Opinion: Of a mess, dignity and grace

In Slipstream Sports, riders torn up inside over regretful decisions find a home and an emotional Tour ride

Photo: Graham Watson

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“After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.”

—Emily Dickinson

In December 2009, I interviewed Dave Zabriskie for a magazine profile that was published in Australia. Then at the end of his second year with Jonathan Vaughters’ new Slipstream project, Zabriskie was his usual tangential self, responding to a question about training in Los Angeles not with a predictable rant about bad drivers, but rather a thesis on the lawn care industry.

“They’ve got a Prius car in the driveway, but there’s 20 people working on their yard with jet packs blowing leaves and mowing their lawns,” Zabriskie deadpanned. “All those guys are wearing masks and I have to ride right through it.” Where I expected bad driver complaints, he offered a droll perspective on our human capacity to rationalize behavior that is at odds with our advertised values. It was an aphoristic tale more self-referential than I fathomed at the time.

When I probed about his family life growing up in Salt Lake City, other than saying his father had passed away in 2000 and that his sisters think what he does for a living is cool, Zabriskie did not go on. He did not want to revisit a childhood made painful by a father who struggled with drug addictions. His full-stop silence on the topic of his parents was achingly conclusive, the reticence of a man unwilling to tear open the wounds of his childhood.

Zabriskie told me movies and the bicycle — in that order — became his teenage escapes. “Breaking Away,” he recalled, spurred him to buy a bike. “That’s what great movies do,” Zabriskie enthused. “They inspire. Make us believe we can do things and believe things. Superman made me believe I could fly and blow out fires.”

Zabriskie’s response on Wednesday to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report on Lance Armstrong’s systematic doping brought that conversation back to me. Summarizing an affidavit in which he describes how he came to dope, Zabriskie states: “Seeing what happened to my father from his substance abuse, I vowed never to take drugs. I viewed cycling as a healthy and wholesome outlet that would keep me far away from a world I abhorred.”

The bike that took Zabriskie away from a sordid place carried him back to it again.

I spent the bulk of 2011 with Zabriskie and his teammates while writing and photographing a book on the Garmin team. At book signings, people approach me and incredulously demand, “Vaughters’ guys are really taking drugs, aren’t they? No way you can do a race like the Tour without doping.”

My response is that, after being with the team in their homes and apartments, at races, training camps, and restaurants for a year, I am convinced Slipstream is a program where chemical and blood shortcuts are not part of the riders’ lives.

Of course, I had no prejudgments when I started hanging around the team in January of 2011 like a houseguest that never leaves. For all I knew then, Vaughters could well have crafted cycling’s greatest Potemkin village. And if it blew up, I was there to document. By year’s end, however I was convinced. “Nobody was skulking,” I explain to those fans asking for dirt.

Zabriskie’s confession underscored what I witnessed first hand in busses, hotel rooms, and team cars from California to Belgium to Spain. More than an employer, Zabriskie found in Slipstream an escape again from a dark chapter in his life — the years racing and doping (in one year, for a $15,000 salary) with the U.S. Postal team. The same way he fled an addiction-stricken home by slipping into Salt Lake City cinemas and Wasatch canyon climbs, the team Vaughters and owner Doug Ellis built offered refuge from a pro cycling domestic life chronically distressed by drug abuse.

In his own confession, Tom Danielson writes, “When I heard about the team Jonathan Vaughters was creating, I knew that his team was exactly what cycling needed — it was exactly what I needed and I wanted to be a part of it.” The team coincided with his desire to step away. And for Zabriskie especially, Slipstream offered professional quarters where he no longer had to sleep with the very demon that killed his father.

Christian Vande Velde also issued a confession on Wednesday that showed grace and dignity. And while we tend to forget it in pro cycling’s daily Twitter-crush of snark and carp, those qualities run like subterranean rivers beneath the sport. There is appeal in watching a man push a bike over 160 miles of tractor paths and winning in a decrepit velodrome in Roubaix, as Garmin’s Johan Vansummeren did in 2011. In the harshest of racing circumstances, the Belgian was grace defined, a humble domestique pushing on with a show of effortless fitness; an allocation of energy in such ideal proportion to the task at hand that it seems easy. Propriety defined.

And a show of grace is really all people want. The French family waiting for the Tour to pass against the backdrop of a stone wall in Brittany, a wall build in Chaucer’s time — with a couple girls playing in the grass and waiting for the arrival of the publicity caravan while mom and dad drink dark red wine at a card table. When the field passes, a stream of fluent beauty, the race, the day, and the sport installs their youth with permanence, the heavy furniture of tradition and ritual.

In his statement, Vande Velde wrote, “I gave in and crossed the line, a decision that I deeply regret. I was wrong to think I didn’t have a choice — the fact is that I did, and I chose wrong.” He only casts blame at himself.

While we are right to ask why these pros waited until now to come clean, and why, save a few brave riders and journalists, the system cowered in silence while Armstrong waged his reign of terror on the whole of cycling citizenry, the fact is that when they did finally come forth, they proceeded with dignity. They looked toward their own selves as both the cause and remedy to their moral failings.

The night the 2011 Tour de France finished, the Garmin team celebrated at Les Ombres, a chic restaurant above Paris’ Musée du Quai Branly. At the party, Vaughters spoke of Tom Danielson, who had placed ninth in his first-ever Tour de France. “He’s a guy that reminds me of myself quite a bit as a rider,” Vaughters confessed to the rapt audience of riders, family, staff, and team sponsors.

Then Vaughters added a telling detail: “I was always frustrated during my career, of being able to not quite reach what other people thought my potential was. It brings me a lot of pleasure that Tom, you were able to achieve this year what I never could. There is nothing that brings me greater happiness than watching you overcome all the obstacles that you were able to.”

Both Danielson and Vaughters were frustrated by the need, whether explicit or implicit, imagined or observed, to dope to perform. “I crossed the line,” Danielson said in his statement. “And that is something I will always be sorry for. I accept responsibility for my choices and apologize to everyone in my life for them.”

Vaughters went on to recount that before the Tour, he wrote five goals on a piece of paper: win the TTT, win the overall team GC, have Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd both win stages, put a rider in the top 10 GC, and hold the yellow jersey for a day. “There is no way it will ever work out and it will stretch the team too thin,” Vaughters recalled, scolding himself at the time. “It’s just not possible.” Vaughters said Vande Velde had told him “You know, you are always just a little too optimistic and positive. We always think you are going to go a little bit crazy for that.”

And yet, the team accomplished all these audacious aims, without needles, without blood boosters, without deception. And that success of romantic idealism over lazy cynicism — at the very highest level of the sport, where cycling fans keep telling me it is impossible to find an honest man — suggests there is reason, if not wisdom, in the lion-hearted new standard Vaughters set out to create with his team in 2003.

Finally, as the Eiffel Tower shimmered with waterfalls of light outside the restaurant’s plate glass windows, Vaughters asked Vande Velde to say a few words about “the romanticism of the Tour.” Smiling at his boss’s phrasing, and with a celebratory beer in hand, the Chicagoan took the microphone and said words that, in light of the USADA report and the riders’ own confessions, are wrought with more significance today than when first I put them in a book earlier this year.

“This has been a very emotional Tour for a lot of us,”Vande Velde told the party. “Me especially. Dave especially. Jonathan I’m sure especially. We’ve come a long way in a short period of time when you think about it. From pipe dreams in 2003 for Jonathan to 2007 for a couple of us taking some serious risks coming to this team in the first place. From being ‘the little engine that could’ to standing the whole effen’ team on the podium in Paris. It’s been huge.”

Now we know exactly why those wins, at the Tour, Paris-Roubaix, and now the Giro, were so emotional for Vande Velde, Zabriskie, and Vaughters. We can now begin to understand how huge the risks were in crossing The Boss and the industry and government that circled and protected their rainmaker, and just how significant the peril was in thwarting a system rigged from top-to-bottom, from soigneur to United States congressmen, to protect the corrupt and expel the honest. Those riders were not just putting their faith in a new team. They were investing their confidence in a sand grain blown directly into the pupil of pro cycling; a way of life at odds with a corrupted status quo — the only one they previously knew in their pro careers.

In the wake of the Armstrong evidence and the mea culpas of his loyal subalterns, it seems the place where these riders found refuge is now, more than ever, a model for a larger pro cycling world. A place where all riders, rather than just a quirky few, can ride, race, and live in a state of grace.

Editor’s note: Mark Johnson’s book on life with the Garmin team, “Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life,” is available at booksellers everywhere. He has contributed writing and photography to VeloNews since 1993.

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