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Stripped Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong and Garmin-Sharp team manager Jonathan Vaughters, former teammates who have spent the past decade at odds over the issue of doping in pro cycling, have renewed their long-strained relationship.
After years of racing alongside each other, beginning as juniors, Armstrong and Vaughters rode as teammates at the U.S. Postal Service team in 1998 and 1999.
Since then, the two men have spent most of the past 14 years on different sides of the doping issue, with Armstrong, and his inner circle, perfecting the science of performance-enhancing drug use — and profiting the most from it — while Vaughters launched a development team, which morphed into the Garmin squad, centered around the ethos of clean sport.
Like Frankie Andreu before him, Vaughters came clean about his drug use at U.S. Postal Service prior to Armstrong’s televised confession to Oprah Winfrey in January. Andreu admitted to doping in a September 2006 New York Times article. Vaughters, who confessed anonymously in that 2006 Times story, finally acknowledged his own drug use in an editorial, which ran in the Times in August 2012.
Along with three active Garmin riders who told the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency they had doped while members of Armstrong’s teams, Vaughters provided sworn testimony to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that he had doped as a member of the Postal Service squad. That testimony, combined with others’, resulted in a lifetime ban for Armstrong, and ultimately to his televised confession.
So it came as a surprise to Twitter users to see the two using the social media platform to have a very friendly, and very public, conversation last weekend.
After Vaughters posted a joke about sneaking the sedative Rufinol into his own drink, Armstrong, who has 3 million Twitter followers, replied, “Let us know how that goes.”
When asked about Armstrong’s comment by another Twitter user, Vaughters replied, “Nothing to see here, just two fallen angels discussing what lies beneath,” quickly followed by, “Honestly, we probably get along better now than we have in 20 years. Weird, I know.”
Armstrong quickly replied, “Dude, shhh, don’t tell anybody that!” His reply was a very public acknowledgment that, after years of defiance, which included disparaging those who spoke out against doping in cycling (including Vaughters), the disgraced Tour champ is now openly engaging with those he formerly viewed as enemies.
Both men spoke with VeloNews about their improbable reunion of sorts.
The culture of doping as common ground
Armstrong said he had initially reached out to Vaughters after reading an opinion piece he had written, posted on Cyclingnews.com, which stated that it was wrong to blame Armstrong for the culture of doping in cycling. “The fact of the matter is that it is our entire fault. We, the people who make up the world of professional cycling, are to blame,” Vaughters wrote.
“I reached out to him and thanked him for his op-ed he wrote on Cyclingnews,” Armstrong said. “I felt it was a thorough, thoughtful, and accurate account of our generation.”
Over time, the two became conversational, with the focus centered around what contribution Armstrong might be able to offer in the push to salvage pro cycling, which has seemingly bottomed out in the wake of the USADA report on the sport’s biggest star and the doping practices that brought him seven straight Tour victories, from 1999 through 2005.
“We talk here and there,” Vaughters said. “At the end of the day, I think Lance has got a lot of things to say, which could clarify a whole lot. In terms of the full download on what went on in that era of cycling, he could be big part of the solution, if he chooses to be.
“We keep in contact, and I encourage that,” he added. “I don’t think he minds, partly because I don’t throw the blame on him. I’m a little bit older than a lot of the guys who were caught up in [doping], and I think Lance and I both realize — when he and I went to race in Europe in 1994, a few years earlier for Lance, the culture of doping was well in place. He probably needs a few people in his life that realize that he wasn’t the guy who started doping, he’s a guy who got caught up in it, in a big way, but the system was very much in place by the time he got there. He could now help change things.”
Armstrong, who in February turned down a USADA offer to reveal what he knew about doping in order to reduce his lifetime ban, said that it was time for the sport of cycling to confront the reality of its troubled past, head on.
“It’s maybe not accurate to say that me and JV are having a dialogue on how to clean up the sport, per se, as we agree that cycling today is cleaner than it has been in decades, but we are trying to have, for all of us, a rational and civilized conversation, to close the chapter and help the sport move forward” Armstrong said. “Right now, a lot of what is being written, and thrown around, is not rational. I think JV shares the idea of a truth and reconciliation, which is the only way forward — although, unfortunately, I don’t believe it is going to happen.”
Both Vaughters and Armstrong said they felt that those who were in positions of authority during Armstrong’s reign have tried to lay the blame for the sport’s ills during the Wild West doping heyday of the 1990s and 2000s on Armstrong’s shoulders.
“When you read [former Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc] making nasty statements against Lance, or Pat McQuaid saying Lance has no place in cycling … I was a witness in the USADA reasoned decision, but I didn’t say anything negative about Lance, specifically, I told them about my experiences during my career in pro cycling,” Vaughters said.
“I think it’s inappropriate for anyone who was involved to take swings at Lance. The information inside the sport was available and ready for anyone to listen to, so it’s a little bit ridiculous to shield yourself and your own image and lay it on Lance. The leadership of the sport needs to take responsibility and say, ‘Yes, behind closed doors, we knew what was up, and we failed to prevent it.’ There needs to be clear and drastic changes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Instead you get rhetoric that just blames one person. It’s unfair, the perception that Lance is the one that started the [doping] arms race. He may have perfected it, and he went way too far in defending his position, and he hurt a lot of people in process, but the culture was in place before he ever raced in Europe.”
Armstrong echoed Vaughters sentiments, saying that the nonstop barrage of partial confessionals, such as this week’s opaque admission from Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, combined with the inconsistent zero-tolerance policies in place at teams like Sky and Orica-GreenEdge, are only damaging the sport by fostering omertà and creating an untenable environment.
“I think me and JV both share a desire to make a truth and reconciliation commission a reality, though it’s something that many do not want to happen,” Armstrong said. “My contribution, as is his I think, is total transparency and honesty. Let’s learn from our mistakes and help the sport move forward. As it stands today, one man has been lynched, a dozen others, like Vaughters, have been seriously vilified, and hundred, maybe thousands, have been let off scot-free. Despite some, who might be reveling in this, it will not help our sport move forward.”
Forgiving an adversary
At the peak of Armstrong’s power, Vaughters said he had to be careful when it came to the Texan, as Armstrong had the unique authority to influence those who might be inclined to back the team. At one point, Vaughters said Armstrong sent e-mails to Slipstream Sports financial backer Doug Ellis, recommending that Ellis change the management of the team — namely, Vaughters.
Yet Vaughters said that he was able to forgive his former adversary in the name of finding common ground for creating solutions for the sport.
“The future of the sport for me is far more important than any pride issue I have over any scrap I got into with Lance five years ago,” Vaughters said. “That overshadows it by 1000 percent. To me, it’s never as black and white as a person is all good, or all bad. Anyone is forgivable. Lance did some nasty things to me over the years, without a doubt, but if he wants to talk about how to create solutions in cycling, I’m not going to turn that away.
“There aren’t many people that have all the information of what went down, of how it went down, and in order for those things to be corrected … if [Armstrong] is ostracized, there is no incentive, or reason, for him to provide information on how to fix the things he took advantage of,” Vaughters added. “If he’s pushed to the outside, he’s never going to do that. If I can help facilitate him clarifying all of this stuff, stuff that’s just dangling out there, on what really did go on with … a whole host of things, really … I’m going to try to do that.
“If Lance chooses to, he can have a very positive contribution,” Vaughters said. “He can be part of the solution, but people need to start understanding this needs to be tackled from a cultural level, not the finger-pointing level. He’s sort of struggling with that choice. I’m trying to be objective, and encouraging.”