways, and to shake the leaders. Sounded relieved not to have to control the race from Day 1. Guy pressed for Johan’s scenario for the race, but Johan played cagey.

Ed then asked George about Bobbke’s prediction that Hincapie would take the tour. George parried the dumb question perfectly, saying that he thinks it’s possible, but at this stage he doesn’t know how he’ll respond to the three week race. George then went on to emphasize that he’s never been in better shape than he is today.

Philip Hersh (again, no clue where he’s from, but probably famous) asked Johan if it seemed like 1999 again. Johan said that there were some similarities, but that the biggest difference was the presence of Basso and Ullrich, the #2 and #3 finishers from last year’s Tour. 1999, he pointed out, the favorite at the start was Bobby Julich. (Wow, I thought. But US interest in the tour was non-existant at that point, what with 7-11 distant history, and USPS in their first? year? The Armstrong marketing machine is fierce. More power to them…)

Johan said that he was sure Armstrong could win in 1999, but had the advantage of being the only one convinced of the possibility. As for this year, he was relieved that the spotlight was looking to Germany and Italy, and that the “less people talk about us the better.” (At this point, I was picturing both PJ and Derrick cringing, wanting to throw something at Bruyneel and remind him that the whole point of TDC giving him cash to chase men in tights all over the world was precisely to get people to talk about the team…)

Bruce Hildebrandt (again, didn’t catch his organization, sorry!) asked George if he’d done any different training now that he had General Classification ambitions. George said that he’d been concentrating on the Time Trials and climbing, going so far as riding his TT bike several times a week. He didn’t use many more words than that.

Bruce followed up to Johan asking why the Discos weren’t bringing a sprinter. Johan listed a couple of HUGE names (namely Tommy “Boom Boom” Boonen and Aussie Robbie McEwan) who will dominate the flat finishes, and acknowledged that there was no-one on Discovery at anywhere near their level. Pointed out that it wasn’t worth bringing a sprinter and lead out men to get several 4th or 5th place stage finishes.

John Lester, of the Associated Press (again, why am I here?) asked about the general state of cycling in the United States – ie, is there an audience without Lance to watch? Hincapie jumped on that bomb, noting that the overall level of excitement for the Tour is still high. He pointed to the millions who turned out to watch the Tours of Georgia and California. He also reminded us that there were 4 Americans in the top 15 at the 2005 Tour de France, and that, in its initial year, there were 4 Americans in the top 10 of the UCI Pro Tour rankings. George didn’t comment on any new American riders, noting that it’s tough to comment on young guys whose training habits hadn’t been demonstrated yet.

Cathy Neil asked about Martinez. Johan said that he’s kind of an unknown, rode the Tour last year, and that he’d done 3 or 4 Vueltas. He’s along ’cause he’s got lots of potential, is very aggressive, and is a decent climber. (Again, back to the theme of Discos as a disruptive force.)

James (something or other) asked about weak points for Ullrich and Basso. Bruyneel hemmed and hawed, but pointed out that Ullrich really doesn’t have a lot of choice but to win the Tour this year. There’s only so many times a body can handle finishing second… As far as other GC Contenders, he listed (that I scratched down) Floyd (Landis, I assume); Levi Leipheimer, Moreau (Christophe, I think, of AG2R), Mancebo (AG2R, too) and Vinokourov (assuming the asphalt isn’t melting in the Alps).

Dan Fries asked about Lance Armstrong’s role with the team (Hmm, I didn’t realize it until I’m typing this almost 12 hours later, but this was the first real question that involved Armstrong). Bruyneel was very non-commital. He mentioned at least once that he wasn’t afraid to call the Texan, but that it wasn’t sure if Lance was going to attend the race at all. Armstrong would be involved in any “difficult choices”, Johan stressed. But then Bruyneel discussed that Armstrong had ridden in the team car for a couple of stages of California, and had expressed difficulty in assessing the race (the tempo, the feeling in the Peleton, etc) from the car. Is this setting the stage for a graceful non-appearance by LA?

Richard Pestes (I wrote Custard) of PezCyclingNews, my current favorite cycling website, asked for a bullet on each rider. Johan pointed out that he’d done that when the team was announced, but broke the team down into three categories.

The first were the straight-up domestiques. Guys like Benjamin Noval who are going to be dragging water bottles and bidets all over France like common cyclo-tourists.

Then, there were the guys like Rubieria and Martinez who, word to their moms, would come to drop bombs, and that they had better legs than the Bible got Psalms. (He didn’t put it like that, but how can I resist the best rhyme of the early 90’s, the classic pairing of “Moms”, “bombs”, and “Psalms”?)

Lastly was the GC Guys. Johan thinks that he can, at a minimum, put one in the top 10, and wants to get them all as high as they can go.

Richard followed up to George, asking what were the key stages. Hincapie repeated that he’d ridden all the Alps Stages, and that they were “very hard” and “very late in the race.” Hincapie pointed specifically to the two “long” time trials, and that he’d be taking the race day-by-day, but hoped to show well in the Prologue. (I swear, George has been to the Nuke LaLoosh School of Sports Interviews. I couldn’t love the guy more if he said “We gotta play it one day at a time” on international Television. Plus, he married a podium girl, and during the conference you could hear their daughter tearing around wherever Hincapie was…)

The next question – strategy, read the previous post, etc…

The last question was really interesting, and more of the stuff I wish had been asked. Bonnie mentioned that it looked like George was physically better after his devastating crash at Paris-Roubaix, but wondered how he was doing psychologically? Hincapie came straight out and said that this year’s PR was a day to forget, and that it was a tough crash to take. That he’d never, ever felt better in the race. But, he acknowledged, the crash could have been much, much worse, and he was looking forward to other opportunities.

Johan, likewise was disappointed with the PR crash, but was impressed that even the evening of the crash that George was thinking about the TdF, and that he was back on the bike in a week.

That was it. There were some pleasantries, but then the line went dead. I was exhausted and amazed…

Actual Hard Cycling News – Team Discovery Channel is the Underdog

A week from Saturday, the world’s attention is going to be focused on Germany… I mean France… well, it’s the Rhone River valley, and Alsace, and who really can tell which country it is? Les Bleus will have gone down to Espana in the World Cup Round of Sixteen on Thursday, or to Brazil in the quarterfinals that afternoon, and attention will shift to le Tour.

Johan Bruyneel, Director Sportif of Discovery, is bullish (that’s optimistic, right? I always get that confused with bearish…) about Disco’s chances this year. With Lance Armstrong’s retirement, and exceptionally strong showings by T-Mobile’s Jan Ullrich in the Tour de Suisse and CSC’s Ivan Basso, winner of the Giro d’Italia, Bruyneel feels that Discovery is an underdog in this year’s Tour.

The team is stacked this year, with four or five GC contenders – long-time Armstrong lieutenant and Classics strongman, George Hincapie; two-time Giro d’Italia winner Paolo Salvodelli; 14-time Tour rider and Olympic time trial silver medalist Viatcheslav Ekimov; 2005’s fifth place TdF finisher Jose Azevedo; and former Under-23 World Champion and future Grand Tour star Yaroslav Popovych. Bruyneel feels that any of these men are capable of winning the Tour.

Team Discovery channel is also bringing a quiver of attackers, tasked to “create trouble for the other teams”. Chechu Rubieria and Egoi Martinez will be on the attack whenever possible. Discovery’s Director Sportif was especially excited about this new twist, noting that not having to defend a specific General Classification contender from day one means that they will be able to put additional pressure on the major contenders, guys by the “name of Ullrich, name of Basso” according to Bruyneel. Bruyneel noted that the Discovery Channel (former US Postal) team had passed on many opportunities in the past, but wouldn’t miss any chances this year.

George Hincapie, coming off a 10th place at the Dauphiné Libéré following recovery from a terrible crash at Paris-Roubaix early in the season, is extremely excited about the possibility to be riding for himself after many years of riding shotgun for Armstrong. After a “very tough” Dauphine, George took a couple of easy days before Team Time Trial practice in Holland, and a few days doing recon on the Alpine stages.

Earlier this year, legend-in-his-own-mind Bob Roll picked George to take it all in Paris. Hincapie doesn’t discount the possibility, but after years of riding in a support roll isn’t sure how he will respond to the spotlight. Going into the Tour, though, he says that he couldn’t be in better shape than he is today.

Bruyneel thinks that Discovery, with the last seven years in the full flood of the Tour de France’s spotlights, brings a little extra something to the table. Physically, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso are a step ahead of the competition. Ullrich, in particular, has been Discovery’s “worst enemy”, while Basso is coming up. However, neither T-Mobile nor CSC have the experience of defending the Maillot Jaune for three weeks, and Bruyneel thinks that other teams and managers have really forgotten the pressure of the Tour de France, not only from the demands of the stages, the challenges from other teams, but the intense media scrutiny that accompanies the favorites.

The big German, Jan Ullrich, will be under intense scrutiny. Ullrich, the 1997 Tour Champion, has “no other option but to win the Tour.” Ullrich has publicly stated recently that he intends to keep racing for only one or two more seasons, and would like to go out after a particularly big result. Would victory on the Champs after 9 years be sufficient?

On the question of the American audience for pro cycling surviving Lance’s absence, both Johan Bruyneel and George Hincapie are optimistic. Hincapie thinks that most of Armstrong’s fans will continue following the sport. When discussing non-Discovery GC contenders other than Ullrich and Basso, Bruyneel’s first two suggestions, Floyd Landis of Team Phonak and Levi Leipheimer of Gerlosteiner are both Americans. Additionally, Hincapie thinks that all of the Americans riding in the Tour this year are capable of winning stages.

Team Discovery Channel starts with several GC contenders, and a bunch of guys capable of playing major parts in every big break of the race. Bruyneel is looking for the first individual time trial, and the second stage in the Pyrenees to shake out his contenders. So, the Discos will spend the first half of the race playing spoiler, and the second half protecting their new Leader.

So, for the first time since 1999, the Tour de France starts without a clear-cut favorite, and Johan Bruyneel’s Discovery Channel team are free to mix things up again. There are distinct differences from 1999, namely the return of the second and third place finishers from last year’s tour. In 1999, the Tour was recovering from 1998’s Festina Affair, and neither Ullrich nor the late, great Pirate, Marco Pantani, were racing.

UpdatePez’s Transcript

Team Discovery Channel Press Conference Teaser

I called in.

Johan and George were, indeed, there.

So were real, honest-to-God, journalist types from real, honest-to-God, media organizations like USA Today, PezCyclingNews, the Associated Press, etc.

I didn’t get a chance to ask a question, but am not actually sure my mouth would have functioned given the chance. Most of what I wanted to know was covered.

Conference was about an hour, I’ve got about 4 pages of notes. Would have typed them up, but I forgot my laptop at the house. So, come back sometime this evening, once I’ve gotten home, and I’ll dish.