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'It takes one to know one' – Vaughters sees no red flags in Mark Padun

Vaughters Padun
Vaughters has signed Padun for 2022 (Image credit: Getty Images)

When Mark Padun produced a breakthrough performance this summer in the Critérium du Dauphiné, taking back-to-back wins in the mountains, there were some very different reactions.

At the one extreme, there was simple admiration for a young climber showing a remarkable degree of versatility in winning two very different kinds of stages, not to mention having the strength to drop some of the world’s more established top riders so close to the Tour de France.

At the other extreme, the Bahrain Victorious rider's performances sparked suspicion. An article in the following day's edition of French daily Le Parisien carried comments from an unnamed team boss and a 'member of a French team' airing doubts, even if they recognised they had no hard evidence to substantiate them.

As the Tour de France kicked in, Padun, who did not race there, faded off the radar before heading to the Vuelta a España. However, one manager who did not lose track of the Ukrainian was EF Education-Nippo’s Jonathan Vaughters, who has added Padun to his roster for 2022, despite him previously having a contract at Bahrain for next season. 

In a lengthy interview with Cyclingnews, Vaughters talks through the intensive process of checking out Padun's background that led him to provide a definitive green light to put a contract on the table.

Cyclingnews (CN): Mark Padun sparked a lot of people’s interest at the Dauphiné. What was it that struck you about him, why did you want to sign him, and what was the procedure to overcome the questions that some people have of him?

Jonathan Vaughters (JV): I first noticed him there too and the way he won was incredibly dominant. Our head of sports science, Peter Schep, models out every stage [in advance], especially days where we intend to try to put guys in the breakaway, to try to determine if you can make it to the finish and, say, how much time you need at the bottom of a last climb to win. So the first thing I knew about Mark Padun was Peter calls me and says ‘God, this guy’s totally screwed up my mathematical models. They don’t apply any more because he went so fast up the hills.'

I started following him after that, dug into his junior and U23 years as a rider and found a pretty interesting character. He was an excellent junior and won quite a few races at U23. He was very close to winning the World Championships in that category ahead of [Tadej] Pogačar. But he was also very inconsistent and that carried on into his pro years. He’s not able to hold it together all year long. So it piqued my interest. But he had a contract for 2022 so I didn’t really think too much of it. 

Then very late in the year, his agent called me and said ‘he’s going to be able to get out of his contract.’  I asked: ‘well, how’s he going to do that?’ Essentially he just did not get along with Bahrain, did not get along with the team management, the directors, the other riders. I don’t want to speak for him but there clearly was… the magic wasn’t there between the rider and the team. I don’t think it was a result of Mark being selfish. If you watch what he did for [teammate and GC contender] Jack Haig in the Vuelta, it was probably some of the best domestique work I’ve seen all year long. He dragged Jack through the last three or four mountain stages. If there was such a thing as a most valuable helper he won that award by a country mile. On the day that [Miguel Angel] López got dropped, it was Padun that took the pull that dropped López. So I started thinking ‘what’s this kid about?’

I just did real basic stuff to start with, like go look at his social media sites. The first thing that pops up on his Instagram, which I thought was interesting … the headline on it says ‘I’m a child of God’, something like that. It turns out he’s a very spiritual person. The second thing I found kind of interesting is as an American team, we don’t have that many American riders any more but we still do have that American culture about it. It turns out his parents live in Seattle, something they seem quite proud of as a family. That’s not to say they aren’t proud of being Ukrainian but they definitely have a bit of an American vibe.

So then it was more about addressing the harder questions that are there. I dug into his biological passport and there was absolutely no resistance on his manager’s part, or his part, on giving me access – not just sending me the files; it was ‘here’s my password, go look at whatever you want inside my WADA account'. So I looked at all the numbers and quite frankly the OFF-score, which is the primary determinant of red blood cell manipulation, was very consistent. 

Ukrainian Mark Padun of Bahrain Victorious celebrates after winning the last stage of the 73rd edition of the Criterium du Dauphine cycling race from La Lechere to Les Gets France Sunday 06 June 2021BELGA PHOTO DAVID STOCKMAN Photo by DAVID STOCKMANBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images

Padun winning his second straight Dauphiné stage (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

CN: Can you give us some more background on why this matters?

JV: Sure. There’s what’s called the OFF-score, which takes the total amount of reticulocytes, which are brand new baby red blood cells, and correlates that to the total number of red blood cells. There are two ways that this can signal either blood doping or EPO use. The first way is if there are too many baby red blood cells, which means the body is being stimulated to produce red blood cells more than is natural. In other words, EPO. The second way you can determine a poor-looking OFF-score is if there are too few baby red blood cells. What that’s indicating is you just dumped in a bag of blood and your body has essentially shut down production of new red blood cells because it has too many and it says ‘I don’t want any more'.

So your body can be either literally ‘on' – it’s shooting out loads of new blood cells – or it’s literally ‘off’ – it’s saying ‘no-no-no, we’re done here’. That way you can get an idea if there’s been significant red blood cell manipulation, by looking at the OFF-score. But [Padun’s OFF-score] was very stable. And that’s a much more precise indication than most of the more broadly talked-about things like haematocrit. So that was also encouraging. 

Then I was trying to work out what the reason was for his inconsistency. [EF head sports director] Charly Wegelius was immensely helpful in talking to his coaches and directors in his U23 years in various Italian teams. And they all had an incredibly high regard for him, except for one thing that kept popping up, which was the guy just doesn’t know how to eat right. He’s very inconsistent with his eating, so he balloons up, and his weight kind of bounces around a lot. So I’m like ‘ok, I’m going to surprise test him.’ And we sent him in for haematological testing and VO2 Max power, physiological testing, but we did it with one day’s notice, meaning, it was what, a Wednesday in late October and I said, ok, you’ve got to be there tomorrow'. He agreed. The point of it is that his season was over with, he’d been resting for a while, so when you pop-quiz somebody like that, if they were going to manipulate something, they don’t have time to do so.

He took the VO2 Max test well out of condition from his peak and produced what I would say is the highest gross – not relative, but gross – VO2 Max test result I’ve ever seen in 30 years in this sport. By a gross VO2 Max test result, I mean most times when you see the number like 80 or 85 or 90, that’s millilitres per kilogram per minute. But gross means you take out the kilogram, as in ‘I’m not going to care what this guy weighs, so, what is the total oxygen-carrying capacity of this beast?’ I’ve heard rumours that Greg LeMond produced a similar level of VO2 Max at some points in his career, but I can certainly say that Padun’s gross VO2 Max was much higher than anything I’ve encountered in my career as a manager or rider. 

So that was impressive. But the guy was pretty heavy at the time of the test, so I basically had to think what realistic weight can this rider get to? At the Dauphiné he was about 66 or 67 kilos which is not very light for a climber, but it is certainly lighter than the 76 kilograms he weighed when he was taking the test. Then when I plugged in the numbers of 67 kilos that he was at the Dauphine I was like ‘Ok’, this rider has a VO2 Max of over 90 at that weight’. That’s really impressive.

Then, it was like somehow you [Padun] got to 67 kilos at the Dauphiné, ‘how did that happen?’ And this is where you realise ‘some riders just need a nutritionist’.  Because he answers ‘Well, everybody told me I needed to cut out carbohydrates and have a protein diet so I did that for eight weeks and trained at altitude. I lost a ton of weight but I felt like hell the entire time. Then three days before the race I show up [meet up with the team] and the team starts giving me pasta and spaghetti rice and so on and I started eating that.’ So as the Dauphiné went on Mark was slowly getting better and better as his body was slowly refuelling with glycogen he’d been starving himself of for two months. And he hit that magical moment where he was lightweight and his gas tank was full. So that’s how he produced those incredible performances at the Dauphiné.

The question is how do you get that to happen more often? Well, that’s going to be some work. We’re definitely going to have to work on keeping his attitude to nutrition away from extremes and focus on a more ‘Steady-Eddy’ approach to that. But at least we’ve identified why the inconsistency is there and we can work with that, and if we’re successful then the kid has the biggest engine I’ve ever seen. So something good’s got to come of that.

Mark Padun (Bahrain-Merida)

Padun in his early stint at the Bahrain team (Image credit: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

CN: So two of three things you did to try to ensure that any question marks could be wiped out were a) a spot check test b) delving into his bio passport as far as you can. How far back does that passport go?

JV: Since he started in the WorldTour [2018-Ed.] At U23 level it doesn’t exist.

CN: And the third factor was you also looked at his inconsistency and why that had happened. Are these the same parameters you’d use whenever you get a possible signing or is it something you do on a case by case basis?

JV: I’ve used this approach before. With quite a few riders you just look at the bio-passport data. This one I spent well over a month looking at and then we had Charly talking to his directors, trainers, teammates … it was understanding his background and where he’s from, who he is as a person. It’s putting all these factors together,  along with the spot check and the weight-bouncing-around question. It’s putting rather a complex puzzle together. So have I done this before? Yes. Do I do it with every rider we recruit? No.

CN: You’ve got a lot of data here. How much do you go on instinct on these questions?

JV: There’s a component of that. I try to look at the analytical data as much as I can, and I try to consult as many people as I possibly can to get a full picture. And by the way, none of this is 100 per cent. There’s [potential for] error in all of this, as there is in any profession. Anybody who claims [the opposite] in a sport isn’t being realistic. 

But I guess when you talk about instinct… I will say this, ‘it takes one [a doper] to know one’. I think I have a bit of an added perspective of that and I can use that perspective quite openly and without having to worry about what people think of me. And that is immensely helpful in making judgement calls like this.

My instinct in that regard is… he was almost more curious about his blood tests, he was asking what I was looking for. This did not strike me that he was a hardened criminal. Because I can tell you that when I was his age, I knew exactly what my OFF-score count meant, I knew exactly how that would go up and down and what factors were involved in making it do that. He clearly did not know those things, they’re just random numbers on a piece of paper. And those are things that I kind of look for - how much do you know about these things, what is your understanding of this. He seems to me to be a very intelligent kid, and very curious. But he doesn’t have a whole lot of knowledge about this.

CN: Slightly dumb question, but don’t Bahrain have a nutritionist?

JV: That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer. But if they do, I don’t think he listened to them much! But by the time we started talking, Mark had figured out a lot of this on his own and had hired his own nutritionist of his own volition. I thought that showed a great deal of self-initiative. So he’d identified his own Achilles heel.

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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.