“First I have to tell you. I was a young rider but had a big crash. It was over. But I liked cycling, so I kept in touch with everybody. And also, we had a café. People came to our place. But the first step was a man – I forget his name – but he was responsible for all these great athletes. All sports. He had them in his stable, you see. This man was a colonel of the British empire army and was once chief of command in Norway.
"One day he did a lecture in England, and there he met Mary, his future wife. But Mary was a spy. Yes. Her father came out of a noble family in Russia – he was responsible for Esso in Europe, the big company – so Mary travelled all over the world as a young girl living in the finest hotels.
“Then suddenly, or this was the story she told us… Her father knew a hooker and he spent all of his money on her. So now Mary turns 18. She is living in Greece at the time, and now she has to make a living for herself. And because of her travels she knew people all over the world. So she became a spy. It is for sure she was a kind of Mata Hari for Russia during the cold war. Anyway. The colonel had to give up his career to marry Mary. He left Norway and moved back to Great Britain to teach at the university. And then he became involved with these great athletes. I remember his funeral: we met Thompson, the karate world champion. A ping-pong champion too.
“Anyway, he was in Antwerp. A badminton tournament with some Danish boy, a champion also. And I don’t know why, but I met them. He tells me they have no money, the boy has to sleep in a hotel with noise and no breakfast, so I say: ‘Come to my home.’ And this is the beginning. Now we’ll have famous champagne.”
The old man excuses himself and disappears into the kitchen. I sit with my mouth open. The dictaphone is on the table. “Tell me I just got that on tape,” I whisper to Brian.
He grins. “See? Now imagine living with this guy for seven years!”
Meet Victor Bruyndonx. A small, fit man in his 70s, he has a firm handshake, a warm smile, and unbelievable brown eyes that will melt the heart of your girlfriend and/or that of your mother. Victor, or just plain Vic, is an ex-rider and an ex-directeur sportif. He once “got fucked by idiots” while building his own team and was left bankrupt for years.
He’s a great chef but now he wants to set up connections in the world of international brokers. When we arrive at his house, he quickly hands us his business card. Then he hands us his future business card. For when he plans his next move, he explains.
Vic returns from the kitchen with a bottle and declares that we must all celebrate Brian’s return to Belgium. Leaving HTC to join Omega Pharma – Quick-Step was a wise decision, Vic tells us. The new team looks solid and Brian will do fine because Brian always does. We are listening to a father talking about his first son. Brian looks a little embarrassed. Vic pops the bottle. “So. Gentlemen,” he says. “Here is very famous champagne. Welcome.”
Behind us Vic’s mother – a lovely old wrinkled woman – watches tennis on Eurosport. Two female athletes are having a go at it, their orgasmic cry-outs serving as a bizarre soundscape for the living room. We stare at our glasses; everyone seems to be wondering how to follow that opening monologue. Vic offers the release.
“The Russian spy was a real lady. She spoke maybe 15 languages. Everybody was so excited around here: we know a real spy, you know! And Mary always knew which riders were good or not. She took one look at Brian and said: ‘That one! He’ll make it.’ Another one, and you know who I mean, Brian, she called him an arsehole first time she saw him.”
“Yeah,” confirms Brian. “I remember him. And she was right. Later he owned his own company. He sent bills but never paid taxes.”
“An arsehole,” says Vic.
“An arsehole,” says Brian.
Vic fills our glasses. “Of course, you like the champagne. It’s famous. Also. I’m the cook. From the start until the end. It’s in the family. A tradition. My brother was the cook at the Hilton. My wife was good. At cooking, I mean. She left me for the police commandant. It happens. But I cook what the riders need. What is important is that they like the food. Most important. Oatmeal. Good. Vegetable soup is important. Pancakes. Breakfast in the morning. Very important. Fish. A lot of chicken, too. Spaghetti when we were in a hurry, huh, Brian? I think food is… Some people make stories about special this and that. I think no. Eat what is on the family table. The boys always ate my cooking. Now drink. Drink! Would you like to see the old bikes?”
Brian: “You have the old bikes?”
Vic: “Yes. In the attic.”
We empty our second – no, third – glasses. Vic motions toward the photographer and they leave, with Vic doing the talking. Here is a man who has a theory about everything in life. Brian smiles. “This guy. He is the greatest. Heart of gold. I don’t think I could have done all this without his support. Him and Juliette.”
Upstairs is Brian’s old room. The stairway is dark and alarmingly narrow. Wall to wall carpeting two inches thick. Small rooms appear out of nowhere as we take the climb. Someone stumbles twice. It’s claustrophobic at best. Creepy, too. Hitchcook couldn’t have staged this better if he had built it himself.
We enter the icy cold room. At first glance it seems like a small cell. An ascetic, monk-like room. Both frightening and compelling. Brian looks out of the window. It is fogging up because of the combined force of our body heat. If he was to write ‘Redrum’ it would come as no surprise. But there he stands silently, almost shrinking before our eyes, turning into the young man that once occupied this room. Oddly enough Brian also seems to become a little thinner around the waist. And now he has an ’80s haircut? And he is wearing cycling clothes…? It must be the famous champagne.
Brian takes his place on the bed looking almost proud. The photographer and I exchange glances suggesting that neither one of us would last two hours in here. Brian jumps at our conclusion.
”No no, fellas. You are getting it wrong. Listen. I had my own toilet. My stereo was over here. A chair. And this bed. That was it, man. Luxury! I got up at 8am. Rode at 8.30am or 9am. Never two minutes over. So I knew from the clock how my form was. I didn’t need a trip counter. I had a route, always the same. Always. It was a job. Ex-rider Leif Mortensen taught me that: get up, ride for six to eight hours, you are home in the afternoon. You did your hours at ‘the office’.
“We lived three or four riders in the house. And if I didn’t like a rider, he was out. It was my call. My old colleagues, I still call them. Zabel, Olaf Ludwig. Others. We spent so much time together as young men. Some never call back. But I do it. I became very close to the family. Vic and Juliette were surrogate parents. Also, my real parents never knew where I was. They just knew I was somewhere in Belgium. Letters sent to me arrived at old addresses, you know. So it wasn’t the easiest way of living. But I had a will. Something was burning inside me. I wanted to succeed so bad. But as confident as you may be outwards, you also deal with a very fragile side of yourself. Strong confidence combined with a lot of self doubt.”
He looks out of the window again. All the hours he must have spent looking out of that window. “The hours I spent looking out that window,” he whispers.
Downstairs is more famous champagne. The two female athletes are still at it. Their screaming has gone up a notch. It’s ridiculous. When you compare it to the level of pain riders silently deal with six hours into a Tour stage in the Pyrenees, or when crashing on muddy cobblestones in Arenberg in freezing northern France, you just want to tell these girls to shut up. Vic’s mother, however, shows no signs of fatigue. She sips water from a cup, turns her head, and looks straight at Brian trying to place him. It’s the only movement we see from her while we are there.
“Commandant Leo Walters was from Antwerp,” continues Vic. “He was part-time sports director. He liked beer, women and cycling. He divorced his wife and got a younger one. It happens. The commandant always helped us with speeding tickets, you know. Now he is dead.”
Brian: “He is dead?”
Vic: “He is dead. It happens. Anyway. Because I will tell you more. One day we met a Danish team here in Belgium. Their federation had no money, the mechanics slept in the car, all kinds of things. And then I gave them some water bottles for the race and said: ‘Now you help us today.’ That was the deal. And we won the race. So of course we liked the Danish team!
“Sometime later in Spain, I discussed a contract with one of the Danish boys. He was excited about joining a team with Claude Criquielion and I said no. It’s a bad contract and you’ll be fucked for life. So I became a middle man, you know. Through their director Finn Larsen, I invited the boys to come live here. Of course. They were good. No problem. And Brian was the leader. He was maybe not the best rider, but he was the best professional. He pushed the other boys: now we sleep, now we get up. After a long training session, 200 kilometres, he would do the derny with me. He just did more than the rest.
“Sure. I’d like to go to Denmark and see Brian’s family, but because I speak different languages I help out in the business here. For now. And I take care of my mother.”
We all look at his mother. The TV says deuce.
”Normally, when they were training, they didn’t drink. Never. But one day, oh la la… It was a party like I’ve never seen. Ice cream everywhere! Beer, of course. Brian put out a cigar on his forehead. You could see the mark for months. Next day he won the big race GP Wielerrevue!”
Brian laughs. “You have a better memory than me! I beat Ekimov and Lieckens in the sprint. Back then, sometimes I did two criteriums a day. Fuck, I was so tired. In the morning I’m in Amsterdam. I got the starter’s fee and then made the deal with the other teams: who should win and how do we split the money? Next race, same deal. Vic drove the car between races while I slept in the back. It was the wild west in Belgium.
“Skibby had a cross bow. Jesus. When he got bored he fired it at the walls. You are on the bed. Relaxing. All of a sudden an arrow shoots through your room: woosh! I was shouting: ‘Skibby, you arsehole!’ And he comes in, grinning like: ‘Oh, sorry. It just went off.’ Later it was the shotgun.”
Vic rolls his eyes while uttering two words: ‘Jesper Skibby’.
“It was because we really wanted to try and shoot a cow,” continues Brian. “So we drove around with the shotgun looking for one. But it was Søren Lilholt’s car and he didn’t like the shotgun in the car. So Skibby had it out the window. People were ducking as we passed them.”
Vic: "It happens. More champagne?"
Brian says no. He has a meeting with some associates concerning his clothing line La Flamme Rouge later today. We have to go. On our way out, in the garage, Vic offers us local cycling clothes. “What the hell?” Brian suddenly says, pointing toward a rusty steel frame with his name on it. Vic lights up. It is Brian’s old rack where he used to hang up his bike for repairs. This kicks off more talk of the old days. The two of them are like a pair of comedians setting each other up for punchlines. You can see a lot of Vic in Brian and all is good hearted fun and nice. But it’s also a bit safe and so – maybe it’s the famous champagne – I suddenly blurt out: “Yeah, yeah. But what about doping?”
Vic looks at me. Brian looks at me. The photographer also looks at me and I think, but I’m not sure, that Vic’s mother might even be looking at me from inside the living room.
Brian shrugs. “After a while you don’t feel any guilt. That’s the truth. All riders were doing it, but maybe they do more than me, you know. So I just stopped worrying. I stopped feeling guilty. Strange, huh? The guilt question pisses off the public and everyone around us. It’s complicated. Anyhow. It took a couple of years before I knew what to do with it. After that those needles became a normal thing in my life.”
Vic: “Also you could buy everything at the chemists.”
Brian: “Yeah. The Apoteek. I think the Dutch riders mixed amphetamine and other things. Then there was the Belgian mix. Pot Belge. Heroin and cocaine. I never got near that, of course. But remember Johnny Dauwe, Vic? I trained with him for eight years. He won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. He hanged himself. That was the downside of all those drugs. When the guys stopped riding they kept using the drugs.”
Vic: “You take drugs to go to sleep. Drugs to wake up. Drugs to train. And drugs to fuck your wife. Forget the bike. It’s a life of a drug addict, no?”
“And that’s why we got to end this now,” Brian says. “Young riders using sleeping pills! For chrissakes, they need to learn to live like a professional. I tell them: go to bed early. Get a good night’s sleep. Get up and eat well. Start training. Do the hours out there on the road, you know. Live well. We only did it because we thought everyone else did it. You just wanted to even the odds. You train and train and then some Italian monkey with greasy hair comes along, for years he can’t ride worth shit, now he drops you on the cobbles. My cobbles!
“But it was so old school back then. My first directeur sportif would come to our room after a race and offer us cigarettes! Just to calm us down, you know, had it been a hard race. He would say: ‘If anybody catches you cheating there are three options.’ ‘Oh,’ I thought. ‘Three options. That’s something.’ He said: ‘You should deny. Deny. And deny. Here. Have a cigarette!’ But those days are over. Those old directeurs wouldn’t last two minutes in the business today.”
”Two minutes,” Vic says.
We say goodbye. Vic reminds me that I have both his business cards and we are always welcome. The house is empty these days. He takes care of his mother now. But there is still a lot of power left in Victor Bruyndonx. The two men hug. Vic touches Brian’s face gently. It’s a fine moment.
As we pull out of the driveway, Brian turns down Thin Lizzy and mumbles to himself: “This guy. I love him. He is a class act, huh.” The photographer says that he has never met a more honest guy in his life. I nod and Brian says: “Yeah. It was good to see him again.”
On the road towards Antwerp, we discuss the role of a directeur sportif. What is it he does exactly? The field of directeurs seems to be crowded with ex-riders with no particular experience other than riding their bikes for many years. What is leadership and guidance in the world of cycling? And what is Omega Pharma – Quick-Step getting with Brian signing on?
“Yeah, this new team. It looks strong and I think we can build, er, that I can perhaps, er… Hey, listen! Did tell you about a restaurant I visited in London last week?”
The photographer starts laughing in the back. I sigh. Turn off the dictaphone.
“No no no!” Brian shouts. “Listen. It’s great. I’m in Covent Garden. And on the walls were these framed pictures. Of famous people from Belgium, right. So here it comes: if you could name all of them the meal was for free! Now. Who comes up with an idea like that! And nobody has ever cracked it. Eddy Merckx, yes, okay, but how about the others? Nobody can name ten famous Belgian people! Sorry. What was the question?”
“Tell me about your job, Brian Holm,” I suggest. “Look. Here is the dictaphone. Talk to the dictaphone.”
Brian gets serious. Duly begins to explain. That you learn races by doing them yourself. And that you can’t guide a rider through Ronde van Vlaanderen if you’ve never tasted blood in your mouth yourself. Cycling is about hurt and how to deal with it.
For example: if a rider has been injured in a crash, Brian might bring him to the front afterwards. His collarbone is broken; Brian knows he is not starting tomorrow. The rider too. So you shift focus. Let him suffer in the legs instead of the collarbone. Let him feel he is doing one last effort for the team so he can quit fulfilled instead of sitting in the back of the peloton pained by his injury.
It can only hurt at one place on your body at a time, Brian explains. “So I’ll focus on his legs. Unless he is totally screwed, of course. Jesus, I’m a father of two. Not a monster!
“When you make a decision as a group there is an 80 per cent chance that the group is right and you’re wrong. So learn how to listen. But believe in yourself. That’s the job. To make decisions. Good or bad. As an ex-rider I know what the riders are feeling out there.
“It’s important that the riders have a goal on the road. Always. They always have to work, maybe we’re not winning the race, but imagine this: the stage is 220 kilometres, a breakaway is in the front. The easy thing for everybody is to let them go and neutralise the chase. As a directeur sportif you make the call: are we going to pull them in, or are we sitting in the back of the peloton chatting away for the last 100km and hoping for better days with a risk that some of the boys get dropped and lose two minutes for the team in the end because we all stopped paying attention? No. We get five or six guys up in the front working for maybe 50km. Hard.
"Whether we win or not is not the question. I want them to be part of the race. I want them to feel like they are working for a living. Because it makes you proud on another level. And sometimes you might even win. Not everyone can win a bunch sprint. But a rider can fulfill his exact role on the team. You can have good days and bad ones but you can’t do it wrong. And that will make you proud. Your contribution to, let’s say, Mark winning one of his sprints.”
Perhaps that kind of thinking is what team boss Patrick Lefevre thinks he need. The old Quick-Step won six races last year. With riders like Sylvain Chavanel, Jérôme Pineau and Tom Boonen on board that’s both unacceptable and, frankly, a bit embarrassing for Belgium’s ‘finest’. Brian suggests that sometimes when you have been doing something for many years, you forget why you got to be good at it. It is one thing is to reach the top. But how do you stay there?
“You need to maintain curiosity. And not just the riders. Me also, you know, as a sports director. But mostly as a human being. It’s fundamental. In the winter I always take a new course and the UCI courses also keep us busy. But I want to learn something new, you know. So I don’t fall asleep in life. Maybe it’s time to wake up the sleeping power plant called Tom.”
Cycling’s governing body orchestrates a string of courses that sports directors must attend. They are not difficult as such, says Brian, but the paper work alone would put a law school graduate to shame. The teaching is in English, which everyone finds natural. The days where sports directors from France spoke French to French riders and the Spaniards spoke Spanish to their riders and so forth are history. Still, all involved in this business have picked up half a dozen languages along the way, and outside the classroom one day Brian found himself in a heated argument with an Italian, a Russian and a French directeur. All were yelling at each other in Flemish.
Brian is a man interested in all aspects of cycling. And he wants young riders to know about its history. Know the trade, he says more than once. But Brian being Brian, he quickly invents his own UCI test which, of course, is outrageous. Here are three of his questions: What handlebars were on Roger De Vlaeminck’s bike and why? Which teams did Moser ride for? What grip did Merkcx use?
Try those on Boasson Hagen, a rider worth ten to 12 clean wins a year, but also famous for his absolute illiteracy of the trade. “Then it’s back to Norway, Edvald!” Brian says, laughing. And then he says, serious: “I was in love with Francesco Moser. And now, when I see him at races, with his Hollywood hair and elegant clothes, I can still see why. You feel like a bulldog standing next to him.
"It’s small crushes you had on the old riders, you know. As a young rider growing up. Moser looked better than any of the girls in my class! And on my wall I still have this photo of Roger De Vlaeminck. In his Brooklyn years. Cycling cap turned backwards. I mean, you could just cry!
“So, yes, Omega Pharma – Quick-Step. I’ll be doing Tour de France. Mostly stage races. It’s fine, I like my job, anyhow. Lefevre is a good man. The riders are good. Talented. But sometimes talent stays talent. And hard work gets rewarded. No. Hard work always gets rewarded! That’s the biggest secret in all trades, I think.
“So how do you turn, for example, a leadout man into a potent winner? A domestique into a leader? A lot of the work is in the mind. Also, the concept of winners versus non-winners: the notion that you can be scared of winning. You lose courage when you come close to victory.
"I remember in ’85 at the Worlds: now, why the hell didn’t I become World Champion that day? I broke free with 800 metres to go but immediately lost my confidence. I regretted going for the win. A voice within me said: ‘What are you doing, Brian? You can’t become world champion like this. Wait for the sprint. Make a good result instead.’ So I backed off, waited for the peloton, did the sprint and was fourth. You see what I mean? Aim high. How do you get the good looking girl in the bar and not just the ordinary? That, for me, is very interesting to explore as a directeur sportif. No. Wait. That came out wrong. I mean, I mean about the cycling. Forget what I said!”
As we approach Brussels Airport for our drop off, I suggest we talk more on Facebook. Brian looks at me like I just told him that the God of his youth, Francesco Moser, wears women’s clothes.
“No! And I don’t use Twitter either,” he responds. Because it will only provide more stress. He doesn’t need to hear from old school friends and refuses to give the impression he is rude when he doesn’t reply to various people’s invites or questions.
Brian Holm is a public figure in Denmark and it would be easy for anybody to take advantage of his warmth and friendliness. If he is not on Facebook the risk of that is reduced. And it makes sense. He is a modern man, living a busy life with a wife and two small children. He has two mobile phones in his left pocket. He easily does 150 travel days a year as a top player in an international corporation with a staff of 70 people from 12-15 different countries. You feel there is enough work already.
Brian stops the car. “Gentlemen. Move your arses!” Our days together have flown by. Here is a man you could easily befriend, I think, as we grab our luggage from the Volvo. Brian also gets out and then surprisingly hugs both me and the photographer, and with great affection. We don’t know how to respond. Which is probably just as well, because you can tell he is dying to tell one last story. He climbs back into the car, slams the door shut and rolls down the window.
“Write this down, pencil man: Belgian riders are born with a brick in their stomach. As a young man you are told: ‘Get married, buy a house. Then you know why you are racing.’ There is a goal for you in your life: bricks! This is my castle. This is my… what the fuck? Oh, it’s the phone. I’ll bet you this,” Brian says before picking up.
“I talk to this guy now. A great friend. We’re having dinner tonight. And I say that I’m coming over in 20 minutes, right. And he’ll say: ‘Sure. I’m here. No problem. I’m cooking. See you soon, Brian.’ And when I turn up he won’t be home! That’s Belgium. You gotta love it.”