Team Garmin-Cervélo boss Jonathan Vaughters is pro bicycling’s anti-doping zealot. But can a clean team win races?
Author ANDREW O’REILLY
THE DUST IS EVERYWHERE. Kicked up from the centuries-old cobbled roads of northern France, it’s coated the bicycles, sucked any moisture off the chains and made the cyclists so filthy they look as if they’ve spent a week in a coal mine. This, however, is to be expected from Paris-Roubaix, the 115-year-old run-up to the Tour de France, also known as the Hell of the North, which rambles over 160 miles on roads that haven’t seen construction crews since the time of Napoleon. “It’s the greatest classic race to win,” two-time winner Sean Kelly once said, “but maybe the most horrible to ride.” To win Paris-Roubaix takes agility, a sharp eye, an uncanny ability to avoid split-second crashes, a strong team and, most important, a little luck. For Team Garmin-Cervélo and its manager Jonathan Vaughters, all these elements are aligning on this hot and hazy Sunday in early April.
Vaughters has sent Belgian Johan Van Summeren off the front of the main field to tempt race favorite Fabian Cancellara of the Leopard-Trek team to make a move. Meanwhile, teammate Thor Hushovd sits comfortably on Cancellara’s wheel, countering any attacks. To spur the young Belgian, Vaughters gives Van Summeren an ultimatum before he reaches one of the last sections of cobblestones, the Carrefour de l’Arbre.
“Johan,” he says, “here’s the deal: If you come out of Carrefour by yourself, then we’re riding for you and you’re going to win the race. If you come out with somebody on your wheel, you have to wait for Thor.”
It’s not an easy challenge. With teammate and World Champion Hushovd still in contention, Vaughters’ decision could be unpopular and controversial. Vaughters, however, is used to making controversial decisions. Whether it’s race strategy, taking on the head of the International Cycling Union or choosing to sport his trademark razor-sharp sideburns, since forming the Garmin squad, then Team Slipstream, in 2006 the 38-year-old American has become a lightning rod for criticism. “I stick by my decisions; sometimes they’re criticized and sometimes they’re praised,” Vaughters says. “There’s never an in-between.”
Take, for instance, the issue of doping. A staunch anti-doping advocate, Vaughters founded the Garmin squad with the intent of maintaining a proudly “clean team” in a sport where the use of performance-enhancing drugs seems to monopolize the headlines. “We’re trying to change the whole face of the sport,” Vaughters said. “Part of our strategy back when we started was that we weren’t going to be quiet about it.”
Doping has been around in professional cycling nearly since bikers took to two wheels. In early editions of the Tour de France, riders used cocktails of caffeine and strychnine, and then in the 1940s amphetamine use appeared. When questioned if he used drugs, the legendary Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi once said he used them only when necessary, adding that it was almost always necessary.
The modern anti-doping movement picked up steam after the death of British cyclist Tom Simpson on the slopes of the famed Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. “I think there was already a doping culture, going back to when it wasn’t banned,” said Shane Stokes, a writer for VeloNation.com. “The problem is that many of those running teams are former professionals, and what is permissible in one generation is essentially being passed on.”
That attitude prevailed until the late 1990s, when the sport was rocked by a number of scandals that still threaten to derail its credibility. First came the Festina Affair, a large-scale doping investigation that began during the 1998 Tour de France, and then, in 2006, a Spanish investigation dubbed Operación Puerto.
Vaughters joined the pro cycling ranks as the scandals took center stage. He turned pro in 1994 as part of the new, post–Greg LeMond generation of American cyclists that included George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton and a certain guy named Armstrong. A hill-climbing specialist, Vaughters took a number of stage wins during his career at France’s prestigious Dauphiné Libéré race and claimed the 1997 U.S. National Time Trial Championship, but he didn’t really have a racer’s mindset. “We would go to some exotic place to do a race, and I’d want to go see the museums. But you can’t do that.”
He retired in 2003 but didn’t stray far from the sport. Spotting a subtle shift toward a cleaner, more natural way of doing things, he formed the Garmin team. “For the first time in professional sports, and certainly professional cycling, it looked like the right time for someone to come in and basically create an extremely transparent organization with a lot of preventative measures,” Vaughters says.
Nowadays, with his thick-framed glasses and a style that’s more Soho than spandex, Vaughters heads one of cycling’s biggest teams, and while they haven’t yet won a Tour de France (they finished fourth in 2008 and 2009), they’ve tested clean consistently. These results haven’t protected Vaughters from criticism, though.
“He has been praised for his actions by both fans and journalists. But I don’t buy it,” said Edward Pickering in CycleSport. “Garmin’s problem is that they are no longer the transparent organization that they were.”
Critics have also latched on to Vaughters’ reluctance to open up about his own past. While pushing for a cleaner sport, he has danced around the topic of doping during his career.
He seems more concerned about moving ahead with his team and letting the past be the past. “I have no qualms about the past I’ve lived through or the decisions I’ve made and decisions I haven’t made. End of the day, creating a big storm around my past … is totally counterproductive,” he says. “It’s an utter waste of time.”
His critics are far from Vaughters’ mind as Van Summeren rockets out of Carrefour de l’Arbre alone. The lanky Belgian pushes a relentless pace into town before soloing into a packed Roubaix velodrome to take the biggest victory of his and Garmin’s career. For Vaughters, today at least the critics are silent.
Former Hemispheres intern ANDREW O’REILLY, who has never raced professionally, swears that he would test consistently clean.