PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — Most fans were cheering the comeback of Alberto Contador at the Vuelta a España on Saturday, but another familiar face was also making a return of sorts: Johan Bruyneel.
The beleaguered Belgian director, who is facing a possible lifetime ban for allegations leveled against him by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), returned to the RadioShack-Nissan team after avoiding the spotlight during the Tour de France.
On June 28, USADA formally charged Bruyneel with the administration and trafficking of prohibitive substances in what the anti-doping agency alleges was part of a doping conspiracy from 1999 to 2011.
Bruyneel has denied those charges, yet so far has been discreet about commenting on the case.
On Saturday, Bruyneel would not answer direct questions from VeloNews about the USADA case, saying there was “too much going on” to publicly comment, but did admit the allegations have been a “distraction.”
Bruyneel agreed to comment on other topics, and said his decision to stay away from the Tour was to avoid what he says would have been a media firestorm.
“This whole situation with allegations with USADA came just before the Tour. I decided it wouldn’t be good for the focus of the team for me to be present,” Bruyneel told VeloNews. “The Tour is chaos, a lot of people, a lot of media, so I didn’t want to deal with that, I didn’t want the team to deal with that, so I thought it was a wise decision. Here at the Vuelta, it is a little different.”
Despite steering clear of the Tour, the USADA case remains very much alive. In mid-July, Bruyneel confirmed he is fighting the USADA allegations in arbitration.
Behind the scenes, Bruyneel says, he’s still running the RadioShack-Nissan team through what he admits has been a tumultuous season.
With the USADA case still ongoing, there is nothing to stop Bruyneel from continuing his duties as manager and sport director at the WorldTour team.
“I have not been sitting still. Absolutely,” he answered when asked if he was still working as team manager. “It is what it is, and it’s been a distraction, and I didn’t want it to be a distraction for the team.”
But come the Vuelta, Bruyneel decided it was time to return to racing.
On Saturday, Bruyneel drove in the lead team car behind the squad in the team time trial and was visible chatting with the riders and staff after the stage at the team bus.
With most of the media focus on Contador, Bruyneel seemed content to not be the center of attention.
Bruyneel said he is going to be at the Vuelta for the “first four stages” and return toward the end to renew contracts with certain riders and staff.
He said 2012 “has been a tumultuous season, not only from the outside, but the inside, too.”
Beyond the explosive doping charges stemming from the Lance Armstrong era, when he directed the Texan’s seven straight Tour victories, there’s been unrest inside the RadioShack-Nissan bus as well.
“There have been different battles. The merger hasn’t gone smoothly as I expected,” said Bruyneel. “I thought it would be a little difficult. When you bring two groups together, you have to go through a transition period. I expected things to be going smoothly after six months, but that’s not the case.”
Thus, part of Bruyneel’s visit to the Vuelta appears to be to clean house.
Though he wouldn’t name names, he suggested that next year’s roster would be closer to 25 riders instead of the current 30, meaning that up to five riders could be out the door.
Jakob Fulgsang, who has been outspoken throughout the season, has already signed a deal to join Astana for 2013. Others will likely be shown the door as well, Bruyneel suggested.
“We are going to make some changes. Fuglsang goes to another team, a few others are not going to be renewed,” he said. “Now we are looking forward to next year and we are going to be working all in the same direction.”
Bruyneel also admitted there were “delays” in salaries being paid earlier this season, but insists that those problems have been resolved.
He also denied reports that the team is on the verge of collapse.
“I have heard those rumors; that’s what they are, rumors,” he said. “We have a license for two more years. We have contracts with riders and certain staff for two more years, so the plan for the team is that the team goes on for two more years. Everything stays the same.”
Regarding Andy Schleck, Bruyneel said it was too early for the injured climber to return to racing for the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado, but added that the younger of the Schleck brothers will race again this season.
“Andy was up to three hours a day training, but he was not able to increase the intensity to feel comfortable of racing in Colorado, so we decided it was not worth the risk of going there without really knowing where he stands,” he said. “That doesn’t mean his season is over. He is going to race again this year.”
As for Fränk Schleck, who tested positive for a diuretic during the 2012 Tour and faces up to a two-year ban, Bruyneel said they are “waiting.”
“We are waiting to see what is the outcome of the Luxembourg anti-doping commission. What’s for sure, it’s not a normal situation. It depends how he can demonstrate how the substance got into his system,” Bruyneel said.
“For me, it’s not a doping case. It’s a special case, as there have been others. It’s up to the people who have to decide what this case looks and what the outcome is going to be. Now we are just waiting.”
Bruyneel will have his own waiting game.
With the USADA charging full steam ahead with its controversial case, Bruyneel will be back in the media spotlight, whether he likes it or not.