When Jonathan Vaughters was 13, he entered his first bike race. The
small, skinny kid finished 33rd… of 33 participants. But he was
relentless in his determination to succeed, and by the age of 20 was a
pro cyclist on the European circuit.
Although no longer racing as a professional, Vaughters is refusing to surrender his beloved sport to those who try to win at any cost. He's the leader of a cycling team that has one of the most rigorous drug testing programs in sports. "Cycling has to take extreme measures to prove that it can rebuild credibility," he insists, pointing out, "right now it doesn't have any. It's not a matter of 'We need to maintain our credibility or guard our credibility.' No, no, it doesn't have any. It's starting from scratch."
Vaughters knows that path well. The skinny kid has grown into a sophisticated man who is leading cycling's renaissance in his own signature style. The 35-year-old scoured antique stores around the country to find authentic, Craftsman-style furniture for the cozy Denver bungalow he shares with his wife and young son. You'd think it was the home of an architect or art critic, except for the Tour de France stage winners' trophy.
Vaughters reluctantly pulls it from the back of a bookshelf. It's not to his aesthetic liking. "It looks like a Coke bottle," he says with a laugh, "a gold Coke bottle with a plastic ring around it!"
Vaughters was disillusioned by what he saw as he scaled the sports' ranks. In 1999, he helped Lance Armstrong win his first Tour de France as part of the U.S. Postal team. He was renowned as a mountain climber but at the top saw the sport in its true form. "Cycling in the 90s … was a world where, y'know, doping was very prevalent."
Vaughters retired in 2003 and has dedicated himself to changing a sport that's always had a drug problem. Even in the early 1900s, Tour de France riders sniffed ether-soaked handkerchiefs to cope with pain. Lately, EPO and testosterone have helped riders move to the front of the pack. Teams often pay cyclists based on their performance, ignoring whatever gave them that extra boost. Vaughters doesn't want another generation to face the same decision he did: "The decision is lose your dream that you've work for since you were 13 years old and probably forgone college to try to complete and dedicated thousands of hours toward and whatever else. Either forget about that because you are going to be deemed non-competitive. Or, completely scrap your moral and ethical grounding." Vaughters won't directly answer to whether he used drugs or not, saying big confessions distract from what the team is trying to accomplish.
His actions now make him a role model for his fellow Colorado-native Jason Donald. The former collegiate runner switched sports after graduation. He worked as a garbage collector in the mountains, chipping trash from snow banks by day and training on a stationary bike by night. And he followed the sport and its doped-up drama. "I remember those first couple of years when I was training really hard and just going, 'Wow, if I end up here, like, what's the point? What's the point of doing all this work to get into this sport that's so corrupted?'"
Donald found his spot on Vaughters' team. Now he has to give his blood and sweat for the cause. Mostly blood. About once a week, Team Garmin-Chipotle's riders' blood and urine are examined for abnormalities. This method allows discovery of not only known drugs but also the ones that are just hitting the market. These tests are on top of those required by race and international authorities. The team says its riders are tested 20 times more often than other pro cyclists.
Donald doesn't mind the blood-letting, explaining "This team is something special and this team is something different because there isn't any pressure to take drugs." He says Vaughters puts clean racing first. "The team director isn't telling you that you have to win this race. He's telling you to get out there and do your job and do it the best you can. And if at the end of the day, it's not what he expected out of you, well, then there's another day… and you'll get another chance soon."
That day for Vaughters' team came on May 10th at the Giro d'Italia. The team, decked out in blue and orange argyle, a nod to Vaughters' sense of style, showed that it had substance, too. Then called Team Slipstream, the squad clocked a blistering time in the time trial stage. Other teams attempted to cross the finish line faster, but in the end, the team fended off every squad. To wild applause, lead cyclist Christian Vande Velde stepped onto the winner's podium in Palermo and slipped into the pink jersey given to the day's fastest rider.
The victory rivaled any that Vaughters had achieved as a cyclist. He'd proved to the cycling world that a team could ride fast – without drugs. The sports governing body, the International Cycling Union or UCI, has followed Team Garmin's lead and is now using the same method of testing riders.
Dick Pound, former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, praised Vaughters' program for taking the lead in cleaning up the sport. "Initiatives of this nature will bring it home to the UCI and its national federations that they are not doing enough to satisfy either the riders who are being forced to dope or the public which is witnessing a sport that's not clean," he says.
Vaughters' riders won't make it to the starting line of any race with drugs in their system. Abusers are cut from the team. So far no one has been caught using. Vaughters' clean team will make its debut at the Tour de France on July 5th. They aren't likely to cross the finish line first but Jonathan Vaughters hopes they'll win back some cycling fans and the sport's credibility.