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An interview with Jonathan Vaughters, November 28, 2006

A change of mentality

"I have never met one professional cyclist that wanted to dope... at least at the start of their careers," says retired pro rider and now team owner, Jonathan Vaughters, in this interview with Cyclingnews' Gerard Knapp.

TIAA-CREF manager Jonathan Vaughters: (2nd from R) "I push to the edge, but not over."
Photo ©: Beth Seliga
(Click for larger image)

Last month, outspoken former American pro cyclist, Jonathan Vaughters, saw what he thought was a private instant messaging (IM) exchange with his former team-mate, Frankie Andreu, splashed all over that French newspaper, L'Equipe, and then re-translated back into English on Cyclingnews.

It wasn't exactly what he had in mind when they discussed the (not exactly) good old days. The IM conversation took place following the conclusion of last year's Tour de France, where their more famous team-mate, Lance Armstrong, had just secured his seventh straight Tour de France victory.

The transcript was printed out and tendered as evidence by Mrs Betsy Andreu in a separate court action, a case that was eventually dismissed, in favour of Armstrong. However, the transcript of the IM discussion somehow - like many other sensitive documents - found its way to the offices of L'Equipe.

"If you say to an athlete, 'you must win today or else', the clever cyclist will make sure he wins, but the way it's done may not be so healthy for the sport or his body."

- Jon Vaughters says the "win at all costs" mentality is a driving force behind cycling's endemic doping problem

In it, the two riders described what is alleged to have been doping practices within the US Postal Service team in 1999, and how they felt they had been misled by the team's management and its senior rider, Armstrong. The exchange also implicated Floyd Landis, who supposedly has photographic evidence of practices that are alleged to involve doping.

There has been no subsequent legal action following the publication of the IM conversation. While Andreu took issue at a couple of minor double-translation inconsistencies, Vaughters was somewhat more benign. After initial concern at the publication, "Whatever" was about all he wanted to say on the exchange and its subsequent reaction.

And this is not because he is unconcerned about doping. Rather, he is tired of looking backwards and dredging up unsubstantiated hearsay. He is more focused on moving forward and trying to change the culture of winning at all costs that has taken hold not just in cycling, but almost all sport.

He wants to put something back into the sport, and has set up a development team known as TIAA-CREF* that, next year, will move into the ranks of being a Professional-Continental squad (the old Division 2).

In the firing line

Prior to the publication of their IM exchange, Andreu and another US Postal Service rider (believed to be Vaughters, though he denies it) had recently gone on the record to a New York Times reporter. In the interview, Andreu admitted he did use the blood booster EPO during the 1999 season, but stopped short of identifying who supplied the drugs. Also, the NYT article made no mention of the L'Equipe stories earlier this year about Armstrong's urine samples from the 1999 TdF that are alleged to have contained traces of EPO.

Andreu's interview was in stark contrast to a previous statement, where he had expressed considerable pride in the team's - and Armstrong's - first Tour de France victory in 1999. "Looking back on the five years I was with the US Postal Service I realize that I had some of the best races of my life on and off the bike," he wrote in a statement following the announcement of his departure from the US Postal Service team in December 2002.

Initially, Andreu was somewhat more direct when he learned he wouldn't get his old job back with the team in 2003. "This comes to me as a surprise and is a sad ending to a wonderful job," he said in a written statement. "I did receive an offer from the team to stay but felt the offer would not have allowed me to do the quality job that the USPS team deserved. I believe it would have sacrificed my self respect to hold onto to the position under the new terms."

This year, Andreu returned to the sport as DS of the US-based Toyota-United Pro Cycling team, which enjoyed considerable success in the US domestic circuit. But Andreu was then fired on July 27 for (apparently) not attending a minor stage race, the Tour de Nez, in New Mexico, which the team won.

On August 4 this year Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski reported: 'Andreu feels ... that the reasons were more than just his absence at the Tour de Nez. "I feel I was fired unjustly. I know they issued a statement saying I was released. Obviously I don't want people to think I did something wrong. I think it was extreme, kind of odd and harsh. It doesn't quite make sense."'

'Cyclingnews attempted to contact Sean Tucker on multiple occasions to gain a better understanding of the reasons he had to terminate Andreu from the three-year contract. However, the only contact with Tucker was through the team's media representative, Martine Charles, who said that Tucker did not want to discuss what was deemed to be a human resources matter. Without specifically asking, Charles added that Andreu's leaked court testimony regarding Lance Armstrong was not a factor in the decision to terminate Andreu,' said the report.

It's a sequence of events that has led to widespread speculation in forums and other unstructured venues as to the influence Armstrong still wields over the sport.

Vaughters may risk payback for his outspokenness. Stronger teams can and do work hard to put up-and-coming teams at a disadvantage in many races, and to be sure, his comments have not gone unnoticed. Also, in a somewhat unrelated occurrence, his team was left out of the Tour de l'Avenir this year, as the French organisers didn't invite TIAA-CREF or any American team to this U23 race pitched at national development squads.

It could be argued he's copping it from both sides: dealing with a perceived anti-American mood within French cycling, while also incurring the wrath of the rider and team that has largely created that perception.

Cyclingnews recently asked Vaughters some open questions about the doping-in-cycling problem. In this interview, he steers clear of making unsubstantiated claims, but explains the psyche of the modern racer, the pressure that makes riders cheat, and why riders should be encouraged to say no to drugs.

Cyclingnews: You mentioned there was a sports sponsorship consultant that had advised you cycling was somewhat on the nose to Fortune 500 companies; is that something you would elaborate on? There must be some way to address the (real) issue of the damage that's been done to the sport?

Jonathan Vaughters: It's too late to address the damage. At this point it's a matter of rebuilding from the ground up. Time must pass and time without any scandals. For this to happen, teams need to simply make sure the explicit and implicit message to their riders is: we love you even if you don't win all the time.

We (me, directors, sponsors, management) have to start treating this as a sport, not just a business. We have to start treating the athletes as humans, not expendable fodder. If you say to an athlete, 'you must win today or else', the clever cyclist will make sure he wins, but the way it's done may not be so healthy for the sport or his body.

Don't force athletes into decisions like that. Don't force ethical people to make poor decisions. Instead allow for some humanity. Allow for 'we did our best'.

I remember in an ethics class I took in college we were to justify the actions of a man who stole money to pay his tax. If he did not pay his tax, it was illegal, and if he stole it was illegal. If he stole, he might not get caught, but if he didn't pay tax, he would surely lose his job, his house, everything.

When he asked the tax collector if he could have more time to raise the money, the tax collector said 'no'. He said, 'you must do whatever it takes to pay your tax today or you will lose everything'.

His stealing was to be rewarded by a government official. The message 'whatever it takes' was implicitly saying 'get the job done'. How ironic.

Who is really to blame?

CN: So, who is to blame when the man who stole gets a two-year suspension from WADA?

JV: This message has to stop in cycling. This is a sport, not a Roman-conquered land. Directors and sponsors and fans have to be OK when their team doesn't win mechanically on the day they want. We need to be OK with the tax being paid a few days late.

And you, as the press and fans, need to allow for that too. If a rider under-performs, don't say, 'he looks a bit fat' or whatever, like Manolo Saiz commenting on how 'fat' all the French riders looked. Just say, 'better luck next time'.

Part of the testing regimes like ACE is doing with us, and like T-Mobile is doing internally, is that it changes the riders' behavior, not just tries to catch them. It makes doping a bad choice as opposed to 'getting the job done'. If the peer pressure is to 'get the job done' because that's the implicit message, it will get done - in a bad way.

'Get 'er done' is for digging a five meter ditch or changing a light bulb. Anyone can do that without drugs given enough time, unless they are lazy. Riding a bike at 50 kph for hours takes a unique talent. It only happens on a good day for even the most talented athlete, and none of them are lazy. Let's not take away from the beauty of that once-in-a-lifetime natural achievement by saying 'get 'er done.' to these guys.

But if the message is, 'do your best to try and win', that is totally different - and human.

Managers, fans, press, everyone needs to look at what they ask of riders. Think about it. You loved Tyler Hamilton getting fourth in the Tour and winning a stage with a broken collarbone. Think about that. What message does that send? He got the job done. He didn't let anyone down.

Crowds adored Tyler Hamilton's exploits
Photo ©: Jeff Tse
(Click for larger image)

And now? Maybe he did make a ton of money, but believe me, most of his motivation was to not let down his family, his fans, his sponsors, the press and on and on. He didn't want anyone to be disappointed in him. He wanted you guys to love him and he wanted to be the nice guy. He wanted to 'get his job done'.

He wanted to make you guys happy and cheer! I know - that's what I wanted. And now? Tyler is still the same guy.

People and the press need to remember, athletes tend to be very self-conscious and they want to do what makes the crowd happy. Don't criticise and push hard and then act shocked when doping scandals erupt.

Athletes are humans - entertainers - and very fragile humans at that. Think of them as shivering greyhounds on a cold day. All they want is to go fast so they can see the smile on your face.

CN: Is that why TIAA-CREF has wound down its involvement?

JV: TIAA-CREF's downsizing had nothing to do with doping. In fact, I think they are staying in, in part, to send a message that they aren't running from the problem.

CN: Looking to 2007, what will the team be known as? Slipstream Sports? Have you finalised the new sponsor?

JV: All this is still being finalized. What I can say is that our program will be much expanded from 2006. We'll be Pro Continental and will have some great new riders along with the best American talent out there.

I think we'll shock some people in 2007. Hopefully we'll be unfoundedly accused of doping, because if we are, that means we're kicking ass!

We also have established ourselves as the world leader in humor in cycling. The guys are all sharp, intelligent dudes with interesting and sometimes edgy things to say. It's good. It shows they are learning to adapt to the harshness of European racing. They are coping through advancement of their cerebral silliness.

CN: What is your team's policy if a rider returned a positive test?

JV: They would be fired.

However, I would feel responsible and very sad if this ever happened. I would not distance myself from the rider at all. I would simply feel that I failed in delivering the message that we will support you even if the results aren't flowing. We stand by our riders for a long time, even if they have a bad patch of form. I never push harder than they can handle. I push to the edge, but not over.

If a rider went positive, I would feel that I somehow pushed too hard and wasn't supportive when they needed guidance.

I have never met one professional cyclist that wanted to dope. At least at the start of their careers. Not one.

At the beginning of their careers they are full of hope and pride of the hard work they've done to get there. That person is still inside, even with the guys who get caught.

It is their responsibility, but we (managers, sponsors, directors, press, fans, etc) need to realize that we all share a bit of responsibility in creating a system that rewards someone for doing something that goes against their conscience.

So, sure, contractually I would have to fire a rider that went positive, but I would not abandon him as a person, and I would feel very culpable, no matter what the circumstances.

CN: Is there anything else that could be realistically, or feasibly, be done to eliminate it?

JV: Again. The message has to be consistent. The message must be the same from everyone; fans, directors, other riders, press, organizers, testing bodies. Everyone must be on the same page. Not just in word, but deed.

Testing facilities like ACE must be utilized by everyone, not just a couple of teams. We (everyone reading this, including ME) need to make it fashionable to be clean at all costs as opposed to 'getting the job done' at all costs.

Fashionable is key. It is implicitly what the riders will want, not what they feel forced into.

CN: The use of non-detectable substances or doping methods will lead to a further erosion of the rights of cyclists, and athletes in general, as Operación Puerto has shown. Yes or no?

JV: I think if teams use testing bodies like ACE or do what T-Mobile is doing and form non-punitive behavior adjusting methods, the use of undetectable substances will stop.

You can test for these substances, just not with 100% accuracy. So, if you sign up for a program like ACE, and they detect high levels of growth hormone in a rider, he simply doesn't race until they get back to normal. Is he fired? No. The test isn't accurate enough to be used for punitive measures.

But it is enough to say, 'hey, until this gets back to normal, we're not going to start you'. Believe me, over time no one will use any more growth hormone, as guys want to race. It's what they love. So, we just created a group behavior adjustment as opposed to a massive scandal.

It's expensive, yes. But the choices my generation made have proven to be more expensive. So, let's change that and never look back.

*Cyclingnews is the Media Sponsor of TIAA-CREF (which actually stands for Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association - College Retirement Equities Fund). While TIAA-CREF will remain involved with the team, it will not be the naming sponsor in 2007. However, at the time of writing, Vaughters was confident he would secure a major new sponsor.

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