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Jonathan Vaughters: 'They were laughing at the guys that weren’t doping'

Joseph Delves
2 Jul 2019

Jonathan Vaughters has got a new book out so we caught up with him to talk cycling - past and present. Photo: Education First

Jonathan Vaughters - manager of WorldTour team Education First, former pro and sometime teammate of Lance Armstrong - has a new book out. We caught up with him to talk alternative racing, social media, small-team finances, doping culture and whether you can ever replace Armstrong.

Cyclist: Are there any revelations in your book you think followers of cycling will be shocked by?

Jonathan Vaughters: There’s no big reveal. The scandalous stuff is all already out there. Instead, it puts into context the thirty years I’ve been involved in bike racing. I think it pulls together a lot of things.

Cyc: What was the most difficult bit to write?

JV: The stuff to do with my personal life was difficult. The doping stuff was hard only in the sense I’ve talked about it so much over the past years that it’s almost tedious having to go through it all again.

Cyc: How much mental pre-editing did you do, or is absolutely everything in there?

JV: It’s a very detailed and transparent book. I sent a sample chapter to the journalist Paul Kimmage, and he wrote back saying ‘it’s too polished, just tell it as the story happened’. I tried to live by that advice. Hopefully, I’ll meet his standard.

Cyc: You rode through doping’s peak era and now manage a team. How can you be sure that cycling is cleaner now?

JV: There’s a lot of evidence, but it’s all evidence that can also be shot down. Over the past decade, from a behind-closed-doors perspective, I’ve witnessed riders that were absolutely clean win some of the biggest races. These are riders where I’ve had complete transparency regarding their medical records, and I’ve known about their personal lives. In 1996 I was behind the scenes, and I saw that to win clean was totally impossible.

That’s not to say it’s perfect now, but it is possible to win the biggest races clean. With regards to anti-doping, out in the social media sphere, people want blood, they want names, they want people taken down. It’s understandable, but that’s not the fundamental purpose of anti-doping. Its purpose is to protect the rights of clean athletes and protect the health of all athletes.

From that perspective, I think anti-doping is working. Can you still dope and not get caught by the biological passport? Yes. Can you still dope enough that it makes a large enough biological difference to impact the race profoundly and not get caught? I think the answer to that is no. It’s pulling in the net tighter.

Also, I’ve seen riders who are now 10 years into their careers and have never encountered doping. It’s not that they’ve chosen not to dope, it’s that it’s never been presented to them.

Cyc: There’s a quote from Lance Armstrong on the back of your book. When do you think he’ll stop being the public’s idea of the archetypal cyclist? And what will it take to replace him?

JV: Quite a bit. Because it was never about Lance the cyclist. It was about Lance the cancer patient. That story made him relatable. Most people somewhere among their family or friends will have encountered someone affected by cancer. It impacts everyone in some way or another.

Lance’s story was about conquering a disease and then living out his dream to win the Tour de France. To replicate that, I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it’s very very difficult. So the answer to your question is I have no idea.

Cyc: Given all the tricks you got up to, can you be 100% certain that your own team is clean?

JV: First off, it wasn’t just me doing those tricks. There was the doctor hired by the team showing me how. It was an all-encompassing effort, including the riders, the doctors, the soigneurs, the managers. That's what it takes if you want to truly evade testing. You can’t do it entirely by yourself.

Sure, one of my riders could be off in a corner doping. It’s entirely possible. I can only say I don’t think that’s the case. Why? It’s based on a myriad of things. I can dig through their medical records and see what their blood values look like. But even more importantly in the 1990s doping was encouraged. Not just by managers or doctors, but among the riders themselves.

They were laughing at the guys that weren’t doing it. Riders on other teams would say to me ‘you’re getting your ass kicked. Come on man, get with the programme’. And you think why are they encouraging this? If I start doping, surely then I might beat them. It makes no sense.

I think fundamentally those doping were encouraging everyone else so they didn’t have to feel bad about themselves. Now the culture is the total opposite. Riders realise someone doping could potentially end the team or their career. The consequences are so grave, the riders have become self-policing.

Cyc: How do you stop teams with the biggest budgets dominating the sport?

JV: There has to be some sort of agreement on a budget limit. You could then buy a bunch of expensive riders and cut all the other costs. Or invest in an expensive sports science team and buy less expensive riders. Or buy one expensive rider, or whatever. That’s gamesmanship.

Then all of a sudden we’d be playing on a level field. It’s like in chess; you don’t play with one side having four rooks and three queens. Of course, the person with three queens is going to win. We need to get back to cycling being a sport and not a financial race.

Cyc: At Garmin, you had a potential GC winner in the form of Bradley Wiggins. Is it ever possible for smaller teams to hold onto their stars?

JV: Not really. EU law is pretty clear. You can’t prevent someone from earning what the market determines they’re worth. Regardless of contract, it is what it is.

Cyc: What does a result like Alberto Bettiol’s win at the Tour of Flanders mean for a mid-sized team like EF in terms of its finances?

JV: We’re in the best place we’ve been in financially for quite some time thanks to a very stable sponsor. They’re not going to spend Ineos-type money, but they support us in ways we’ve never been supported before.

Bettiol winning was great, but Flanders is a race for cycling fans. It’s the coolest race of the year. But from a standpoint of attracting sponsors, it’s really all about the Tour de France.

Cyc: How do you go about attracting riders? For instance, Hugh Carthy has spoken about always wanting to ride for you.

JV: For us, it’s about looking for the Bettiols and the Carthys. The not-so-obvious talents and bringing them along. Deceuninck-QuickStep is also good at this. Finding underappreciated talent and then pulling it to the front. That’s the key to running a team that doesn’t have the budget of Ineos.

But eventually, you have to be able to follow them. Both Bettiol and Carthy are going to be more expensive riders next year. So you have to bring the budget up too. If you’re just discovering talent, but you can’t follow them through their career, then they’ll just go off to another team.

Cyc: With Ineos getting involved in the sport, is it important to have an ethical headline sponsor?

JV: That's a broader question for the sport. It's not just Ineos. Bahrain doesn’t have a great human rights record. Where cycling is today, it’s not really a mainstream enough sport, and it's still digging itself out of some crappy image issues. That's holding back more global and ethically responsible companies from coming in.

What’s coming in instead are brands that are a little bit scrappier, that are maybe not viewed so positively. Bahrain being an example, it's those that are trying to rebuild or change their image. For the next few years, it’ll be brands looking to polish themselves and not necessarily the companies we might all want to see.

Cyc: Lachlan Morton has been hacking across Britain in EF colours, sleeping in ditches. What is the thinking behind the 'alternative calendar'?

JV: The first experiment was with Joe Dombrowski racing the Leadville 100 in 2016. I’d seen the Ironman Triathalon sell to Wanda for $650 million. I thought there’s no bike race in the world that would sell for that, what are we doing wrong here? As an event Ironman doesn’t have huge crowds or TV coverage. But what they do have is all these people who’ve signed up and can say I’ve done an Ironman, and it’s the same Ironman that was raced by the greatest Ironman athletes in the world.

It hit home when I was having dinner with my former brother-in-law and his father. He’d just done one, and his dad said ‘I’m really proud, my son over here’s done an Ironman, and my son-in-law has ridden the Tour de France’. I was like; ‘hold up. That’s not the same, he did a fourteen-hour Ironman, I was ranked top-20 in the world! It’s not at all the same thing’.

But to my father-in-law, it was the same thing, as it is to 98% of the population. The way Ironman creates its value is the same way the London Marathon does. That the people running a four-hour marathon are competing with the same people who run it in two hours. There are no amateurs finishing the Tour de France. It’s like saying, ‘this is pro cycling, everyone else, get the hell away’. The idea was to start doing races that are accessible to the public.

Cyc: What do the riders think of it? Do they volunteer or are they selected to do these events? Do you say ‘if you don’t make the time cut on today’s stage, you’ll be riding Land's End to John o'Groats next week'?

JV: No, the riders want to do them. Before we signed the contract for Lachlan to come back to the team, it was mentioned as something he wanted. The same with Alex Howes and the Dirty Kanza. The riders doing the alternative calendar, that’s their option.

Cyc: Can you see other teams copying the idea?

JV: Looking at our website traffic, Lachlan doing the GBduro had a lot more impact than Tejay getting second place at the Dauphine, which was a hell of a lot harder to achieve. For sure other teams will follow. It’s where the pot of gold is.

Cyc: Has social media changed the landscape to the point where riders with big followings are more valuable than riders who win races?

JV: It’s already important enough to be part of the equation determining a rider’s value. My philosophy is that it’s easier to get someone better at social media than it is to get them to ride 50 watts faster. I think our team is a good balance of talent and character.

It’s already having a big impact on how we choose riders. It’s harder now to be a really good rider who has a boring social media personality. You’d be amazed at the value sponsors place on it. You can achieve value for sponsors through personality or results. But the best thing is to do it through both.