Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Jonathan Vaughters Interview, Part I

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


Steve Dennis said...

Great Interview.
It's great to have such a fan accessible team in the sport.

Jonathan Wallis said...

yep great interview.

Could anybody explain why doing that four hour ride on the second rest day might have given Cristian V. that extra edge. I would have followed the riders logic and thought that a rest would have been more beneficial.Im sure it makes sense to those of you more in the know and thats why I would like to find out

Padraig said...

JW: Vaughters talked about how a rest day following day after day of hard racing can leave your legs feeling "blocked up." He was talking soooo fast, I couldn't really get that stuff down. (Sorry, I haven't found a good way to record my cell phone yet.) I've heard other riders speak of that same sort of thing--Stephen Rooks talked about how the second rest day in the '89 Tour fell on a bad day for him and Theunisse. It really messed up their rhythm.

Inasmuch as I understand it, I'd liken it to a loss of momentum. For a Grand Tour rider, you need the body to take day after 5-hour day in stride and a 1.5-hour day is like hitting the brakes.

I've spoken to a number of team managers over the years. Vaughters is easily the smartest of the bunch. He's also the most alert and wary. The directors who were most confident (and sometimes arrogant) were not nearly as sharp. Bruyneel was so tight lipped it was hard to tell just what he really knows.