Colorado native Jonathan Vaughters is passionate about running his Slipstream/Chipotle team the right way, but he is wary of declaring he can change the world's perception of his troubled sport.
"Trying to control what millions of people think well, I might be able to, but start small," he says. "Let it spread naturally and organically."
The 34-year-old director talks more about what lies ahead for his team and the sport of cycling.
Question from Bonnie D. Ford: You say your anti-doping stance is not only ethical, but also part of a business model.
Answer from Jonathan Vaughters: We're creating value for a sponsor by essentially being the leaders -- in a way, winning the race of changing the paradigm of cycling. And we're creating such a buzz around that, that our sponsors are saying, "Wow, this is effective." Then it takes the pressure off winning races. Now, does that mean we don't want to win races? No, of course not. When we go into every race, the objective is to win. Do we have to adapt our tactics to the fact that we've absolutely said no to doping? Yes. Do we have to expect that we're only going to win when we get a little lucky and things are going our way? Sure, fine; it's not going to happen on a mechanical, regularized basis. But we still go into every race trying to win. Sometimes it happens; sometimes it doesn't. But the point is, you've taken the pressure off that.
You can concentrate on the process of perfecting the training, perfecting the aerodynamics, perfecting the equipment, perfecting the clothing, perfecting the nutrition. You focus on that -- and then, when race day comes, perfecting the tactics, you show up, you've got everything lined up, you're perfectly prepared and you do what you do. If you've actually created this background where the process is more interesting to the media and more interesting to the fans than the actual winning, then you've taken the whole onus off it. You've basically created it so the whole, "I had to dope. I was obliged to dope," that's gone. The winning is beautiful, and you can celebrate it twice as vibrantly as if you'd done it a different way. It might not come as often, but when it does, the balloons are twice as big.
Q: How are you going to deal publicly with the question of whether any of your riders doped in the past?
A: End of the day, I think it's a little bit of a post-apartheid situation in cycling. I don't think that there's the possibility of saying, every single rider who's done anything in the last eight years, we're going to wipe them out of the sport for two years, make them serve their time and then come back. It's not realistic, because, in my opinion, the percentages would be very high if you went all the way back to eight years ago. And you have some very morally founded, good people that would fall into that category. I don't even think people like David [Millar] who have had to serve some time would want that to happen. We can't just replace the entire peloton with 12-year-old children and say, "Now it's good." So you just kinda have to accept that there are skeletons in the closet. What I can control is from here forward. I can't control five years ago. I did my best due diligence to make sure that I had athletes that, from here forward, were going to be able to perform clean. And, quite frankly, that's the point of the whole thing.
Q: People might look at you and say, "You're smart, you're driven, you probably could have gone into another industry. Why do this?"
A: Everyone on the planet knows about that little IM conversation I had with Frankie Andreu.
[The alleged transcript of a July 2005 instant messenger chat between Vaughters and Andreu has surfaced in multiple media reports. The on-line conversation turned to the subject of doping and Vaughters referred to anecdotes he had heard from the 2004 Tour de France involving Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong and the Discovery team. Vaughters later characterized the content as "gossip."]
That was sort of like before I had this dream, and it was when I didn't know what to do with this passion I had. I was angry about what was going on, and there was nothing to do about it other than bitch and moan to your buddy on the Internet. That was a very public example of how negative I was at that time. And now, I have something entirely and totally positive that I can pour all that into. It's very cathartic for me. Now, with Taylor Phinney on our junior team, you can draw the line of responsibility very directly. You have someone who will, almost certainly, be one of the best professional riders in the world in six years' time. So is it not your responsibility to do everything you can? I know his mom and dad. I don't want to have to lie to his mom and dad seven years from now but the sad story is that in cycling 10 years ago, that is the way the story would have gone.
Q: Do you wish someone had been around to create this kind of environment when you were 17?
A: I always get a kind of retroactive stab of envy that I wish I could have raced in the '80s with Andy Hampsten and those guys. It was before blood doping, before EPO, before all this crap. You can't turn back the clock, but you can do something to change the paradigm on a greater basis. People are always gonna cheat, but, well, if the economics make sense to not cheat, then very few people will only the truly pathological nutsos are gonna do it. Not your stable, morally grounded, intelligent person that just gets sucked into something because it's that, or quit your job.
Are you gonna have these guys that are just completely pathologically obsessed with winning and nothing else? Yeah, I can't do anything about them, and they won't be on this team. But that doesn't matter to me. It's getting the foundation correct. If I can prove that I can provide a positive media image to our sponsors through many different forums, one of which is winning, then I think I've succeeded on the business front. If I provide it to the fans, I think I've succeeded on the sporting front. And then we can have a team of sane people. Cycling has no credibility right now. We're building it from scratch. The way I see it, we can risk everything because there is no fall at this point. For the next couple of years, I think it's worth risking everything and throwing everything into this paradigm, because there's nothing to lose, quite frankly.
Bonnie D. Ford is a writer for ESPN.com. She will cover Slipstream's progress during the 2008 season. Next month, Ford will follow the team in its first major competitive test at the Tour of California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.