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Jonathan Vaughters: ‘I’m not saying every big race is being won by a clean athlete but it’s certainly possible’

24 Jan 2020

Words James Witts Photography Geoff Waugh

‘There are more than 100 people in professional cycling who could do Dave Brailsford’s job and do it equally as well. If you can buy all the talent, the rest of it becomes an exercise in administration.’

Jonathan Vaughters seems tired. Stage 12 of this year’s Tour de France has not long finished in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, and Vaughters and Cyclist are at the team’s pitstop for the evening, Le Rex Hotel in Tarbes, southwest France.

The Colorado-born manager of the distinctively pink-clad EF Education First pro team has been on the publicity trail for his new autobiography, One Way Ticket: Nine Lives On Two Wheels.

We’ve discussed a number of topics during which he has been relaxed and eloquent, but when we get onto the subject of how professional cycling is financed, Vaughters’ mood darkens.

It’s a topic that concerns him so much that he wrote his final MBA thesis on the subject of budget caps. He often uses Ineos and their reported £35 million-plus annual outlay as an exemplar of inequality and unfairness.

In the past, Vaughters has managed his team on less than a third of that. Still, the Brailsford comments take us aback. Playing devil’s advocate, we counter that Pep Guardiola, while managing football teams with obscene money, is seen as an innovator who would improve any standard of player. Isn’t Brailsford? Vaughters doesn’t budge.

‘I’d say Jumbo-Visma are a far more dynamic and creative organisation. They’ve put together a great team on far fewer dollars. They’ve spotted and signed a host of up-and-coming talent – Primož Roglič for one. From my perspective, that’s far more admirable.’ 

Letting it all out

Right back to his time as a pro rider, Vaughters has always had something to say, so why has it taken him until now to write a book? ‘People have been bugging me to write a book since 2012 and the Armstrong USADA case,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to then because it’s essentially making money off someone else’s downfall. I thought maybe in a few years’ time. And now I have.’

Vaughters has recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome following the break-up of his second marriage. Asperger’s identifiers include above-average intelligence, intensity for specific subject matters and routines. All three melded on the keyboard for Vaughters.

‘I plugged away at the book for a while but once I got into September 2018 and the deadline was approaching, I became very consistent, writing 1,000 words a day. No more, no less, that was my limit.’

Several thousand of those words were reserved for the bitterness he felt at losing Bradley Wiggins to Team Sky and cynicism aimed at the British outfit’s high-profile zero-tolerance anti-doping policy. There’s no love lost.

‘Look at this year’s Tour. We lost one of our main men [Tejay van Garderen] to a crash, [Michael] Woodsy had a crash and we were unlucky to miss out on the crosswinds. We went two minutes too early. But people say Ineos make their own luck by riding at the front all the time.

‘OK, if you have eight well-paid riders who are all the cream of the crop, including a former World Champion in Kwiatkowski who’s a domestique, they’re able to do that through pure strength. Ineos can sit and burn matches like they’re going out of fashion. If we tried that, our team would fall apart.’

Vaughters feels Ineos’s takeover of Sky has twisted the fiscal knife further, potentially harming the sport. ‘When you have large dynasties, the overall market shrinks. That has been proven in American sport.

‘In 1994, American football introduced a salary cap; baseball didn’t. In the intervening years, the NFL blossomed while Major League Baseball has struggled. The winning organisation might attract large local support, but everywhere else the support falls off. Ultimately, that kills the iconic organisation.’

A fairer budget cap system would keep the sport more interesting, according to Vaughters, attracting new people to the sport, raising audiences and bringing in new global sponsors. It’s a romantic notion.

‘The 30,000-foot view would be that Brailsford should be really excited about budget caps. The 500-foot view would be, “No way, I want the biggest slice of cake.” He’s saying, “I don’t care how big it is, I want the biggest slice.”’

Come the end of this year’s Tour, of course, Ineos and Brailsford had eaten an entire Black Forest Gateau thanks to Egan Bernal’s victory, the team’s seventh Tour win  in eight years. EF Education First’s Rigoberto Uran couldn’t match his surprise second at the 2017 edition, still finishing a respectable seventh despite the team’s cascade of crashes.

Picking themselves off the tarmac

Regardless of the difficulties faced by the team at the Tour de France, EF Education First have had one of their best years to date. Sergio Higuita’s Stage 18 victory at the Vuelta a España was the 15th win of the season, nine more than in the whole of 2018, with the highlight of the year coming on a grey Sunday in April when Alberto Bettiol escaped the lead group on the final climb of the Kwaremont to solo to victory at the Tour of Flanders.

‘It was a wonderful result for Alberto and the team, and it means we’ve now won four out of the five Monuments. Only Milan-San Remo is missing from our palmarès.’

But not for long if, as Vaughters has already claimed about Ineos, money guarantees success. In 2017 Slipstream Sports, the company behind the Cannondale-Drapac team (as Vaughters’ team was known then), was on the verge of collapse before last-minute salvation from international education company EF Education First.

Swedish-founded but based in Switzerland, EF has carved a profitable niche by hosting courses based in the country of the language a person is trying to learn. The global nature of pro cycling appealed. EF now owns the team, remedying the financial situation and Vaughters’ health.

‘The whole process has had an incredibly negative effect on me, and my family, and I just became unwilling to ever have to be that far down a hole in my personal life,’ Vaughters told Cycling Tips at the time. ‘I was basically depressed for over a year. Depressed in a sense that I was thinking about one thing and one thing only. It was myopic.’

In the foyer of Le Rex hotel, Vaughters is more relaxed, a glass of rosé in one hand. Stability in an unstable sport has been core to Ineos’s success, and Vaughters is confident it will lay the foundation for completing that Monument full house, and possibly even a win at a Grand Tour.

‘For the first time in my managerial career, instead of thinking how can I make payroll next month or next year, I’ve been given the liberty to think how can I win the Tour five years from now? I’ve never thought about that before. It’s always been, “Can we make it to next year?”’

The Alternative Calendar

They can. And while a 2020 Tour victory isn’t a target, growing the team’s fan base is, with diversity at the heart of that expansion. This season, EF Education First pioneered the Alternative Calendar, ‘complementing’ the January-to-October WorldTour toil with mountain bike races, cyclocross events and week-long ultras. Why?

‘Professional road cycling has sadly made itself more exclusive instead of inclusive,’ says Vaughters. ‘We keep the masses back instead of letting them in. When you go to the Tour you sit at the side of the road and, well, do very little. By going to these other races, our riders are rubbing shoulders with recreational riders, and that’s important because recreational riding has never been so popular. Take gran fondo events. They’re sold out months in advance. It’s all about connecting with a new audience.’

The Alternative Calendar has seen the team do battle with Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel-fest in Kansas, USA, as well as other American epics such as the Leadville Trail 100 and the 225-mile Crusher in Michigan.

Meanwhile, in this country EF Education First’s Lachlan Morton battled the GBDuro, a 2,000km mostly off-road ride between Land’s End and John O’Groats. ‘It’s a crazy challenge,’ says Vaughters. ‘He slept in a ditch. Why would you do that?’

For the publicity, of course. EF has documented each of these rides with 30-minute videos that are a stylish mix of rider monologues, interviews with locals and dramatic footage capturing streaks of pink churning up dusty backdrops. The Dirty Kanza video has had nearly 240,000 views, compared to 82,000 views for Belliol’s Flanders victory.

It seems Vaughters is right – there’s a worrying disconnect between professional and recreational road cycling, and he is not afraid to suggest the time is right for cycling to rethink the unimaginative format of racing.

‘Yes, there are some great events that I wouldn’t mess with, like Flanders and Roubaix. They have history; they’re unique. But the UCI gets caught up on this idea of trying to create the Tour de France in Siberia or wherever. There are few fans, the streets are empty and they don’t work.’

Vaughters should know; he has seen pro racing from the inside. He raced between 1994 and 2003, his high point coming when he won the Tour precursor, the Route du Sud, in 1999. That was his second and final season at US Postal, where his job was to support Lance Armstrong in his pursuit of a first Tour de France victory.

It was a period when doping was rife, and Vaughters has admitted his part in the scandal. Since then, in the 16 years he has been in management, he has been vocal about anti-doping, and nothing hollered louder than his part in USADA’s 2012 case against Lance Armstrong. Vaughters’ affidavit is online and makes fascinating – nay, disturbing – reading that can be broadly broken down into three areas…

The confession: ‘I first used EPO on the Porcelana Santa Clara team [1994-1996]’… ‘I used 1,000 international units three times a week’… ‘At US Postal I might receive a bottle that would say “Jonathan – 5x2”, meaning that the bottle held five vials of EPO containing 2,000 units each.’

The UCI: ‘One morning [at the Worlds], a UCI drug tester showed up to test us and began to set up a common area. At this point, Dr Celaya went out to the car and retrieved a litre of saline under his raincoat, walked right past the UCI tester and went into Lance’s room… Later, Dr Celaya and I had a good laugh about how he’d been able to smuggle in saline under the UCI inspector’s nose.’

And Armstrong: ‘After giving himself the injection, Lance said words to the effect of, “Now that you’re doing EPO too, you can go write a book about it. From that point on, while I was on the US Postal Service team, Lance was open with me about his use of EPO.’

Vaughters also testified that Lance’s codename for any EPO at home was ‘butter’; elaborated on his bullying of fellow pro Christophe Bassons, who spoke out about doping at the time; and that he remained friends with Lance after Vaughters left the US Postal team.

‘We’re not now. I haven’t spoken to him in years,’ he says.

A cleaner sport

That was then. Now Vaughters insists pro cycling is a different sport. ‘Can you have a successful career now without doping? Yes, definitely. Could you in the late 90s? Not even close. Laughably not. Absolutely no way. If you were the most genetically gifted dude in the world it didn’t matter.

‘At that stage, the amount of EPO being used and the inefficacy of the anti-doping test meant that the advantages were so large it would overcome any genetic disadvantage, any talent, any training.

‘Anti-doping efforts have improved a hell of a lot. There will still be riders – and there still are riders – who cheat, and I know a lot of fans want perfection, a 100% guarantee of clean. But it’s like saying you can 100% guarantee no one in the world is cheating on their taxes.

‘For me the bar of anti-doping is two-fold. The first: do I feel it’s protecting athletes’ health? Absolutely. Let’s say doping volume was this big in 1996 [Vaughters stretches his arms outwards], with the biological blood passport the potential is more like this big [a narrow gap between thumb and forefinger]. If you cheat, you won’t kill yourself.

‘Do I think the rights of clean athletes are being protected? In other words, can a clean rider win the biggest race in the world? Yes. I’m not saying every big race is being won by a clean athlete but it’s certainly possible. And I think it happens more often than not.’

Cyclist suggests that while the biological passport has clearly improved the situation, cheating is still cheating. Where are the new tests to bolster anti-doping efforts? We’re aware of myriad tests in development – genetic tests for EPO, a power passport to identify outliers over time, even lie-detecting tests that measure ocular (eye) changes – but they’re not close to being rolled out.

‘I don’t know about ocular testing but, if people are serious about anti-doping, we need more funding. Each WorldTour team spends a flat €160,000 on anti-doping. That’s not enough. It should be a million at least, or 5% of a team’s annual budget.

‘On the positive side, at least cycling is serious about catching the cheats. Some sports – football, tennis – their efforts are a token gesture. It’s hard to deal with because our sport is constantly getting it on the chin from the media, but at least it isn’t a bullshit facade.’

Vaughters is a pragmatist. He’s also a romantic. He’d have suggested that 5% outlay 18 months ago, despite the very real threat of folding. Then, his team couldn’t afford it. Now they can.

They can also look forward to a bright future. They’ve recruited smartly for 2020, the likes of Lotto-Soudal’s Jens Keukeleire adding firepower to their spring Classics campaign and Astana’s Magnus Cort adding much-needed sprint speed. They might lack the resources to match the likes of Ineos at the Tour, but with Vaughters at the helm they’ll never go down quietly.