Cheating can pay. Especially if you can live with yourself.
Jonathan Vaughters can. It’s a skill he seems particularly good at. His skill set seems to include a considerable amount of charm, ruthlessness, and impeccable timing.
He’s not like Armstrong, who has no qualms about his doping. Vaughters does, and the way he rationalizes seems almost designed to appeal to people with a conscience. There were moments when I wondered if the major difference between their two positions is that JV is comfortable calling it out, while still taking advantage of it. Which seems unfair to Vaughters, as he seems to know right from wrong and is at least trending toward right.
Vaughters details some of his qualms in his memoir One-Way Ticket: Nine Lives on Two Wheels. As with any bike racer who has thrown himself off the deep end in Europe, he manages to exude confidence, even while sharing doubts. As anyone who has had to depend on others in order to survive, he also is good at sympathetically framing himself and seems to have made plenty of friends who were happy to help him out, including the family of a teammate, who took him in when he was riding for the Santa Clara pro team in Spain.
But before I go into the book, some notes about memoirs in general, and this one in particular. I’m not a fan of them and mostly avoid them, pretty much with the sole exception being bike racer memoirs. Memoirs, in general, feel like weak fiction. There’s a difference between autobiography and memoir, in that the memoir is supposed to be one’s memory, not a telling of one’s life story. It’s deliberately selective, sometimes extremely so. The memory aspect is the thing memoir writers too often abuse. Memoirs typically fit into familiar narratives, with all the beats pretty much as you’d expect going in, which begs the question if they are remembering what they’re sharing as such because it is an easier to ‘remember’ easier to sell story. Events that don’t fit the narrative are discarded; events that are shared are shaped to fit the narrative. Explanations of earlier actions are given, sometimes quite different than things said at the time, excuses are made, strategic apologies put forth, as well as shade being thrown, scores settled, and known events are re-framed. Many times, the memories come across as political in nature, with the author trying to establish or cement a place for herself that reflects how they wish to be perceived, not so much as how they were and are. They’ve taken away the filter of skeptical inquisitors, and put you in their world, and are overwhelming you with their perspective. Of course he had to dope, because you see the world only from his carefully blindered vantage point.
My exception with bike racer memoirs has to do with seeking greater perspective. I feel I missed much when doping was ramping up in the 1990s, even early 2000s, probably missing a good bit today, that I want to know what people like Vaughters saw from the inside, in the hopes that I can correlate that with my observations and experience, and have a fuller understanding of the times and become more sensitive to the tells now and going forward.
Doping is the central thread for much of the story. Vaughters expresses some regret, though it’s hard to conclude he’s sorry, even though he claims a purpose of the work is to make amends. It’s more that he wants you to know he resisted as best he could, tried to dope the minimum he could to both succeed and feel comfortable with what he was doing, and when it became too much, he tried to change, though first it was to find a better situation, then it was to get out, then, thanks to the position gained from being a star in The Show, he was able to parley his history into a team.
He could have left the doping behind. Could have made a decent living doing so. And he provides evidence that he did just that. He had a great US season in 1997 when he raced the domestic circuit for Comptel-Colorado Cyclist; he was the best domestic-based American racer that year, medaled at the national pro road championships and won the national pro time trial.
But, you know, ambition. It is, in many respects, the real issue, possibly the only issue. There’s no evidence here that anything can be done when someone has that unquenchable thirst. And his success in the US granted him a ticket to the World Championships. Preparing for the World’s Time Trial was incentive enough to rush into another embrace of the needle. Vaughters talks about wanting to make the pro peloton a place where people don’t have to dope. But his example suggests even when they don’t have to, some always will.
One of the striking things about the way he seems to foreswear doping is that his memoir seems to actually be the work of a ghostwriter. Jeremy Whittle, a long-time cycling journo, is credited on the title page (“with Jeremy Whittle”), and thanked at the end in the acknowledgements, though it’s left unwritten if Whittle did much of the writing. From where I sit, I think Whittle did. There are a number of turns of phrase that seem to betray a writer who didn’t grow up in the US, as well as a number of assertions that suggest someone who was faking it. As a person who doped, who harped on the transparency of his early-iteration Slipstream teams, its glaring Vaughters doesn’t share credit or explicitly admit to the help.
That he doesn’t is indicative of what makes Vaughters hard to trust. He shares that he promised Roger Legeay when Vaughters signed on to Credit Agricole that he’d race clean, and admits he didn’t. I guess Vaughters would call that “cleanish,” something he attributes to many of the riders he raced with on Credit Agricole. He also tells an interesting story of how Legeay had Vaughters go through a lab test to make sure he could perform at the highest levels clean. What goes unwritten about this is that Vaughters could have gamed the test, and thus the system. And that his teammates there could have done the same. It goes further because when he was bringing Slipstream to the Pro Tour in 2008, he signed a number of riders who could have gamed his system. Vaughters knew that David Millar, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, among others, doped. While Millar had been caught and had become a sort of anti-doping campaigner, the others hadn’t. There’s no mention of whether he had them tested to make sure they could perform clean. A cynical view of their signing is that he was aware they knew how to dope and not get caught.
Likewise with Vaughters flacking for the biological passport anti-doping system. He gives himself credit for it becoming an important component in the fight against doping. He admits it’s not perfect and that people could be cheating, just that they can’t make huge gains with drugs. Here, too, could it be seen as giving savvy or ruthless or overly ambitious riders, or team directors or coaches or doctors, a way to gain a subtle, but measurable advantage that can become the winning difference.
As with all memories, you don’t have to include everything, but Vaughters volunteers that he thinks Lance Armstrong raced the 2009 Tour clean, and that Brad Wiggins, a former Slipstream rider, won the Tour clean in 2012. These positions seem quite political. First, with Armstrong, there was plenty of hinky stuff going on with him in 2009, including the personal testing program he announced that never actually existed and the odd stalling of a WADA tester which was done in violation of WADA protocol and should have been classified a missed test. Likewise, with Wiggins. Wiggins was on fire in 2012, but the subsequent revelations about the jiffy-bag and multiple TUEs for questionable reasons right before major stage races should leave everyone wondering about Wiggo’s performances.
Wiggins’ is one of several cases where Vaughters throws some shade. He wants you to know Brad loved being on Slipstream and he loved having him, but the honcho of Sky Cycling, Dave Brailsford, had way more money and ruined everything. Further, Wiggins was almost bipolar—between being a perfect teammate and a monstrously destructive personality.
David Millar likewise is taken down a few notches. Vaughters claims he was pretty selfish in general, though he reveals toward the end that Millar attempted mutiny with Vande Velde to get Vaughters fired from Slipstream, and nearly did. JV doesn’t bring up whether or not that’s why Millar didn’t get to ride the Tour in his final year, but it seems possible that was part of the reason, though certainly Millar’s public persona seemed to be that his visibility meant he could do whatever he wanted.
After sharing doping adventures, and swearing off that kind of unethical behavior, it’s fascinating that Vaughters then details his unethical actions as Slipstream’s CEO. In 2017, faced with sponsors pulling out, and not having an unlimited checkbook to fill in the holes in his budget team’s finances, he reveals that he kept quiet when he knew he didn’t have a signed sponsor. He claims he kept quiet until the very end because he didn’t want a panic to occur, causing his most coveted people to leave and thus dooming the rest to sink with him. He claims he was hoping that he could save the jobs of 100 people, and that would be good for everybody, but it’s hard not to see it as his ability to put himself first. Vaughters admits he didn’t tell the truth to Rigoberto Uran, his marquee rider of 2017 who was fresh off second place at the Tour, but claims he didn’t exactly lie, either. Vaughters volunteers he wasn’t happy about what he did, but felt it essential. One hopes Uran got rewarded with a fatter contract, because it’s pretty clear he can’t bank on loyalty from JV.
Loyalty, or the lack thereof, is further demonstrated, as it seems that Vaughters made a unilateral decision to cut out his longtime partner and financial backstop, Doug Ellis, when Vaughters agreed to sell the team to Education First, which itself feels like a repudiation of what JV claims to stand for. After telling the reader about how he was trying to keep the team together for fear of laying off staff, we learn that when Education First was set on a one-year deal with Slipstream, Vaughters then decided it wasn’t good enough; it should be three years or nothing. Granted, he sorta kinda mighta had a backup, as the team sponsor CCC seems to have literally materialized out of the ether just as the Education First deal was being put together. But it feels like he just ignored everything he had just carefully laid out for the reader.
JV makes an effort to portray himself as pragmatic. As a rider, doping but allegedly not aggressively, as an anti-doping campaigner, making getting away with doping harder but not impossible, and team boss, hiring ex-dopers, but trusting them after looking at bio-passport data. And he wants you to believe that the pragmatic approach is the only one, as getting all the shifty characters out is an impossible task and letting the dopers run loose will destroy the sport. The middle ground he’s staking out makes perfect sense in light of who he seems to be and what he seems to have done, but the difficulty is the trust issue. He’s very much a politician now, where the goal seems to be staying in the game, while nudging for positive changes when possible. Or maybe when convenient. Or maybe when politically necessary.
Politics are inevitable. Politicians essential. They are people who are able to get those who aren’t necessarily in agreement to work together to get things done. It’s an important skill to have, and Vaughters seems to have it. The frustration is seeing that he’s even more entrenched now than he was as a young professional bike racer, more invested, more riding on racing succeeding, that, just as with his doping escapades as a rider, he gives the impression he’d probably do something similar again if he sees the choice between doing it or quitting the sport or losing his team. And if he does it, it will be in the name of saving the sport. Maybe it will be true, maybe he’d be saving the sport, but arguably, it’s exactly what earlier team bosses, race promoters, and UCI officials were doing when they allowed doping to fester. In a sense, this is another way the title works to describe the life he’s leading. It’s a warning.
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