An interview with Svein Tuft, October 13, 2008
Garmin-Chipotle's very existence relies on hard work. Its bosses, directors and riders epitomise an ethos focusing on grafting their place in a peloton fighting for credibility. Thanks to great performances in 2008, the team has become a model for a more credible sport where the words 'clean' and 'win' are mixed more easily, as Cyclingnews' Les Clarke discovers.
Jon Vaughters isn't a big guy, although punching above his weight is something that comes naturally. He rode for Roger Legeay's now-defunct Crédit Agricole outfit at a time when Americans were still quite a novelty in the European peloton. The Boulder, Colorado, native has become a pioneer in what some people are calling 'the way forward.'
Since retiring from riding in 2003, Vaughters has taken the TIAA-CREF development programme and transformed it into a squad capable of vying for overall honours at the Tour de France, as evidenced by Christian Vande Velde's fifth overall at this year's Tour. That was the culmination of a journey Vaughters embarked upon five years ago.
"I think there's a lot to be said for looking after the details and picking a group of guys who will work well together." - Vaughters on keeping Garmin's core riders.
A fantastic display
However, it was so much more than just a fantastic display throughout La Grande Boucle that made 2008 an incredible year for this former professional. There was the joy of an unexpected top-five in Paris-Roubaix, the synchronisation of the Giro d'Italia team time trial and consequent race lead, the dominance at the Tour of California and Tour de Georgia plus Vande Velde's win in the Tour of Missouri.
Vaughters admits that the team had to "prove ourselves from the get go," which it did at California and Paris-Nice, although it didn't come easily due to illness and injury, as he explained. "We went from the perfect early season to having to cross our fingers for the Tour invitation; Trent [Lowe] was going great at Paris-Nice and I honestly think he could have been on the overall podium, but he crashed at a really critical moment. That whole race sort of ended up falling down flat because of Trent crashing and David Millar getting sick... but luckily we pulled that together nicely."
The rider who carried Garmin-Chipotle's hopes for the overall classification in Paris-Nice, Lowe, was part of the influx of riders integrated into the squad at the end of 2007. Despite the responsibility, he takes a simple approach to racing in some of the year's biggest races.
He explained that his early-season form was the best he experienced in 2008, and this showed at the Tour de Georgia. Yet he maintained a basic philosophy. "If you're going well then you're normally having fun. That was the case there [Georgia]," he said. "We were having fun racing our bikes, and if you race to your maximum and you still don't win, then it's okay – it's still as fun as if you did win."
He didn't win – narrowly beaten by four seconds by another young charge, Kanstantsin Siutsou. However, the attention focused on Lowe, who began his professional road career with Discovery Channel, was increasing. He's now part of the group of young riders that are doing big things, and his awareness of this fact has expanded also.
"There are a ton of young riders out there doing well and winning races; Robert Gesink, Andy Schleck, [Vincenzo] Nibali and Siutsou... and Danny Martin on our team. I guess I'm seeing it now because I'm here and noticing a lot of these young guys. Whether there was the same ten years ago, I don't know... perhaps there is greater depth amongst the younger riders," said Vaughters.
It's this youth brigade that excited Vaughters since becoming a team manager, and he explains his outlook on turning talented youngsters into great senior riders. "No matter what happens with the [drug] testing, I know we can win at this, and then we're going to develop our Classics riders, our sprinters and climbers so that as anti-doping progresses.
"As the anti-doping technology catches up with the doping technology, guys like Tyler [Farrar] and Trent are at a prime age when they're ready to go in the biggest races in the world."
Another young rider proving Vaughters' point is Martyn Maaskant. The Dutch neo-professional surprised the cycling world with an incredible ride to finish fourth in Roubaix, and his team boss tells how unexpected that performance was. "Once we had the Tour invite in hand, it was time for the Classics guys – we didn't put much of a focus on the Ardennes Classics – but we put a big focus on Paris-Roubaix.
"We went into Roubaix thinking we could win with Magnus [Backstedt] – that didn't work out but we came out of the race with an incredible performance from a neo-professional, Martyn Maaskant."
Keeping the core
There were new names such as Lowe and Maaskant lighting up the leader board in big races, those members of Vaughters' squad who had been there since the early days – riders such as Danny Pate, Blake Caldwell and Will Frischkorn – were also developing the winning mentality. Vaughters used an interesting analogy when outlining the reasons why keeping long-term members involved in the evolution of a team is so important.
"I think there's a lot to be said for looking after the details and picking a group of guys who will work well together, and just sticking with them. We've got guys like Blake Caldwell, who has been on our team since 2003, and we haven't said, 'You didn't perform this year, you're out.' We stick by our guys who have really bad injuries and give them a second chance or a third, sometimes.
"It doesn't always pay short-term dividends, but in the long-term I think it's pretty effective. All the guys on the team look around and think, 'Man, they're still supporting this guy who has had a knee injury that's taken two years to come back from and they're still giving him a second shot...' They know that if something happens to them, they're going to be supported, and not just thrown away like dirty Kleenex."
He then ties it back to the fight against doping in the sport, another pointer to the squad's reputation as the leaders in this area. "If you're going to take a strong anti-doping ethos, and you're going to push guys really hard to help each other in the team – you're going to have to sacrifice yourself 100 per cent for Martyn or Christian – they want to know what they're going to get out of the deal.
"If they're going to be a team player and forego any thought of doping they need to know what they're getting out of it. I can prove this to guys by going, 'No, that's not the way this team is, and here's an example...' The proof is in the pudding in standing by riders who need a little bit more time to get on top of things."
And with this generational change comes more credible performances, as witnessed by Frischkorn's near miss on stage three of the Tour, or Pate's similar fate on stage 15. While his teammates were taking advantage of breakaway opportunities, Lowe describes his experiences in the same Tour, invaluable in any aspiring stage racer's career.
"I think after about 10 or 12 days – you have good and bad patches – your fatigue sort of flat lines and you just get to a certain point of tiredness," he said. "It's about there that you notice some days are easier than others. Then there are times during each stage when you're good at the start and somewhere later you're in a flat spot.
"In some ways, I think the second week is mentally the hardest – the novelty of being at the Tour de France has worn off a bit and there's enough to go that it seems a bit endless. In the third week you know that you finish at the end of the week and you just have to go for it."
Part two will look at Garmin's fight against the scourge of doping and how it deals with the seemingly constant barrage of negative headlines.
For more on Garmin and Vaugughters, read: