In Part III of our interview with Jonathan Vaughters we talk with him about his relationship with sponsors, equipment choice, his taste in wine and why he’s the star of the show with his team.
BKW: The team is continuing to work with Felt, Shimano, Zipp and CycleOps for the ’09 season. We’ve heard that you’ve been pushing your equipment sponsors to reduce the weight of their products even further. Given that your riders are on 900g frames with full Dura-Ace, aren’t your bikes already at the UCI-mandated weight limit?
JV: Once you get to the weight limit, then you are dealing with the handling and aerodynamics. The Cyclops adds an informational aspect.
I’d say most of our sponsors don’t like us much as a team. We don’t just say, ‘Thanks for the check, see you next year.’ We press, squeeze, complain and suggest. They’ll get real feedback about their product. Fact is, we’re a pain in the ass. The riders know to give honest feedback.
Our sponsors, we hurt their feelings, but at the end of the day the products supplied to this team are going to be empirically better than what other teams are being supplied. I need everyone to believe we are pushing as hard as possible to give our riders and sponsors the belief that we are doing everything ethically possible to win. We are maximizing every opportunity to give these riders the resources to win races while riding clean. We’ve left no stone unturned.
The implicit message and the explicit message have to absolutely match. This is an anti-doping team. We’re going to do X,Y and Z to prepare to win this race. When this race comes we’re going to go out there and and do our best to win. But it’s bike racing, so we can’t ensure a win. We can’t guarantee a perfect race, so we do the next best thing: Perfection in the process. You do what you can to win but you don’t do anything over the line.
Felt’s AR road bike (courtesy Felt Bicycles)
BKW: Will each rider have either an F or Z series road bike, an AR aero road bike and a DA time trial bike?
JV: That’s it exactly. Every rider gets a choice of Felt’s F or Z frame. And then every rider gets an AR aero road bike and a DA for the time trials.
BKW: Who decides, and under what conditions do you decide when to ride the aero frame rather than a standard road frame?
JV: It’s up to the rider. I’ll make recommendations. With the AR, it’s a little heavier but not much. It’s got more stiffness vertically than laterally. You’re not going to get the best traction on bumpy corners. It’s ideal for less hilly courses on smoother roads. If I were a racer in the US, that’s all I’d use. You rarely have a course hilly enough or bumpy enough to call for the other frame.
BKW: I noticed from some photos you seem to have a taste for Chateauneuf du Pape and wines of the Southern Rhone. What are some of your other favorite wine regions?
JV: My favorite Chateauneuf du Papes are from Chateau Rayas. They do an excellent vin de pays, Domaine des Tour. It’s the perfect $20 bottle for pizza.
I like Burgundies; I’m less versed in Burgundy, though. My tastes tend to go toward the more feminine, elegant, earth-driven wines. I’m not really into the big blockbusters. I’m not that big on Napa Cabs. There is a vintner is Ventura County of all places, Sine Qua Non, I really love what they do. A very detail-oriented approach to their winemaking. I tend to go for more the traditional, more biodynamic. Rayas is biodynamic.
One of the things I enjoy is how you learn to enjoy the differences between the different wines rather than the qualities of the wines themselves.
I won’t drink wine just to drink it. I want to have something I’ll enjoy. I’ll try anything though. I ordered a bottle of wine one night with the team and it wasn’t very good. The guys were like, ‘See you don’t know anything about wine!’ And I said, ‘Hey, I just ordered it off the menu.’ It’s fun to branch out.
BKW: Given how busy you are with the team, how much do you still get to ride?
JV: I don’t ride if it’s cold. I haven’t done a ride over four hours in eight months. An hour, hour and a half three to four times a week. I’m doing a lot of skiing with my son Charlie. I like Vail, Winterpark, I’ll go anywhere. I really like Telluride and Aspen, but they make a weekend trip a little pricey. I got to ski a bunch in St. Moritz last year. Any time I went to Milan, like when I went over for the presentation of the Giro route, I’d schedule an extra day and take the train up to St. Moritz. It was fantastic skiing.
BKW: More than any of your riders, you are the public face for Team Garmin/Slipstream; why do you suppose that is?
JV: I mean, for the time being, yes, yes I am. But the symbol that I’ve succeeded will be when that’s no longer true. Hopefully, Christian blows me out of the water as the team figurehead. Once that happens I can say, ‘Now I know I’ve done my job right.’
BKW: Any final thoughts?
JV: You’ve covered everything in my brain.
Images courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
In Part II of our interview with Jonathan Vaughters we discuss the team’s objectives for 2009, leadership at the Grand Tours and the enigma known as Tom Danielson.
BKW: What are the team’s biggest objectives for 2009?
JV: It sounds overly optimistic, but our effort with the riders and staff is to win the Tour de France. We realize that is a dark horse scenario. The point is we see it’s a possibility. Contador is the best stage racer in the world right now. For us to go head-to-head with him, we have to create enough of an advantage in the two time trials where Christian has a large advantage and then limit losses, limit losses. Contador is hard. Schleck is hard. We have a great TTT squad.
If Christian were to win the Tour de France, it wouldn’t be a specatuclar win, lots of steady Eddie, lots of 4ths and 5ths on mountain stages. Contador can make extremely violent accelerations on climbs. Christian can’t match those, but he can maintain a very high, very steady pace. He just has to ride his own pace.
BKW: Team Garmin/Slipstream is going to face increased competition at the ’09 Tour de France with the presence of both Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, not to mention Levi Leipheimer. What will you do differently from ’08 in your quest to put Christian Vande Velde in the yellow jersey?
JV: It seems like everyone is changing to our program. They are all shifting to doing the Giro before the Tour. I don’t think with Christian we’re going to change a whole lot. He’s going to the Giro but more importantly, he has a greater sense of confidence about his ability and he’s at a higher level of fitness.
We can do the Dauphine and Tour de Suisse with other riders. Dan Martin and David Millar can do a more traditional run-up to the Tour. We’d really like to win the team time trial. We’d also like to have a climber up there with Christian in the mountains. And we might take some guys that people might not expect. Svein Tuft, because of his time trialing ability, could end up at the Tour.
BKW: Now that the team is in the ProTour, you’re going to field teams at each of the three Grand Tours. If Vande Velde will be the team’s leader at the Tour, who are your likely leaders for the Giro and the Vuelta?
JV: It goes back to our base of where we can win. The Giro starts with a TTT and we want to get the pink jersey and defend it a little longer. Christian could lead at the Giro.
The Vuelta: David Millar really wants to go there. He wants a chance to repeat some of the stage wins he’s had at the Vuelta in the past. He’s doing the Tour/Vuelta double and skipping the Giro. We’ll be trying out some of our new climbers—stars of the future—at the Vuelta.
BKW: Let’s talk about Tom Danielson. He’s a rider who has possessed immense potential, and while he was able to win nearly anything here in America, he hasn’t enjoyed any significant success in Europe. Factoring out injuries and illness, it seems he should have been able to achieve more than his resume shows. Why is that?
JV: I think Tom is a little bit of a victim of his own expectations and the expectations of his fans and the press. He immediately started winning shorter stage races in the US. In bigger, faster-moving pelotons he’s had a lot of trouble.
Tom’s a pretty high-strung person. He wants to win for himself but he also wants to win to meet the expectations of others. He is a people pleaser, and it quickly spirals down when he doesn’t feel like he’s pleasing others. He began wondering why he was racing a bike. I had to wait until he hit bottom before we could rebuild him as a bike racer.
He has a very unique physiology. He says he’s 15% Eskimo. We’ve done tests and he does not utilize fat very well. He was burning sugar almost exclusively. When you burn sugar you become more acidic and after three and a half, four hours, he really couldn’t perform at the same level as he did one hour in. He couldn’t do anything at the end of a six hour race.
So I said, ‘We gotta teach you to burn fat as fuel. How well do you produce power after six hours and three or four 20-30 minute efforts?’
Tom had to work on his ability to burn fat. We completely changed his diet. We moved him away from the standard carbohydrates. He was eating a lot of nuts, a lot of protein and guacamole. For the first two months he was bonking on every ride. He was cursing me on every ride. Now he’s up to six hour rides not finishing all the Clif bars in his pockets.
He’s really professional, and he has really put his heart in it. He can be a really good, solid, quality bike rider and have success on this team. I think it really showed at the Tour of Missouri. There was a stage in which he was the last guy with Christian and was really able to keep it together for him. He’s turned his attitude around.
End Part II
Images courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
Most teams have managers, leaders, directors but almost never is the driving force behind a racing program called the mastermind. Jonathan Vaughters is that rare guy to whom that moniker is frequently attached. It denotes a deliberate nature and a degree of planning that seemingly leaves nothing to chance. His big picture view of cycling, the doping problem, how the elements of a team come together to cultivate success or destroy morale is on its way to becoming legendary.
He is a man with a finely honed sensibility about all he comes in contact with. Rather than relying on rules and regulations to inform his actions his ethical standards which are guided by his own internal moral compass have helped breathe new life into the pro peloton and riders—both neo and veterans—are turning to him in the hopes that his management might give the sport a new lease.
The fast-talking Denver native took some time to talk with BKW prior to a team training camp. This is the first of a three-part interview.
BKW: You’ve been quoted saying that your team should have tried to win more last year. How did the team perform relative to your expectations?
JV: Well that wasn’t quite what I said. My meaning was that there were a lot of races where the only thing that stopped us from winning the race was we were so happy being there that we didn’t really take the initiative to try to win. Take Roubaix, Martijn was at the back of the group of seven when Boonen, Cancellara and Ballan broke away. When I asked him about why he didn’t go with them—not that he did anything wrong per se—he said, ‘I thought I was tired and didn’t think I could.’ But 10k later he was strong enough to drop his group. Who knows what would have happened if he’d had a little more confidence.
The bigger example is the second rest day of the Tour de France, I recommended a four hour training ride. Christian said, ‘I don’t want to ride that much. Tomorrow’s a big mountain stage.’ He wasn’t confident to do a four hour training ride and be fresh for the next day. But that little bit, that extra sharpness in the legs is that last 3% that makes the difference in being with the leaders on the stage. The next day was the stage over the Bonette, when he got dropped. If you subtract that stage out of the Tour de France … run the math backward and he could very well have won the Tour de France. As a team leader that last 3% makes all the difference.
So in the final analysis, we lacked a little bit of confidence. We overlooked the opportunity to win. We went into the season with expectations of a fair-to-middlin’ team and didn’t think we’d be one of the better teams. I think now, if you look at the last half of the year the team was one that could go and take charge of a race and get the win. Before, there were a lot of opportunities where we just didn’t know how to win.
BKW: Obviously Saxo Bank, Astana and Columbia have undertaken anti-doping efforts similar to Team Garmin/Slipstream, but there are many teams that haven’t undertaken the same degree of effort to ensure their riders are clean. Did the positives of Kohl and Schumacher at Gerolsteiner surprise you?
JV: Surprised of course, shocked no. When you institute new tests you are going to snag guys in that snare. I know Hans Michael Holczer and think he has a strong anti-doping ethos, but I was surprised when he criticized our and other teams’ internal screening efforts. All of these screening programs are instituted because we have the financial ability to do something a sanctioning body can’t do. There is no choice here; this has to be done now or the sport will die.
We, as teams, can move much faster than a governing body to implement new solutions to try and ensure clean racing. At the end of the day the success of our team and Columbia shows this sport, as a whole, is much cleaner. It’s a slow shift in the mentality of the riders and managers, but I think that shift has been made. The old mentality of, ‘You can’t succeed without doping’—that environment has passed. Columbia certainly made their mark all year.
Compared to how much the public and press knew about doping in the ’90s, the situation is quite different now. Back then much less was publicly known. Now the public and the press overestimate how much doping is going on, so I think the situation has reversed itself to a great degree. Maybe in a year or two the perception on the part of the public and press will be more in line with how much doping there actually is in the sport.
BKW: Do you think other teams will take up your approach this year?
JV: Cofidis has some sort of program in place and Fuji Servetto wants to have some sort of system in place and Liquigas is doing something and Basso has some individual program of his own.
It doesn’t matter why a team is doing it. End of the day if they’re screening, it’s a good faith effort. The motivation ‘why’ isn’t important. If they’re doing it and it’s working and it’s making the sport cleaner, then it’s good.
BKW: Do you think it will be enough for teams to rely on the biological passport system?
JV: Yeah, I think it will be. What people don’t understand is the biological passport system has come under criticism prematurely. It takes time to generate all the data necessary for a full blood profile. We’re still in the relatively early stages of gathering that data on many riders. Internal independent systems are meant as a way to bridge the gap to the day when the passport will be all we need.
But we definitely need the UCI and WADA and USADA. I can’t, as an employer, suspend my rider for two years. As far as my rights go is to bench a rider temporarily if I think something is off. For this to work, the UCI needs more information and tighter margins of error. At that point, they’ll be able to focus on the athletes delivering abnormal results. By 2010 the internal systems may be obsolete. Do I worry about other teams that aren’t doing the testing we are? No. I can see these other systems like Catlin’s and Damsgaard’s folding into the passport system and them and their services becoming contractors to it. The passport system needed a little more time to operate before criticism began. I’m confident it will work.
BKW: During your career your great successes came as a climber and time trialist. Team Garmin/Slipstream is composed primarily of climbers and time trialists. Is it fair to say that the team is made in your own image?
JV: Honestly, climbing as a little bit of our weakness. With sprinting I see Cavendish and Benatti as such dominant sprinters and so dominant that spending the money on a sprinter might not be worth it. Now we do have guys like Julian, who can get over some of the climbs that other sprinters can’t handle with the lead group, but he’s a strong all-around rider. Our sprinters like Julian, Sutton and Farrar are multitalented riders. I think in the next year Tyler Farrar could become one of the best prologue riders in the world.
I saw time trialing as an area where we could win. We’re more creative and more driven to eke out the last few seconds’ advantage. We can push the wind tunnel testing, our equipment sponsors, our training thanks to Allen Lim to get the most out of that kind of racing. Where we’re suited best and the strengths of our sponsors, is in time trialing.
With climbing, Contador and Sastre are extremely expensive; we couldn’t afford them, so I went to young unproven guys like Dan Martin to develop them and hopefully keep them as they develop, when I have the money in the bank account. Climbing is our long-term game.
End Part I
Images courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
In February of 1998 I drove to Ramona, California, the home of the famed Eddie B. and the location of the spring training camp for the wet-behind-the-ears U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team. Two years in and they were still finding their way in leadership and management. I was down to interview the team’s new signing, a hopefully renewed Lance Armstrong. My instructions were to interview Armstrong and during the interim while I was waiting to get time with him I was to interview any other Americans capable of delivering the goods in Europe.
I got an hour with Armstrong, one-on-one, but while I was waiting for that, I spent nearly two hours with Jonathan Vaughters and his roommate, this kid, a prodigy barely out of the junior ranks and Project 96. He was the son of a former Olympian and I was being told he was, with one possible exception, the next big thing.
Christian Vande Velde struck me as goofy, dislocated and awe-struck. I’d been steered to interviewing him by Dan Osipow of the team’s management. Osipow told me they were expecting big things from the rangy kid.
Vaughters and I had had a rocky first meeting. In an interview during the team presentation for Comptel/Colorado Cyclist (John Wordin’s first imploded team), I’d asked about racing tactics and how he might handle tactical mistakes. When I gave examples I’d seen in collegiate racing his response was laced with a tone of seething indignation. It was rather reinforced by his unequivocal, “This is pro racing, not college.” Oops, my bad.
So when I was unsuccessful at hiding my skepticism that this goofy kid whose suitcase was more yard sale than traveling tool, Vaughters immediately stepped in with a litany of notable pursuiters and team pursuiters who had gone on to stage racing greatness. He began with Viatcheslav Ekimov and threw in Eddy Merckx just for good measure.
What transpired in the next moment was a bit much to handle. I realized that:
1) Vaughters was a man of strongly held beliefs.
2) He was a smart guy.
3) He believed in Vande Velde’s potential more than team management did.
4) Vande Velde had the gee-whiz air of a kid told he’s the second coming.
To be fair, the poor guy couldn’t have been more disoriented. As part of Project 96 he hadn’t done massive mileage and his ’97 training schedule had been handed to him in a binder on January 1—for the entire year. Every day had been planned to a T, right down to the last BPM. Since joining Postal his direction had been to ride. Just ride lots and keep it easy. Truly, his training couldn’t have changed more. And given that Project 96 hadn’t really delivered a slew of medals for the U.S., his wonder was well-matched to my skepticism. The true believer, the skeptic and the kid—we were quite the trio.
So when Vaughters announced that he had signed Vande Velde to his team this winter, I was curious to see how it might play out. This spring I heard the first mentions of Vande Velde’s name in conjunction with Tour de France GC. And if you recall, for much of the world there was a collective gasp when Vaughters announced that Vande Velde would lead Garmin/Chipotle at the Tour.
Fifth place is, unfortunately, forgettable. Name one other fifth place performance in Tour de France GC that you can remember. We’ll remember this for no reason other than the fact that Vande Velde is American; it’s okay, we’re supposed to be jingoistic. It’s a very fine performance for an American. By cracking the top 10, Vande Velde can be counted as a peer to Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond, Levi Leipheimer, Bobby Julich, Andy Hampsten and Tyler Hamilton.
To the degree that you may be wondering how Vande Velde rode like a real contender in the mountains, consider the following: John Pierce said that when Vande Velde got to the Tour he had to, “Look twice. He has lost a tremendous amount of weight.” This is backed up by a contact at Pearl Izumi who said that each of the riders who went to the Tour had to have their clothing resized relative to what they were wearing at the Spring Classics. Pearl was so surprised by the changes and had so little time to deal with the resizing that rather than custom sizing all the clothing they had to go with their semi-custom sizing—six sizes, each in three lengths.
So fifth place is fourth among losers. Big deal, right? It is. Vaughters has been proven right on a few fronts. First, that he could field a team worthy of the Tour and not be an embarrassment. Second, he did it in as conspicuously clean a manner as has been done, proving you can race the Tour clean. And finally, he has proven a belief he has held for some 10 years, that Christian Vande Velde is the real deal. I’m almost happier for Vaughters than I am for his old roommate.
Photos courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International