Discovery Channel team manager Johan Bruyneel would be forgiven for having a few tears in his eyes this coming Sunday when Lance Armstrong hangs up his bike for good after a stunning career on the Tour de France.
Armstrong is on his way to winning a seventh consecutive yellow jersey but has decided, having broken the five-time record last year, there is more to life and will end his career after this year’s race.
Bruyneel has been one of the brains behind Armstrong’s victories since they bumped into each other after the American had recovered from cancer in 1997.
And he admits that searching for a replacement will be a whole new challenge.
“I start from the idea that we can’t replace him (Armstrong). There’s no one who can do what Lance has been doing for the past six years.
“We could do two things,” said Bruyneel.
“We have a few guys in the team who can step up and take responsibilities in the team but it’s a lot to ask for. Or we could go out and look for someone who can try and replace Lance, but that’s not easy either.
“But it’s something we’re definitely thinking of and working on.”
It remains to be seen if rumours prove true, and Discovery Channel announce a big name contender for the Tour de France in the coming weeks or months, although the recent negotiations with Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile teammate Alexandre Vinokourov seem to have met a dead end.
“Vinokourov is a top rider and can win any race, from stage races to one-day classics. But I’ve said it before. I’ve never thought of him as a winner of the Tour,” said Bruyneel.
In the meantime Bruyneel reiterated that his team can already boast a few talented riders – and that Armstrong, despite his domination of the world’s hardest race, is not the team’s only champion.
Paolo Savoldelli won the Tour of Italy in June, while in the past – when the team was US Postal – Spaniard Roberto Heras grabbed a couple of overall victories on the Tour of Spain.
Although Heras is no longer there, Discovery rider Yaroslav Popvych is a potential yellow jersey contender who is en route to winning the race’s white jersey for the best placed rider aged 25 years old or under.
“He’s doing well for his debut on the Tour,” said Bruyneel of the Ukrainian who won the world under-23 road race crown in 2001.
“In general you have to be careful with young riders but he has been promising. He’s managed to stay with Lance in some of the final sections of the big climbs and he’s well placed to win the white jersey – which is not easy.
“He has already finished third in the Giro (d’Italia) and he won the Tour of Catalunya this season, but it’s still too early to say he’s a strong contender (for the yellow jersey).”
As a result, Discovery will go into the Tour for the first time next year as underdogs, although they may have gone in as favourites if Bruyneel’s offer to CSC team leader Ivan Basso had been accepted.
On Monday, Bruyneel said he was interested in the 27-year-old Italian.
“Why not? We’re interested in any riders who are potential winners of the Tour,” he said.
Moments later, he found out that Basso, who is currently second in the race, had rejected an offer from Discovery to sign a two-year extension with the Danish outfit run by 1996 yellow jersey winner Bjarne Riis.
Starting next Monday, when Armstrong begins the first day of the rest of his life off the bike, the memories – good and bad – of the past six years with Armstrong may come flooding back to Bruyneel.
And he admitted he has been lucky that his chance meeting with Armstrong led to such a successful collaboration.
“It’s going to be difficult, and you could say that as a team manager I’ve been spoiled.
“We’ll have to take a step back and set our goals lower,” said Bruyneel before reminiscing about their time together.
“It’s a remarkable relationship we have and it worked from the beginning. I met him and passed through his life at the right moment.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience and neither did he. I just had a vision (of winning the Tour de France) and he believed in it.
“That’s going to be difficult for me – to find someone to work with in the same way. We talk four or five times a day, even if he’s in the United States and I’m in Europe.
“We spent a lot of time together the past six years.”
Armstrong, however, is likely to not be too far from Bruyneel in the future.
“He’s already very involved,” added Bruyneel. “It’s remarkable to me how much he is interested in the future success of the team. He’s always telling me about possible riders we could sign for the future.
“You’re going to be seeing a lot of him next year.”