- Jonathan Vaughters
February 09, 2013, 10:04 GMT,
February 09, 2013, 18:29 GMT
The blame game, MPCC and just who should clean up cycling
I am wearing a garbage bag. Why, you might ask, thinking that Merino wool is more my thing. Quite simple, I know that in these days of cycling, banana peels and rotten tomatoes are thrown at anyone who dares stick their head up. Rocks also work quite well and, sadly, my garbage bag won’t do much against those. They hurt.
Cycling has become a post revolution mob, not much different than paintings we see of post-revolution France. I think, back then, banana peels were replaced with bed pan water. So, before I begin, let me go ahead and save you the labor of writing in the comments section: I am an ex-doper, a filthy team manager hell bent on extracting dollars and wins at any cost. I am a person who not only should not be allowed in cycling, but should not be allowed to have an opinion. I am someone with no moral compass and someone who needs to just shut the hell up. Those comments are just the rotten tomatoes and banana peels. The rocks hurt more.
However, the old expression about sticks and stones hopefully will prove correct and because of this, I figure I’ll continue onward with this monologue. Let me start by saying something really simple: I love bike racing. From a very early age every aspect of the sport just enthralled me. Its history, its traditions, its strategy, its heroism, its toughness, and even the constantly evolving bike technology. I love it. I love waking up early and watching some poorly web streamed feed when I’m home.
I love the feeling of my hair standing up on the back of my neck when I realize one of my riders has made the lead group. I love sitting in the wind tunnel for hours. I love the laughter of the guys at the dinner table, even when they have broken bones or concussions! I loved getting a disgustingly dirty and sweaty hug from Johan after he won Roubaix. This sport has been my life, inside and out for 20 years. It’s like an old marriage to me, we fight, but I love it.
Now, despite the fact that I am all of the things described in paragraph one, I often wonder, how is it that I managed to damage something that I loved so much? Why did I disregard that? And why is it that when I watch my peers that have damaged the sport of cycling in similar ways, do we fail to see that we are the problem. We are the problem. But I don’t see anyone saying that. I see people saying “he is the problem” or “they are the problem.” It’s gone from blaming Lance and Lance only, to blaming the journalists, to blaming the team managers, to blaming the UCI, to blaming the riders, definitely blaming Pat McQuaid, oh and don’t forget to blame the race organizers, and then back to blaming Lance. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I played this game too. The fact of the matter is that it is our entire fault. We, the people who make up the world of professional cycling, are to blame.
I can already hear the peeling of bananas... “Damn you, JV, no! I am not to blame, my team stopped doping in 1999 after Le Affaire Festina!” or “No, I am not to blame I never raced in the EPO era!” or “No, I am not to blame because I only did it to survive.” or “No, I am not to blame because everyone else did it!” “I am only a race organizer that made the most mountainous Grand Tour in history of mankind, I am not to blame!!” ... I can go on, but I think you see the point. Before I move on, let me say for those who were talented enough to race at the highest level in Europe, and did walk away, you aren’t many, but you are not to blame. You are to be highly regarded. You can leave the principal’s office now and have pudding. I can only offer my apologies to you guys, and pudding.
So, we can come to the conclusion that actually no one is responsible for the doping issue in cycling. Everyone denies their culpability and we happily hang a few riders every year, give them the blame, and refuse to understand the responsibility we all have.
I was absolutely shocked to learn, this morning, that the MPCC, an organization I have been a part of since 2007 and one that I truly believe in, is thinking about suing Lance Armstrong. Yes, it is his fault, a 100+ year history of doping problems in cycling can be remedied by extracting financial damages from Lance Armstrong. All the while, this organization, of which I am member, is chaired by someone who once tested positive, and whose members have a rich and varied history ranging from Festina to Puerto to USPS to CERA to Corticoid investigations. And our solution to protect cycling’s image is to sue Lance Armstrong? I truly hope they don't sue anyone. Maybe I need to attend the next meeting? Maybe a bit of introspection is needed here? Maybe a better way would be to sue myself and give the damages to someone like Danny Pate? But this seems to be the mentality entrenched in cycling, blame the other guy to fix the problem. Put it on his plate.
Let me take a big hunk of “it’s my own damn fault” and put it on my own damn plate. At this point, I’d rather personally be responsible for all of this than to watch the petty squabbling at hand devolve into the equivalent of hair pulling on the Jerry Springer show.
When I signed up to go testify to USADA about cycling’s past, I did it, not to “bring down Lance!” I did it because I was convinced it would help cycling in the long term. But instead of fertile ground for positive change and forward movement, my testimony seems to have turned into mud for throwing at each other. Seeds don’t grow in mud. It was an attempt, my me, at helping cycling unwind from a nasty past, but I’m not sure it worked the way I wanted. So, what will work?
First we have to realize, cycling cannot separate itself from its own history. That is impossible. When, a hundred years ago someone decided to cheat in the Tour de France, that got the ball rolling. It kept rolling. And while I hope you (the readers) will feel it is somewhat honorable to walk away from doping and try to mend the damage you’ve (me) done, whether one stopped doping in 1956, 1976, 1998, or 2006, the fact that at one time you doped has contributed to the pervasive culture of doping. That’s not to say there aren’t reasons for this culture. To start with, cycling is the toughest sport ever invented. It is contested by hardened individuals from hard backgrounds. This is not the sport of the aristocracy, this is the sport of tough kids who are fighting their way out of tough lives. That is cycling’s history in Europe. The ethos professional cycling started with is not that of higher, faster, cleaner...It is an ethos of “I need to feed my family.” That is cycling’s 100 year history. The private jets only came at the tail end. So, while all of us, especially me, would like to believe that we are “part of the solution” we weren’t, we were part of grinding this culture in further and further. To try and indemnify ourselves from that will not work. In fact it will only entrench the culture deeper, as it teaches hypocrisy.
We, in professional cycling, all are to blame and we all end up hurting each other because of blaming each other. Public spats, lawsuits, backstabbing policies, hatred... these all hurt cycling. They work against any budding possibility of a long term solution for this sport. Trying to solve a 100 year old problem with short-sighted and knee jerk reactions will not work. This takes creativity, vision, and UNITY. And who does this lack of unity hurt? Well, we might think harsher measures and lawsuits hurt those evil doers who need public flogging, but instead who do I see getting hurt? I see young riders, who have had nothing to do with this mess, being the ones that get hurt. The up-and-comers who, with idealism still intact, they are the beneficiaries of our inability to work out real and lasting solutions, together. They get to carry the burden of being seen as a “doper” in the view of the broader public, for the next ten years, when in fact, they’ve never doped. Not yet, anyway. But, if we don’t figure this out, soon, guess what? 100 years of cultural entrenchment beats a few of us old guys coming up with a few new rules. That is sad. And that is my own damn fault.
How about we give these young riders a chance at having a doping free career? How about we do something that overcomes the image that they’ve been saddled with due to their predecessors’ (like me) actions?
Because I absolutely hate complaining without a solution, I’m going to make a very simple suggestion for a solution: Make us pay. Now, I know many of you think I should be in jail, and whole heartedly agree with my suggestion of making me pay, but “making us pay” isn’t an analogy. Quite simply put, as opposed to launching lawsuits, trying to overthrow the king, blaming the dog, etc.. We need to fix anti-doping. I’m sorry, I do not think that is accomplishable by policy changes and adding extra rules invented by people who broke the rules. I do not think that is accomplishable by telling a rider who has less than 12 months visibility into if he’ll be able to feed himself that he needs to “just say no”... Nor do I think telling a highly ambitious type “A” athlete that he should be happy with second place, is going to work. Nor do I think a newly reformed team manager telling his team “do as I say, not as I did” will work. Nor do I think telling guys that ride 30,000 kms a year in rain, snow, sleet, and heat to just “work harder” is going to work.
Let me give you an example: There are two young guys I know quite well. One is on my team now, one raced for me as a junior. Both are thought of as future GT contenders. Both of these guys are unbelievable tough, incredibly competitive, driven, and ambitious. And both of them would saw their kneecaps off with a rusty butter knife, if they knew it would win them a bike race. That’s why they are so good. They are both clean riders from a generation that shows us what cycling could be. But you throw a drug in the mix that makes you 10% better, there is no test for, and then that’s a whole lot more tempting than sawing off your kneecap for the win. We need to protect these guys. The toughest and most competitive are the most at risk. The guys we love and the qualities of those champions are exactly the things that put them most at risk for doping. So, since I don’t think anyone wants to make bike racing easy and start giving awards for nicest rider or rider who really wanted his buddy to win because he was having a bad hair day, then we need to realize the risks that come with the highly ambitious and protect them. Quite simply, if we want this to change, we have to actually enforce the rules so that these hardened and respectable young men and women can stop having to chose between “being first loser”(now society is at fault too) and saying no to doping..
I’ve been referring to “we” a lot in this rant. “We” means those of us working in professional cycling. But here comes the part that we need to be responsible enough and man enough to step aside for: This is the one part that “WE” can’t do. WE need to step aside and pay for someone, totally outside cycling, to be in charge of enforcing anti-doping rules. WE were the problem, WE cannot be in charge of fixing the problem. But we sure can pay for it. Meaning this: right now teams spend less than 1% of our total budgets on anti-doping. For the biggest problem in cycling, less than 1%. That won’t ever work. You can’t fix a problem this big with something so small. WE, including me, need to pay.
Cycling needs to step aside, the UCI needs to step aside, Pat needs to step aside, teams and riders need to step aside, I need to step aside. We’ve had 100 years to figure this out, with limited success, how about WE let someone else have a shot? Someone who has no race to worry about, no sponsorship to think of, no conflict of interest at all. None. WE (those of us with a conflict of interest) need to escrow much, much, much more than 1% of funds available, give it to a totally independent entity that specializes in anti-doping and nothing else - and then let them do their work. We race bikes, you guys (WADA? AFLD? USADA?) make sure we are doing it straight. Period. Of course, WE can help. WE can tell them how we doped, we can give them total honesty to help their work. It takes one to know one, right? But WE cannot be in charge of this. At 8% of every teams’ and every races organizers (yes, they need to help more too) budget, we’d be looking at a pool of $40M annually. Sounds a lot better than the current pool of $4M. Ask any scientific researcher around the world what he is limited by? Funding. Ask any police force what limits them? Funding. How would it be spent? Testing? Science? Investigative efforts? I don’t know. Leave it to the experts how the funding is used. But give them the tools, and never let cycling’s biggest problem be held back by lack of funding. All of the issues you hear about the testing not being good enough, the science is behind, not enough tests...All of that can end. All of the excuses can end. All of the blame game can end. WE just have to stop trying to be the solution and instead step aside and start paying for what WE did. Literally.
Then we (you guys too) all can get back to loving bike racing.
- Jonathan Vaughters
May 11, 2011, 9:25 BST,
May 11, 2011, 11:03 BST
A day that will always remain with me
“We need an ambulance immediately for rider 54!” race radio blurted out unexpectedly after it had been droning out intermediate times for the last few hours. At first I didn’t really think about what they’d just said, nor did I realize the implication of this accidentally being said on a frequency normally reserved for race information. I was focused on the rider in front of me, and giving him the best instruction I could for this difficult time trial. However, after a minute or two it began to sink in.
First, I realized 54 was one of my riders. Then the significance of the break in radio protocol dawned on me. This was very serious.
I continued on to the finish behind my rider, but started to nervously make phone calls to see if anyone had information of why an ambulance was needed for number 54, Craig Lewis. No one seemed to know, until finally I was told to go to the Rome, GA hospital, as quickly as I could.
I arrived some 20 minutes after the call for an ambulance was heard. The hospital staff quickly recognized me as someone with the race and ushered me to the “quiet room” to meet with a doctor. Some minutes after, the doctor came in and asked me if I was family, I said no, but that I was Craig’s manager. He then solemnly looked at me and said “you need to get in touch with his family very quickly, as we are having trouble stabilizing Craig.”
That moment sticks with me like no other. I was going to have to make the call to Craig’s mother that she had spent the last 20 years praying she would never receive. It all came crashing in on me at that moment how terrified my own mother must have been, all those minutes after hearing I’d gone down in a race on TV, waiting to hear some news. How being taken to the emergency room as a rider, was just part of it, no big deal, you race bikes, you get hurt, whatever, next race. I never considered the fear and angst this put my own family through. I never considered that nasty crashes hurt anyone but the rider. But right then and there, it all came to me how hard this call would be.
“Mrs. Lewis, hello, this is Jonathan Vaughters your son’s team coach. Hi…… Mrs. Lewis, I’m afraid Craig has been in a very severe accident in the race, and you need to come to Georgia as soon as you possibly can………..”
I tried to reassure her that he was in good care and that I would call with any update, but the doctor made it clear that they were very unsure of where this situation was headed. I had put on a brave voice for her, but the fear in her voice is something I’ll never forget. The fear and pain of a mother knowing her son is hurt. “Please pray for him, Jonathan.” is the last thing she said before putting the phone down. I cried in a way I never have before or since when I hung up.
I was the one who brought Craig to this race. I was the one who’d coached him and pushed him. I was the one who put him into professional cycling, and I knew better. I knew how horrible and dangerous of a sport this was. I knew that the “fun and healthy” sport Craig’s parents thought he started in would turn cold and cut throat as he reached for the top. The speed would get faster, the roads would get smaller, and the peloton larger. Professional cycling has a way of dehumanizing everything at the top, and I knew that. I knew Craig’s competition would no longer regard the risk, but only the reward. I knew this wasn’t a sport any loving mother would want their son in. I had put Mrs. Lewis’ son in harm's way. I could not forgive myself.
Craig was just 19 at the time, a rising star in US cycling, and one with beautiful style on the bike, along with an confident flair that had me convinced he would go very far in the pro ranks. He came into that Tour of Georgia with absolutely no fear of the top pros. He’d beat them, pure and simple, was his attitude. And in the time trial that day, he was beating them again. His intermediate time had been announced as on par with Viatcheslav Ekimov at the halfway point, so he was on a great ride, without a doubt.
For Craig, sacrifice was the road to success. He had a determination and fire that I had not seen in the young riders I’d been working with since I retired. He had what it took to go far in this brutal and gladiatorial sport: He didn’t care about the consequences and I quietly loved his fierce pride.
That day in Rome I chose to let a neutral car drive behind Craig, while I went behind a more senior rider on the team. Craig’s persona was getting a bit large, so I figured he needed to know it wasn’t all about him. If you wanted to be a pro cyclist, you needed to be selfless, as well, and you needed to respect your boss. Letting him go on his own that day was a little message to him, and to the rest of the team: I don’t play favorites.
The regret I felt for that decision waiting in the “quiet room” was intense. As I heard the details of how a car had shot out into the road right after the police motorcycle that was leading him passed, I somehow thought that if I’d been the car following him, I could have done something to prevent it. Craig had slammed into the side of a car at 40mph on a fast descent. He never had time to even tap his brakes. The doctor said he was unconscious and had punctured both lungs, had massive internal bleeding, and had fractured dozens of bones, all of which were not known yet. These are the realities of when an unprotected human body is thrown to the ground in a way that only exists in our beautiful yet tragically primitive sport. It was not certain that he would live.
Some minutes passed, with no news, when a nurse came running in: “You need to come to the ICU, Mr Vaughters.” She would not be more specific, but I hurried along behind her with a knot in my throat bigger than my head. Craig was laying there, having just regained consciousness, bloody, tubes in his mouth, huge wounds everywhere, but he had written me a note that he was insistent on getting to me. It said in shaky and bloody writing “When can I ride again?”…….
I had no words. None. But the desperate look in his eyes really needed an answer. Again, I held back any real emotion I had and smiled. And lied. I told Craig “ don’t worry, this is just a small hiccup in your career. You’ll be back in no time.” This helpless, broken young man, in intense pain, fighting for his life had wanted to know one thing; when he could race again. I was awestruck and silent as I put on a strong “no big deal, kid” face that he wanted to see in his coach and mentor…Things seemed to start getting worse right then and the nurse pulled me from the room, as the doctors and other nurses moved quickly around the room as alarms went off, and instructions were shouted.
I called Craig’s mother once more, told her I spoke to him, and said her son was very strong. She seemed so serene and just asked me to pray for Craig, once again, and that they’d be there in a few hours.
Thankfully, Craig lived. At least his body did.
Months passed after the accident, and Craig had to endure two or three more surgeries, along with countless hours of rehab. Whenever I saw him, he was pale and feeble looking. The conquering giant I’d known earlier that year was gone, replaced by a depressed and sickly child. He seemed to distance himself from everyone, talking less about racing bikes, and more about the pain he was going through. While his body had lived, his spirit was gone. The impetuous fighter I knew was gone, his confidence washed away in a sea of reality. I felt helpless and I too distanced myself from him, as I was still running my little team. Seeing someone so hurt isn’t something pro cyclists like. They have to pretend that risk doesn’t exist. Being reminded of it only deflates their sense of invincibility. And without being invincible, in your mind, you will never succeed in professional cycling.
Silent months passed, when I got an email from him with no words, but an attachment. It was a photo of him on his trainer, all kitted out in his TIAA-CREF gear. He probably weighed 110 lbs and looked white as a ghost, but the pride he had from that first 10 minute ride was apparent in his grin peeking through his still wired shut jaw, like a tiny green bud poking through the ground in early spring. Small and fragile, but alive.
He soon asked me about doing a race…..When could he come back? Everything in me said to tell him to stop thinking about cycling and start thinking about just living a happy life. But every time I’d start down that path with him, I could tell, the one thing that would kill Craig would be if I told him he couldn’t live his dream. Every time I’d speak to his mother, I could tell her eyes would say to me: His soul will die if we don’t let him race again, but please be careful with my son. It’s a look I see every time I meet parents of any rider I work with, whether they are 16 years old or 35 years old. They can’t show that face to their son, as they know it will only damage their spirit, but they can show me that look. They can let me know how scared they are that their son has chosen such a rugged path.
Mid-summer, Craig came out to Colorado. He wanted a change of scenery after many months of being indoors. And he wanted to race. I drove behind him nervously, and against doctors orders, to a small training race south of Denver, and I watched him, still frail, ride in a peloton again. It would normally be a group he could fly past without a thought, but today he suffered and struggled just to keep up. He was scared on the bike, for the first time in his life, but just like before, his pride would never let that fear succeed.
While watching him sprint on the last lap, the goose bumps rose up on my skin. I saw he was alive again, for the first time in a long time.
Nothing else would have accomplished that. He needed to be a racer. I knew that he would one day be a proud and hardened member of the professional peloton. He was a warrior, and warriors need wars. For better or for worse.
- Jonathan Vaughters
February 21, 2011, 11:01 GMT,
February 21, 2011, 22:30 GMT
The lesson Xavier Tondo taught me
I’ve had a stressful and heavy last few weeks, putting it mildly. Perhaps some of you have noticed. Although running any multi-national, multi-cultural organization is stressful, running a cycling team, in this day in age, and being its spokesperson, entitles you to the role of a human dart board for public criticism.
The majority of these criticisms center around doping, anti-doping, and all tangents thereof. While this certainly seems fair, given the upheavals cycling has had recently, I seem to take criticism a bit more personal than most in my position and analyse each critique a bit more than perhaps I should.
One particular train of thought that many hardcore cycling fans follow is what we call “connecting the dots.” The logic is that if a rider/director/manager/doctor had any sort of association with another rider/manager/director/doctor that has been accused or associated with doping in the past, then all parties are guilty.
The story goes that if one rider rode for a certain team that had a doping issue, then 3 years later rode for another team and was once seen being the roommate of another rider and that rider happened to ride exceptionally well….well, clearly, that performance was doped.
I’ve always been infuriated, saddened and hurt watching my friends, peers and myself get accused of everything short of murder on all that new media has to offer. Not by the journalists that have researched the story, no, rather the massacre occurs in the comments and forums that follow the story. The chattering, anonymous fans hurling comments and critiques are so hurtful. I can’t imagine saying such things to anyone, not even my worst enemy.
I try to argue my point, but of course any argument is vulnerable to misinterpretation and can easily be shot down by the hardened critic. And to be honest, who isn’t a hardened critic with cycling these days? It’s not a winnable battle. If you withhold information, you’re hiding something, if you make information public; it’s picked through and placed out of context unfairly by people who aren’t experts on the topic. At times I think it’s not only an unwinnable battle, but an unwinnable war. Twitter becomes my Waterloo.
“Unfair” “unjust” “unfounded” all seem to be at the tip of my thoughts every day. And “poor me” slowly leaks its way into my being. I was being picked on by gossip bullies! These evil purveyors of internet untruths are clearly not sentient beings, but indeed sub human, downright demonic rumor spreaders. I, instead, see myself separate as a knight armed with ethical objectivity and logical thought, who was being tarnished by such misguided vigil-antism. Clearly.
My perspective on all of this changed, radically, as of last Friday morning. While checking the news, I saw that Xavier Tondo had informed Catalan police of a doping ring in Spain. His brave action, not an easy thing to do with all the suspicions of pro cyclists today, helped prevent doping in a big way.
A big hats off to Xavier, but that’s not what changed my perspective. The back story I have with Xavier was suddenly put into sobering perspective for me. I suddenly found myself needing to apologize to him, even though I’ve never met him. I have never met Xavier, even though he lives near our team headquarters, rides the same routes we do, and knows many of our staff and riders. I’ve never met him because I’ve avoided him.
Well, Xavier has been trying to get a contract with our team for the better part of three years now. A nice kid, by most people’s accounts, an excellent stage racer, and not a high priced star either. An undervalued stage race talent, just like we seem to find every year at Garmin-Cervelo, right? Xavier wanted a shot with us, and he was ready to ride his heart out for us. However, I didn’t give him that shot. Instead, I played “connect the dots”.
Xavier was part of a Portuguese team whose doctor was found with doping products. I connected the dots and assumed Xavier was a part of this doctor’s nefarious activity. When some of his friends came to me and said that Xavier had nothing to do with this doctor, I did not believe it. Even if he had doped, Slipstream has always said “we cannot change the past, we can only change the present.”
So then, why did this not apply to Xavier? Because I was convinced there was no way he could perform at a high level without doping. I was right, I knew. And I judged. Why bother even testing his Vo2 and cross correlating it with hematology to find out if he’s talented? Maybe that’s what I did with other athletes, but I knew I was right with Xavier. My judgment was sound. I had already connected the dots. I knew he was just a donkey made to ride fast with extra blood. I never gave him a chance. I never gave him a second thought.
With his fifth place at the 2010 Vuelta, I only thought the worst of him. I just assumed. He had a past association that clearly destroyed any credibility of those results. Why was this guy being allowed to race, really? I was right.
No. I was wrong.
On Friday, with the news of his strong actions, I realised how stupid and sub-human my own prejudice had been with him. He showed that he is a courageous person and athlete – and one that I can only wish would be part of Slipstream Sports. He showed me that not only were his results real and his actions ethical, but that he is a truly courageous fighter of doping in a way few of us would be.
He showed me that I have been nothing more than another prejudiced, hardened critic, unfairly playing “connect the dots.” I broke my own rules. He taught me a very big lesson. He made me realise: Before I rant on in self pity of how I’ve been unfairly judged at times or other athletes have been unfairly judged, perhaps I should consider the objectivity of my own judgments.
Judge not, lest ye be judged - with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
I wish Xavier a successful 2011. I hope he shows me at every occasion he can how short-sighted and prejudiced I have been and what a great athlete he is. He deserves many race wins. Chapeau and Bonne Chance!
- Jonathan Vaughters
January 14, 2011, 17:05 GMT,
January 14, 2011, 23:15 GMT
Garmin-Cervelo boss backs calls to keep race radios
With a new year come new changes and new rules in cycling. One of the changes that has been garnering the most public interest is the recent, albeit slow burning, radio communication ban that the UCI has introduced in races ranked .1 and .HC. It’s bound to become one of the most contentious issues as the year unfolds.
I felt that before we start the cycling season, and people become entrenched in their positions regarding radios, I’d give my brief history with this issue—how I‘ve seen it from both sides and been on both sides of the earpiece.
Early in 2009, I was elected president of the AIGCP (the association of Pro Tour and Pro Continental teams). I was the youngest and least experienced of the team managers ever elected to such a post. It was an odd set of circumstances that got me that role, but I figured I should treat the post with respect and vigour. So, I pushed hard for a series of tri-lateral meetings to occur between the teams, the UCI and the top race organizers. After two or three meetings we slowly melted a bit of the ice that had formed between the various groups since the 2008 fights between the UCI and ASO. By the time we met in early June 2009, we were ready to start making some real progress on the issues.
Christian Prudhomme, Angelo Zomegnan, Javier Guillen, Alain Rumpf, a few others and I met in a chic airport restaurant, the kind you’d only find in Geneva airport. My personal push had to do with the rights of participation in the top events, and I’d been making this the central topic of every meeting. This particular meeting was not much different. After lunch when the topic of “testing” a few stages of the Tour de France without radios came up, I didn’t think much of it and said “yes, sure, that’d be fine…”
Frankly, I didn’t really see the big deal and was far more focused on other issues that pertained to the financial health of cycling and anti-doping. I overlooked the radio issue as relatively unimportant and honestly didn’t see the harm in a little test.
That was a big mistake. As the start of the 2009 Tour de France approached, it was clear that the majority of teams felt the “test” of radios was a far more important issue than I had represented to the race organizers and the UCI. We all know the story of what happened with regards to the radio free test in the 2009 Tour; the teams acted in a unified manner and were able to preserve the interests of the majority.
Still, even though I had supported my colleagues in 2009, I remained unconvinced that the use of radio communication was a serious issue and felt that some of the opposing arguments from those who wished to ban radios had merit. Maybe racing would be more exciting without radios? Maybe more intelligent riders would win more often? However, despite these justifications the majority of the AIGCP teams did not want them banned, so I needed to start representing that stance.
In the fall of 2009, I was attending the CUPT (the advisory board of directors for the ProTour) meeting, along with Roberto Amadio of Liquigas, in Mendrisio during the World Championships. We met for roughly eight hours on the Tuesday before the race. During the course of the meeting we covered a broad range of topics, including the 2010 calendar, the new races in Montreal, the bio-passport and many others, but the use or banning of radios was never discussed. To my surprise, the next morning I read in L’Equipe that the introduction of a ban on radio communication had been approved by the UCI management committee.
I also read a very unflattering quote by Patrick Lefevere regarding me. It basically said that I’d sold the teams down the river, not represented their interests in the UCI management committee meeting, and was nothing more than a doormat for Pat McQuaid. Obviously I was upset, but what neither Lefevere nor L’Equipe knew was that I wasn’t part of the UCI management committee meeting, nor was any representative of any of the teams part of this discussion or ruling. I read about it in the newspaper, the same as Lefevere had. And even though I was in the same building at the same time as this decision had been made, I had no idea that it had occurred.
While I still was undecided on my personal opinion about the pros and cons of not being able to use radios, the fact that this decision had been made with little to no input from the people it affected most really upset me. Despite the fact that I didn’t feel strongly about keeping radios in use, I did feel very strongly that a democratic system of equitable representation should be used when introducing regulations that affect the businesses of teams, the safety of riders and the outcome of competition. In other words: teams should have a voice in how the sport is governed – a very strong voice, as we, collectively, make up the largest economic part of cycling.
The radio ban did indeed come into play in 2.2 and National level events in 2010. While this wasn’t affecting Team Garmin-Transitions or any of the other ProTour teams, it was already coming into play for our U23 team. I’d had some conversations with other team managers who also had feeder teams and inquired how this was affecting racing. Eusebio Unzue had attended a number of U23 events and his take was not positive about the radio ban. He raised the issue that the chaos behind the race, in the caravan, whenever a flat or crash occurred was notable. Since directors had little information as to who needed help there was a constant and dangerous jockeying for position with 3,000lbs cars right behind the peloton. I did not witness this first hand until I went and watched our U23 team race a few times.
It quickly became apparent to me that the arguments of those in favor of a radio ban were unfounded. The impact of having no radios was not changing the tactics of the race at all, but it was reducing many “luck-founded” factors such as crashes, feeding, and flat tires to the lowest common denominator. Races were being won and lost not by team work, strength and cohesion, but by luck, lack of information and the bad fortune of others
An example. Our GC rider for the Tour of Utah was a young rider named Lachlan Morton. Lachlan was poised to move into the top five on GC. However, he crashed due to a front wheel blow-out on the descent of a first category climb halfway through the race. He had no capacity to tell his teammates he was in trouble. We in the car had no way of informing his teammates either. In fact, we almost missed Lachlan on the side of the road because he’d gone off in a ditch and was obscured. No information was available to anyone. The valiant and beautiful effort of an entire team bringing their leader back to the front of the race was moot because of lack of information.
It became apparent to me, very quickly, that the lack of radio communication was simply randomizing the outcomes of races, dumbing down cycling and reducing the value of teamwork, sacrifice and the bond between teammates.
This doesn’t even touch upon all the examples of the dangers we faced with feeding riders at poor times, driving into the middle of the peloton to give them instructions and constantly boxing with the other team cars. My observations were congruent with Eusebio’s. It seemed very amateur and, more importantly, very dangerous – not something pro cycling needs.
We also had the privilege of having a very well known financial advisor in the car that day, someone who oversees almost $80 billion of other people’s money. His comment after this whole incident was: “Good communication in sports is just like in a free market. It increases the likelihood of a fair and correct outcome. Good communication increases the likelihood of the best team with the best rider winning.”
With that, my mind had been totally changed on the radio issue. I no longer see it as an obligatory stance to represent in my role with the AIGCP, it is now also what I believe.
Cycling is a team sport, and just like any other team sport, from soccer to American football, the athletes need to have the best information and best communication possible, so that the best decisions can be made. The argument that the smartest rider or team wins when radios are banned is bunk; the smartest rider is the one who knows how to use all the information available to make better decisions than his opponent. The smartest team? The same.
All the top team sports in the world have increased the amount of information available to coaches and athletes, via new technologies and simple time outs, over the last 30 years. Cycling shares more in common with these team sports than with individual sports such as running or swimming, which have little need for such communication. There are, after all, no time outs in cycling. So how does the team work as one?
After looking at this issue from every possible angle, my opinion is quite simple: if we want to encourage the best competition and glean the best, most worthy winner, then we need to give the athletes the best information possible, with the best form of communication possible and ultimately see who uses it… the best.
In short, we need to keep the radios in use.
- Jonathan Vaughters
December 09, 2010, 18:45 GMT,
December 10, 2010, 15:05 GMT
Vaughters analyses the current problems in team sponsorship
Although I'm not familiar with the details, there has been speculation in the past week that Geox are considering ending their sponsorship as a result of not being guaranteed entry into the top events on the World Calendar. Could you blame them?
Imagine you're the VP of marketing in a multi-national company and you get a proposal to sponsor a cycling team. My guess is this proposal would be similar to the ones we at Slipstream Sports are constantly pitching. In this proposal, it's clear that your team will participate in all the top races in the world, a few medium-sized ones in key areas for your company, and, of course, Le Tour. After a look at the demographics cycling fans cover, the total television audiences, the number of countries TV coverage goes to, the total volume of "all in" media coverage, you decide investment makes sense. Your CPT (cost per thousand) for viewership crushes any other sport in efficiency - you'll probably get a raise!
However, one small item: did you check to see that you'll actually get invited to all these races? Probably not, as why would this come in to question at all with a former Tour winner on the team you're looking at? Well, just in case, its best to put a clause in the contract that states: "...the team must race in the Tour de France or contract may be terminated."
Fast forward to today. The team sponsored by Geox has a small chance of riding the Tour de France and therefore the sponsor may terminate the contract. That would be a tragedy. No, I'm not talking about this being a tragedy for the riders and management. While 80 or so people losing their jobs would be tragic, that's only half of it. The other half is that a multi-billion dollar corporation with a great brand - and an interest in cycling - may just have been turned away from the sport, perhaps permanently. This would be an example of an absolute failure of cycling to arrive at a cooperative system that encourages stable, long term sponsorships to exist.
After such a bold statement, now I'm supposed to blame someone, right? Cycling has a great history of everyone blaming everyone else (an issue for another day.) So, let me dispel that: no, I don't blame anyone in particular, but I certainly see a huge need to prevent this from happening again.
So, how did this situation evolve? And what to do to prevent it?
Well, the evolution of how we got to the current selection system is long and complex, to understate it. This is a very simplified version of that history: in 2005, the UCI introduced the ProTour. The idea behind the ProTour was to modernize cycling into an NFL-style league, where the top teams were consistent entities, year to year, and they competed in the same events, year to year. "The best teams in the best races" was the motto of the ProTour. Very similar to the model of professional sports used in the USA. However, it seemed that the folks organizing the races didn't want to be told which teams to invite to their events. Understandable, as they have been running these events for 100+ years. So, they refused to accept the ProTour.
Quite simply, most race organizers don't want teams to be guaranteed a place in their race, they want to choose who gets to come - or at least have a ranking system to make the teams fight for their entry. The UCI, conversely, wants to determine and regulate the selection procedures and make it uniform and egalitarian, not just invitational. Years of wrangling and fighting ensued which have gotten us to the point we are now, where the UCI has a system in place to determine which teams can race in the best events and the organizers have, seemingly, agreed to this same system.
While I see the logic and thought behind both the UCI's and the race organizers' positions, and am happy that a compromise has been reached, I fear that teams' rights and concerns have been overlooked in this compromise. Is it a system that will prevent sponsors such as Geox from being potentially turned away from the sport? Or is it a system that will invite instability amongst athletes and teams and impede forward thinking and progressive movements in the sport? Is this the best system for the nearly 2,000 people employed by the professional teams in cycling?
As of today, the system that determines participation in large events consists of weighting the sporting value (ranking), ethics, and financial stability of each team. The first and foremost of these determinants is the sport value ranking system. This system places a value, in terms of points, on each and every rider. The higher the accomplishments of the rider, the higher the point value he carries. If a rider should choose to change teams, the points follow him. If a team wishes to participate in the major races, they'll need to be in the top 15 teams in the world (according to this system) to be guaranteed a starting slot (provided they have no major gaps in the ethics or finance category). If a new team, out of nowhere, can hire enough top riders to come on board, they can place themselves in the top 15 of the sporting value weighting system, and therefore get invitations to all the top races.
The riders carry all of the ranking weight. Not one ounce of a team's performance is attributed to the 80-odd people working as directors, mechanics, coaches, chiropractors, etc. Hence why we saw a team that has yet to race one day or pay one paycheck ranked as the number one team in the world. Quite simply: if you have enough money, you can plop into the very top of cycling without ever having raced one day.
Now, while this open system might seem to be something that would attract more sponsorship dollars, not fewer, consider the perspective of all of the current and future sponsors in cycling. Current sponsors have zero assurance that a team they sponsor will not have its roster raided, their ranking pulled from them, and not be upended by someone who comes along with a bigger budget. Conversely, potential new sponsors will have quite a few questions that won't be answered until after their commitment is made and it's too late to change directions. Am I getting involved with a team that will be in the top races for the duration of my contract? Maybe...or, as Geox found out, maybe not.
A possible solution
Would it not be more advantageous for teams, race organizers, and the UCI to have a system where a certain number of teams, and the management groups behind those teams, were assured of entry into top events on a long term basis? Maybe instead of 15 teams fighting on a year-to-year basis, 15 teams are given a 10-year contract with all the top events, based on their history, performances, and ethical foundation and then the remaining 5-7 teams are invited as new comers and potential league members after the 10 years is up.
This system would allow a company such as Geox to look at various options clearly. Option A: sponsor a team with guaranteed, contractually-bound entry into the Tour de France and other top events, even if Geox can't be the title sponsor immediately (due to the title being occupied)...or option B: build a proprietary team, slowly, over time, that may one day be considered for a slot into the "league" that has guaranteed entry into the Tour de France. This creates solid, definable points of entry into top tier cycling. It also creates scarcity in the sponsorship market of top tier cycling, which in turn creates greater value in cycling. To sponsor a team that participates in the Tour is something to be fought over and cherished, as there are only a limited number of spaces to be had for the coming years.
The multiples and benefits of this solution are enormous. To start with, giving contractual participation provides guarantees to the teams and allows for them to cease the "hand to mouth" year-to-year fight for sponsor dollars. If a sponsor wants to be represented in Le Tour, for example, there are only so many options. This drives sponsorship to existing organizations and allows them to build long term and stable partnerships. This as opposed to new sponsors entering the sport with unproven or unstable organizations which can potentially damage current teams' and events' respective value by pirating riders and making the sport confusing to follow for fans (ie - who does he race for again?).
These limited slots, and their contractual rights to participate in top events, create value for the organizations holding the contracts. This value, in turn, allows raising money through sale of equity in said organizations, which hold the contracts for entry into the top events. The ability to sell equity would be the savior of many a team in lean times when sponsorship dollars are short. Both creating a limited and defined sponsorship market in cycling and creating value that allows different forms of fundraising outside of pure sponsorship would allow athletes and other employees of pro cycling teams to exist in a more stable and calm environment and keep them from making poor decisions in insecure and unstable moments (do I have a team next year??!). This in turn allows greater inroads to be made in anti-doping movements and culture changes, as people aren't fearful of their future quite so much.
For race organizers the influx of cash and value to the teams as a result of the sponsorship market scarcity and value created by guaranteeing the participation is beneficial as well. A new sponsor for a team would be likely to leverage their sponsorship long term by also becoming a partner of the events the team is participating in. Events and teams must become business partners when the relationship must continue for a long period. And as they know their team will be participating, long term, their investment in the event feels more comfortable.
Basically, what I'm proposing is the teams and the race organizers become partners as opposed to adversaries. Both succeed and fail under the same roof. To me the benefits of this, especially in the realm of increasing funding and effort for anti-doping, are immense. If everyone has a singular business interest, the need for fair competition for all is increased. If everyone is in the same boat, nobody is going to want a hole in the hull.
As it stands, we have created a system that encourages anyone and everyone to pitch a potential sponsor on Tour de France participation, no matter what their background or if they've ever seen a bicycle race. Imagine how confusing it would be for a sponsor to be getting various proposals from various organizations and all of them claiming the possibility of racing the Tour. Who's really going? Who isn't? This leads to a situation like Geox where promises were made, and now a disillusioned and disheartened multi-billion dollar sponsor considers walking away from the sport feeling misled, a team manager is angry and confused, and a ton of people are risking their jobs.
If the Geox situation were to turn out like that of Unibet a few years ago, cycling would potentially have lost somewhere near $50 million - from both teams combined - in total dollars due to opaque agreements and misunderstandings. Have the race organizers considered that in a true business partnership scenario that these dollars could have also contributed to their events' growth? Have we all considered that just 5 percent of these dollars could have made a massive difference in anti-doping research efforts? That's just one example of how a true partnership could be made to work. It's time to re-evaluate cycling, so we don't lose such valuable partners going forward. Instead of fighting for the crumbs, cycling needs to focus on baking more bread.
I don't have any fingers to point here. I don't think our situation is anyone's, in the singular sense, fault. It is just the result of years of confusing and bitter fighting.
However, now, and always, we have a chance to evaluate and perhaps rethink how the broad overview of this sport appears to large corporations that could enter cycling as sponsors. Cycling has such an incredible emotion and beauty to it, and its events are unique and brilliant in the world of sports. To settle for anything less than a solid, understandable, and clear interaction between teams and events does not do the sport justice. And, quite frankly, I get sick of hearing about "football this, soccer that, and Formula One blah blah blah" from potential sponsors...Cycling is a better sport. Period. Time to start making it a better business, too.
- Jonathan Vaughters
Garmin-Sharp CEO and former professional rider Jonathan Vaughters brings his voice and experience to Cyclingnews.com