Vaughters: This team is the love of my life

Slipstream manager on mergers, Hesjedal and USADA

Garmin-Sharp came within a whisker of dropping out of the WorldTour and their manager Jonathan Vaughters was offered opportunities to walk away from the sport altogether but after striking a team-saving merger deal with Cannondale, the American tells Cyclingnews that he’s very much still in love with the sport and his ‘baby,’ despite a turbulent past few years.

We are constantly told that cycling is a sport both undervalued and undersold, that sponsors should be lining up to back teams and that the sport is an excellent marketing opportunity when compared to soccer and other mainstream sports. While that may all be true, unless you’re backed by Kazakh oil or have the deep pockets of an Andy Rhis or Rupert Murdoch at your disposal, running a WorldTour team can be a draining and ultimately fruitless endeavour.

Take Cannondale and Garmin-Sharp, for example. Both have credible footings in the sport, impressive rosters and sound management structures, but had it not been for their merger for the 2015 season both teams would have probably vanished from the top tier of the sport.

Cannondale had been looking for a new partner for some time, and had courted Oleg Tinkov and his reserves of Russian roubles, while at the same time Garmin were set to lose Sharp as a co-sponsor and efforts to prop up the finances of a WorldTour team were beginning to take their toll.

“I don’t think either us or Cannodale would have been able to run a WorldTour team if there hadn’t been a deal,” Garmin’s Jonathan Vaughters tells Cyclingnews in rather blunt fashion.

“We, us and Cannondale I mean, basically became friends because we were discussing how hard it had become to run teams in this environment. People might not realise this but when we got our UCI report back a couple of weeks ago – and our budget is a little under 20 million USD – the report showed us where we were on the spectrum and we were way below average, which is around 26 to 27 million USD. That reality is hard to sustain and so as we got talking Cannondale, they told us that they’d tried to do a couple of deals, one with Tinkoff, but each time they were afraid of losing control of the brand image and not having input into the team.”

Over the spring and into the summer the deal between Slipstream and Cannondale began to take shape. Peter Sagan had already agreed to leave for Tinkoff-Saxo but a contingent of Cannondale riders would form part of the merger with Vaughters’ existing team. They’d bring with them their bikes – obviously – and their lime green livery, but the core of the team would remain from the Argyle Armada. A new board of directors would be created with Doug Ellis, Matt Johnson and Jonathan Vaughters representing Slipstream and three positions created for Cannondale.

“The deal really boiled down to trust and I don’t think Cannondale felt like they could trust a lot of people. They liked what they saw with us though and it went from there.” Vaughters adds.

It all sounds rather simple doesn’t it? We’ll bring the bikes, you supply the bulk of the riders and the team bus and we’ll worry about the dress code later. But in reality, even two parties that were keen on partnering had to navigate through laborious levels of US contract law and red tape.

“There were a lot of tough points and it was an incredibly tough negotiation. I’d not graduated my MBA at that point but I can say that I would not have been able to negotiate through the deal without a lot of a background knowledge that I gained from going back to school,” Vaughters says.

“They have a lot of equity partnerships, they now have board seats, and it’s probably the most complicated contract in professional cycling. That said, that’s how things work in the real world. It wasn’t just a case of ‘here’s a load of money, we want a kick-ass team, now go get ‘em tiger.’

“There were some moments when it almost looked too complicated and we thought we might not come through it.”

To the relief of those directly involved, a deal was eventually struck. Cannondale-Garmin, or Garmindale as they’ve been dubbed, will roll out in January at a presentation in New York and for the next three years the team will have an equal footing with the majority of WorldTour squads. Not quite Rihs’ BMC or Vinokourov’s Astana but the seeds of solidity and room to grow have been sown.

General manager Jonathan Vaughters stands outside the team bus before the start of the race in Bourg D’Oisans

A squad to challenge

There are few teams that are built around just one individual leader these days. BMC, Team Sky, Astana and FDJ are all structured around several big hitters and Cannondale-Garmin will be no exception. They may lack a Froome or Sagan but in Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky they house two of the most watchable and exciting riders in the current peloton.

Part of the attraction, with both men to some extent, is that you never know which of their sides will turn up for races. Will it be the Dan Martin who crashed out at the Giro or the one who provided a tactical master-class at Il Lombardia? Or the Talansky who huffed and puffed his way through the opening week until of the Tour until departing due to his injuries or the one who blitzed the Dauphiné field and came away with the biggest win of his career?

“There’s no jewel in the crown,” Vaughters says, playing down the fact that both riders would still be deemed leaders in any other squad.

“I mean if you look at our team we don’t have one single superstar. We’ve some damn good riders like Talansky and Martin, and we’ve got some great young talent but I think Cannnodale were attracted to the team because of our approach and structure,” he adds, returning to the principle of solidity that the team now has.

“With Andrew I just hope he can have some luck and with Dan it’s just about being consistent. We all know what he’s capable of on a good day, it’s just that he can still be up and down.”

Martin’s 2014 season was defined by its crashes at the Giro d'Italia, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Worlds as much as it was by his win at Lombardy and top ten finish at the Vuelta a Espana. However, Vaughters believes that his top-ranked rider can become the most consistent athlete on the circuit in the next twelve months as he targets the Classics and makes a two-pronged attack with Talansky on the Tour de France.

“He [Martin] had more than his fair share of crashes this year but if he has a safe and lucky year he could well be the number one rider in the world. As for Andrew he is capable of top five in the tour. Potentially we’ll send both to the Tour de France next year.”

Garmin-Sharp sign on in front of huge crowds in Worcester.

The Cervélo lesson

While the prospect of both riders lighting up the road to Paris may appear mouth-watering to Vaughters he is well aware that the hard work must begin in the here and now, and not when the Tour sets off from Utrecht in just under 200 days’ time. The merger between both Cannondale and Garmin needs to be subtly moulded and nurtured, and Vaughters has already lived through one less than perfect example of a merger when his team took in riders from the defunct Cervélo TestTeam in 2010.

It was billed up as a super team with Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler moving across with several other teammates. However in reality it was a tense affair. The two squads never truly gelled and most left after just a single season, with Hushovd himself bemoaning tactics and pay. Only Andreas Klier remains from the Cervélo intake and he serves as a director since hanging up his wheels.

“That period was very contentious. Some of the riders perhaps didn’t like out management style and Cervélo was going through a difficult time in a financial sense and had an abrupt management change. It was a lot rougher in many ways than this move with Cannondale and the lessons learned from that are that you need to do your research on your partner.

“Also a lot of the riders who came over were established older riders, with older habits. I think the average age was over 30 and the age at Cannondale is around 23 or 24. They’re not set in their ways, we don’t have a world champion coming across and what I really like about the new guys is that they realise that the landscape of the sport has changed.”

Moreno Moser, Davide Formolo, Davide Villella, Matej Mohoric, Alan Marangoni, Kristijan Koren and Alberto Bettiol have made the move from Cannondale and Vaughters can breathe a sigh of relief that not one of them is a current world champion but the new recruits are brimming with potential. Most of them worked in the service of Sagan at Cannondale but in Mohoric, Vaughters has inherited a double U23 world champion and Moser is a rider who promised so much until his star began to wane last season.

However, the pick of the crop in his eyes is Formolo, a rider who could barely contain his excitement at joining the team when Cyclingnews quizzed him about the move at the Canadian WorldTour races in September.

“Most teams now speak English and these new guys know that this a great chance for them to learn the Anglo-culture. Formolo stands out though, doesn’t he? For me he’s so talented. I think Moser is as well but I think he was moved along a little too quickly and with a little bit more pressure. We need to focus him on the races that he’s good at and not drag him around too many events.”

Christian Vande Velde was part of the Garmin team which won the stage 2 team time trial at the 2011 Tour de France which put teammate Thor Hushovd into the yellow jersey

The ethos of the team

Transitions under Vaughters’ watch are nothing new. Cervélo provided one episode and Cannondale have reached in to provide the latest, but each year the team has developed, changed and adapted. In the last two seasons, a number of the Garmin-Slipstream old guard hung up their wheels and although Ryder Hesjedal and Tom Danielson remain, this is an entirely different squad to the one that burst onto the top level in 2008.

“This is still Slipstream Sports and it’s still built on the ethics of fair racing and anti-doping,” Vaughters says when asked about the ethos and purpose of the team.

“Those are the foundations of the team and that’s been the same since day one. We don’t race around just one rider, and it’s all for one, one for all. We’re built on the same foundations with anti-doping and fair racing as the two most paramount principles, and then secondly we want to perform at the highest ability possibly but on a natural level.

“I don’t think that’s any different to when we first started out with this team. We’re still a bunch of young kids trying to succeed and we’re trying to give them the platform to do that and to be successful and, of course, never have to make the same decisions that will detract from that or they’ll have to live with ten years down the line. As soon as that part, changes there’s no point in Doug or myself being part of cycling anymore.”

Perhaps some background is needed at this point. Cyclingnews has been requesting an interview with Vaughters for several months. We’re not the only publication to do so and we’re not the only one that has been held at arm’s length.

This year Vaughters, as well as completing his MBA, has shied away from the media spotlight somewhat. True, he’s been to fewer races in mainland Europe so the chances of one of the staple ‘can I have a few minutes of your time?’ interviews outside the team bus have become few and far between.

That said, when Slipstream first made waves in Europe, they sailed along with a tailwind of goodwill as they created and embraced the image of ‘the clean team’. They certainly brought a breath of fresh air to the sport and Vaughters was a director who talked openly about cycling’s problem. Not only that but he offered up solutions. They weren’t to everyone’s liking, of course, but they stimulated debate and irked parts of the establishment at the UCI.

This was way before the index of suspicion, redacted names and USADA sanctions. Back in 2008, when Paul Kimmage posed for Procycling outside the Garmin team bus at the Tour, transparency wasn’t the vacuous, disingenuous, overly-used sound bite that it is today. It actually meant something. Almost nothing and yet nearly everything has changed since those hopeful days, and the pedestal upon which Vaughters placed himself and his team has taken a number of hits. And that’s partly why he hasn’t agreed to too many interviews in the last twelve months.

“I don’t know, that’s up to the people,” he says when asked whether the perception of the team has changed.

“Listen, I think we did the right things considering the situation we as a team and the sport was in. I understand that some fans don’t have all the information but at the end of the day if I step back and ask myself if we went about things in the right way or wrong way from 2004 onwards from an ethical standpoint, then I think the answer is yes. No, I know the answer is yes. Did we make choices that some may not like or some don’t understand, sure, but for me and Doug, we did the best we could and we can sleep at night.

“All we’ve wanted, all we’ve ever wanted to create is a platform where riders never had the pressure to do things they may regret later. That’s never been any different and all the decisions made around that, whether it’s the USADA decision or something else, all of them still come back to that principle.”

Vaughters’ team, he believes, not only gave hope to younger riders coming through but also provided riders like Danielson, Hesjedal, Christian Vande Velde, and Dave Zabriskie with a second chance.

A number of nagging issues grated, however. Why had USADA seen fit to hand out such meek six-month bans? Why had everyone switched on their consciences in such a collective manner in 2006? And why had Garmin sent the soon-to-be banned riders - Zabriskie, Vande Velde and Danielson - through the American circuit to win races right before the USADA decision was about to be made public?

“Look it’s no secret, our head mechanic worked at US Postal. Our head of logistics worked at the team. I knew the people that we were hiring came from a team that had a pretty intense history. I knew that because I was involved in that history too,” he says.

“That doesn’t mean that those people enjoyed that history or that they didn’t want a way out and I think we’ve provided an avenue for them to re-start their lives. Does that cause you a long term perception issue? Sure, but I’m more concerned about what’s actually right and wrong than the perception of people who didn’t have to live through the same time in cycling.”

“But sure, are we judged on the same scale as BMC or Omega? We’re not. We’re judged on a much higher scale,” Vaughters adds, pointing out correctly that the number of team managers who will talk as opening about doping are few and far between.

“It’s true we ask for that [scrutiny] and still in ten years we’ve not had a rider dope on our team. Ever. We’ve lived up to that. That was the initial promise. If that ever is broken then Doug and I are out.”

2012 Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal

Hesjedal

One reason why Vaughters may have found this year more trying than others was Ryder Hesjedal’s doping confession in the Autumn of 2013. Cyclingnews had been trying to talk to the Canadian since the start of the year, ever since his doping confession came out, in fact, and, like the majority of the cycling press, we’ve run into brick walls. At times it has felt like the drawbridge of transparency has been well and truly lifted, but for Vaughters the reality is far more pragmatic.

“He was placed in a situation where he had national anti-doping authorities telling him not to discuss it publicly,” Vaughters says. “He was put in a difficult place, stuck between a rock and a hard place. He can’t say no to the authorities and say screw you it’s more important that I have the trust of CN rather than WADA? That’s unrealistic. Okay, yes he put himself in that position if you look at it in the long term, and he understands that.”

Hesjedal’s confession centred purely on his career as a mountain biker and according to his statement he was clean at US Postal and Phonak. He eventually would talk to the press, a local Canadian publication, but an interview request from Cyclingnews to talk about the subject has never been accepted.

“I believe him. I do. I can tell you, like a lot of people out there I thought ‘wait a minute are you saying nothing happened at Phonak or Postal?’ That this was just MTB?’ To be frank I was highly sceptical of that statement too. While I don’t have access to all the information and interviews I did ask point plank the people who interviewed him and I asked point blank whether it was believable and the answer was ‘his statement is believable and fitted in with what everyone else has told us.’

“I also asked him directly. His answer was the same as it was public. You either trust someone or you don’t and if you trust them then you stand by them.”

The currency of trust is at a premium in cycling these days. Usually the ones who try and usher fans and the media into looking towards the future rather than into the past are the ones with skeletons still within their closets.

Vaughters stresses that there has been a seismic shift within the sport over the last few years and that riders have a real choice over the path they take. In the 1990s and the majority of the 2000s the majority of riders were doping just in order to keep up and the reality meant that if you weren’t on a programme you’d be treading water before inevitably drowning. Vaughters has first-hand experience of that, it’s well documented, but if his own confession is taken at face value then shouldn’t his assertion that riders can win clean in the current peloton?

“When I say racing is cleaner now, some people misinterpret that and say it’s bullshit because someone has gone positive but the fact of the matter is that the reason I stick by that statement 100 percent is because when I was racing at WorldTour level the choice was either to either dope or walk away,” he says.

“That was the culture and there were a lot of guys who thought they were doing their job and that they didn’t have hardcore cheating mentalities. So to win a race like the Dauphiné Liberé clean was a ludicrous notion. To finish in the top ten was ridiculous. It was never going to happen,” he says, perhaps referring to the 1999 edition of the race in which he set a record for the ascent of Mont Ventoux before eventually succumbing to Casino’s Alexandre Vinokourov.

“Now are there guys out there that are still potentially doping? Absolutely. Is the sport 100 per cent clean? That’s not for me to say but I think you’ll never reach perfection. But do I know definitively that guys with talent and who work hard can have successful careers now racing clean? Yes. And that wasn’t possible in the 1990s.

“That’s a fundamental change so when people are chasing around looking at whether Froome has climbed faster than this or that guy – that’s an interesting academic exercise and should certainly be pursued – but I know that you can have a successful career clean, and that you can run a successful team now.”

“That’s special,” Vaughters adds. “That’s so different to when I was racing. When I was a young pro and I compare to the place young guys are in now, it’s amazing the difference. These guys now can choose to cheat if they want, but the talented and hard-working ones can also choose to have immensely successful careers clean. That wasn't so in 1996. No way. No how."

The subject of climbing speeds has certainly been a divisive topic in recent years. At one point they were used as a barometer as to whether the doping climate had changed for the better. Now they’re picked up as cases pointing towards the other side of the scale. And when riders are climbing faster than their contemporaries from the Armstrong era it’s only fair to raise questions.

“I can’t argue with the exact numbers,” Vaughters admits. “For a while I felt that and saw that the speeds were coming down and I was like ‘okay that’s a good sign.’ If I look at the speeds of my riders, they’ve been in a place that I’m comfortable with. Then you say well what about this guy or that guy, and the fact is I don’t know. Back in the day I had the knowledge of what was a doped performance. Now I don’t know because I don’t have the full background on every rider. With my riders, when Andrew Talansky won the Dauphiné I can vouch for that 100 per cent and I know that it’s clean.

“In 100 years that will still be true. Did Ryder win the Giro 100 per cent clean? Yes, and that will still be the case in 100 years, 1000 years from now. But what other people do, I can’t say. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter but what matters to me is that we won a Grand Tour and did it clean. That’s an important statement. I know definitively that you couldn’t win the Giro clean in 1996 but it was done in 2012. Maybe some guys are still cheating but you can still win some damn big races now and that wasn’t the case 15 years ago. Let’s keep pursuing perfection but the improvements made are massive. It’s a different world and I wish more people would understand that. It makes me sad sometimes that they don’t.”

And while the recent run of positive doping cases are ‘disheartening’ and ‘discouraging,’ Vaughters strongly believes that cycling is restoring credibility.

“Whether I would continue or not was an interesting question I posed to myself. When I was putting the new team together I had some nice opportunities that were presented to me after my MBA,” Vaughters says before a long pause.

“But I still love the sport, I truly do. I don’t have to stay in cycling, it’s a choice and I just hope that over time the fans fall back in love with the sport. I thought about walking away, I did. I think the sport is going in the right direction but I think it’s hard to see that sometimes. And I get why people are distrustful. Maybe my passion for it doesn’t come across in interviews. I worry about that, honestly.

“But I’m truly genuine in my sincerity and I get the idea that there is this post USADA hangover but in my head there’s this voice that’s screaming that we’ve turned such a massive corner. It’s such a better place for young riders. Yes there are still problem, look at the young riders going positive at Astana but overall the picture is so different now. The fact that this reality isn’t told or isn’t there for the fans, that makes me sad and at points has made me want to walk away but I’m committed to this path and to Cannondale-Garmin.”

“This team was and is the love of my life,” Vaughters finally adds, “and there is no walking away.”

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