PAU, France - The question was asked in French. The answer came quickly and loudly in English.
Johan Bruyneel, a poker-faced Belgian who drives with his knees and speaks five languages, was asked this - would Lance Armstrong have won a single Tour de France title without him? "No," Bruyneel said, "I don't think so."
Bruyneel, a college-educated 40-year-old who is most noted for taking a wrong turn off a cliff in the Alps during cycling's greatest race, has lived in the shadow of Armstrong since the two joined forces in 1998. Bruyneel calls himself "the man without the engine but the mind to win," and in post-cancer Armstrong he found the engine.
Armstrong is cleanly pointed toward an unprecedented seventh consecutive Tour de France title when the race ends Sunday in Paris. After staying even with or gaining time on his top rivals last weekend in the Pyrenees, even five-time runner-up and 1997 champion Jan Ullrich, who is fourth overall, said yesterday that "I'm only racing for the podium now."
In other words, Ullrich is hoping to finish second or third. Defeating Armstrong would only come, he said, if something unexpected happened to the 33-year-old Texan, who has a 2-minute 46-second lead on second-place Ivan Basso and a 5:58 lead on Ullrich.
One of the few losses Armstrong's Discovery Channel team has suffered this year came yesterday when Basso, the talented 27-year-old Italian, announced he had signed a three-year contract extension with CSC. Bruyneel said he would have liked to see Basso inherit Armstrong's role as leader for Discovery next year.
Bruyneel, the son of jewelry store owners, was a bike racer from a small town near Brugge who started the sport late after getting his marketing degree. After finishing his competitive career at the end of the 1997 season, he thought he would move into the field of public relations.
"It happened that Lance called me in the fall after I retired," Bruyneel said. "We were talking and he said he wasn't happy with the leadership on his team. As we continued to talk he asked me if I wanted to work with him. I am a man of impulse and on impulse, I said yes."
Armstrong was still feeling his way back to the sport after spending nearly two years recovering from the testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. His French team, Cofidis, had ended its contract with the American rider and Armstrong had signed with the U.S. Postal Service team.
Bruyneel had competed against Armstrong before he had become ill. Bruyneel called him an "immense talent" but he also thought Armstrong was undisciplined, impetuous and headstrong.
In the post-cancer Armstrong, Bruyneel found a young man willing to listen to his ideas. It was Bruyneel who thought the racer should scout each Tour stage himself instead of dispatching a coach to drive the route. It was Bruyneel who urged Armstrong to establish a training base in Europe and do testing in a wind tunnel to learn how to ride faster.
"It's a remarkable relationship we have," Bruyneel said, "and it worked from the beginning. I met him and passed through his life at the right moment."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.