A conversation with Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters, part two

The Cannondale-Garmin team founder discusses a variety of issues with VeloNews as his team gears up for another Tour de France

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The American team Cannondale-Garmin announced its 2015 Tour de France roster Monday, with a squad built around GC contender Andrew Talansky, with Irishman Dan Martin and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal riding in wildcard roles. Dutch rider Sebastian Langeveld will serve as road captain, with Finnish-born Brit Charly Wegelius in the position of sport director.

One week before the Tour team announcement, team founder Jonathan Vaughters met with VeloNews for a wide-ranging, hour-long interview on a variety of topics.

In the first half of the interview, published Wednesday, Vaughters discussed his team’s slow start to the 2015 season, the team’s objectives at the upcoming Tour de France, his predictions on how the general classification will play out on the road, his relationship with top American GC contender Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and what a rivalry between van Garderen and Talansky would mean for American cycling.

In the second half of this interview, published below, Vaughters discusses his relationship with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Roman Kreuziger’s bio-passport case, the strained relationship between the UCI and Tour organizer ASO, Sky’s thwarted attempt to house its riders in RVs at grand tours, and the different directions his life has taken outside of the pro cycling caravan.

VeloNews: Let’s turn to current events. Secretary of State John Kerry recently suffered a broken leg while riding his bike in Switzerland on May 31. You’ve had a bit of a relationship with him — we’ve seen photos of him riding in a Garmin team kit. What can you tell us about that relationship, and whether or not you’ve had any contact with him since his cycling accident?

Jonathan Vaughters: If I’m not mistaken, his father was U.S. ambassador to France at some point in time, so he spent quite a bit of his youth growing up in France, watching the Tour de France. He loves the Tour, and cycling in general. I got to know him in 2008, when he was in town for the Democratic national convention. We went on a couple of bike rides. He’s a really impressive athlete. You run into a lot of these older guys who are really strong uphill, because they train all the time … John was strong uphill, but he can also descend like a maniac. We came down from Jamestown, which is not that steep, but on the sweepers he was not hitting the brakes at all. He was cutting right on the yellow line, not on the brakes. So he is a super impressive bike handler. We’ve stayed in touch since then, and whenever the team does well, he’ll send me a small congratulations note. Obviously he’s been a bit busier since he’s been Secretary of State. But he wrote one of my letters of recommendation to go back to college. Anyway, really great guy, and it’s unfortunate that he crashed, but we all know that is what can happen in bike riding.

VN: We recently saw Tinkoff-Saxo rider Roman Kreuziger walk away from a bio-passport case, with the UCI and WADA dropping their case just as it was supposed to go before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That was the first time we’ve seen this happen. Kreuziger insisted he was innocent all along, and went to the Mayo Clinic to undergo tests that would prove the abnormalities in his bio-passport could have been caused by something other than blood doping. This is was unprecedented, and now, instead of facing a four-year ban, Kreuziger will be racing the Tour de France. You’re familiar with all parties involved — what’s your take?

JV: The first thing to understand is that the biological passport is an indirect testing method. It’s analogous to saying “there’s smoke over there, so there’s definitely fire.” That’s true a lot of times, but not always, and it’s using regression modeling to determine whether or not the statistical anomalies are large enough to indicate there was doping. Any time you are using an indirect testing method, from a legal standpoint, it’s incredibly open to interpretation. It’s the equivalent of, say, in a criminal case, saying, “Well I saw that guy enter a building, and one hour later there was a dead person in that building, therefore that guy killed that person.” Which could be true, or it could not be true, but it’s very precarious, legally. The UCI and WADA cannot afford to lose a bio-passport case, because if they do, it sets a precedent that makes it much easier to lose bio-passport cases moving forward.

VN: You don’t feel as though that’s what happened with the Kreuziger case?

JV: No, I think they dropped it because they had some sort of information that said, “OK, we’re right on the edge here.” If they lost it, it would kill the bio-passport entirely, so they probably decided, instead of killing it entirely, let’s just let this one go.

One common misinterpretation is that bio-passport’s most common use is to try to come up with positives based on fluctuating blood values. That’s probably how it used about five percent of the time. The other 95 percent of the time it is used to target people with highly suspicious values — to use standardized testing, over and over and over again, looking for anything from EPO to plasticizers, or to see if the person they are targeting is doping, and slips up, and they nail him, or if he is doping, and maybe the targeted testing gets him to stop. There are multiple possibilities there. But the primary use of the bio-passport is to target athletes.

With Kreuziger, they were going after an actual bio-passport case, which was considerably different than earlier ones. Earlier cases, from 2008 and 2009, and even the Jonathan Tiernan-Locke case, had values that had much greater fluctuations, from 45 hematocrit to 53. Kreuziger’s were more subtle. And you have to remember, there are sample-time issues — When was the sample taken? Was it taken before the stage, or after the stage? In that case, there were some samples that had been taken after the stage. There are things that we don’t even know about, for example, if a sample is left at room temperature for over a certain amount of time, the red blood cells actually expand, which changes the hematocrit value. This is completely conjecture, but maybe there was a sample that was left too long, and they looked at the lab technician’s notes, and it took an hour and 15 minutes before it was put through the machine, as opposed to 15 minutes, or whatever … there are so many issues — transportation, execution, sample collection — that never hit the public.

The blood profile is one little piece of what the bigger picture actually is. I would imagine that the UCI came up with something that they felt was not 100 percent provable. And, unfortunately, for people who are advocates for clean cycling, it’s always, in my opinion — and this is Jeffersonian — better to let 100 guilty men go free than to imprison one innocent person. I don’t know if Kreuziger was innocent or guilty. I have no idea. What I do know is that giving someone a four-year suspension — which, in cycling, is basically a lifetime suspension — you better be very sure. Because the first time an innocent person gets a lifetime suspension, that’s tragic. It’s unfortunate if a few dirty athletes sneak through the system, but a clean guy, out of the sport, who was totally innocent — that’s tragic. I think the UCI and WADA have to be aware of that. And they are.

VN: Speaking of the UCI, one of the most interesting stories bubbling under the surface is ASO swatting down the UCI’s calendar reform. As owners of the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and other races, ASO holds a lot of power in the sport — probably the most power of any entity. The UCI, it seems, is the international federation, but not the most powerful organization in pro cycling. What’s your take on this power struggle — and which direction do you see it going?

JV: The first thing to understand is that the ASO sending the threatening letter to the UCI about potentially leaving the WorldTour is not on the basis of the calendar reforms. I mean, I’m sure they have some gripes with the calendar reform not being perfect, but as part of the greater reforms, it was put forward to them, voted for, and passed the pro cycling council, basically the advisory board for pro cycling. The vote was 6-2, with three abstentions, so it was a fairly contentious vote that would give teams a three- or four-year license, so that it would get teams out of this year-to-year cycle of trying to get a license.

Contractually, for almost every WorldTour team, relegation down to Pro Continental, not being in the WorldTour, is death. Your sponsors can’t withstand that, and they won’t. There is no promotion relegation in cycling. High-level sponsors are either in the WorldTour, or they are done with cycling.

Whereas this gave the teams a fairly long runway, to be able to work with a certain level of security, ASO fundamentally does not like that. They want to remain in the position that they can unilaterally decide whether a team exists or not. They would say “well, no, we only want to be able to decide whether a team can come to the Tour de France or not,” but it’s the same thing. If my team was unable to go to the Tour de France, our sponsorship contracts would be cancelled.

And so the question in all of this battle is — should one race organizer, one private entity that is not the governing body, have the power to determine which teams are allowed to continue in existence, and which aren’t? That’s what it boils down to. They would like to remain in the position that they have that power, and the teams and athletes would prefer that they have not have that unilateral power.

VN: In a sense, doesn’t the UCI have that power with its License Commission, which decides which teams should be in the WorldTour?

JV: Unfortunately, the due process under the UCI, the way it was supposed to work, with the pro cycling council, where this measure was voted for and passed, the people voting for it were clearly team representatives and athlete representatives, it passed. But it got stymied in the management committee, which is not so straightforward, and there was not a vote, it just sort of got shelved back and that shows you that perhaps the UCI is the governing body, but that the ASO has an enormous amount of backroom strength because of their financial position. Right now I am very pessimistic as to whether the reforms go through, because I think ASO doesn’t want them to go through. They would prefer the situation remain as is, where they have ultimate unilateral power.

VN: I can’t think of many examples where ASO has torpedoed a pro team’s existence. Mercury-Viatel should have been invited to race the Tour in 2001, and that helped kill the team, but that was almost 15 years ago.

JV: ASO doesn’t use that power very often, they are sort of a benevolent dictator, if you will, but in my opinion, it’s wrong that they have that unilateral power to do that, but it is correct to say that they don’t often choose to go down that route.

VN: Here in the U.S., we’ve seen that after 10 years of running the Amgen Tour of California for AEG Sports, Medalist Sports will not be running the race moving forward, with ASO “increasing its presence” at the event. ASO has managed TV production at the Amgen Tour since 2010, we’ve seen them assume ownership of the Vuelta a España, and it appears they may be doing the same with the Amgen Tour. What does this mean, in the context of this ASO/UCI power struggle?

JV: Little by little, they are becoming a monopoly, effectively, in cycling. The only race organizer that is even close to their level of operational competence is RCS, which runs the Giro d’Italia, but I think the ASO is becoming more powerful in the world of cycling, and I think the move to run the Tour of California is just a symptom if that.

VN: I know you got an MBA last year, and I want to ask you about that in a minute, but, from a strictly business perspective, can you blame ASO for what it is attempting to do — monopolize control over pro cycling? Isn’t that just a smart business model?

JV: No, I can’t blame them. They are trying to expand their business. They are trying to bring maximum profit to their shareholders. They are an immensely profitable company. They are actually divesting out of many of their media outlets and newspapers and investing more into their sports outlets, selling the media rights of those properties. Of course, it’s a very good business model. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have many checks and balances at this point in time. There are hundreds of athletes that, unlike almost any other top-level pro sport in the world, are not being directly or indirectly compensated from their own image rights — their media rights, their TV rights, their image rights are being sold by ASO.

Imagine that post-race TV interview, you win the race, you come to the interview, the backdrop is ASO sponsors, and that interview is being sold to media channels, through ASO, but in the end, people are tuning in to hear what the athlete has to say. It’s akin to having actors in a movie, but they’re not being paid. Brad Pitt is not being paid, but the production studio is. It’s a strange model, and it needs to change, but the issue is, and this goes back to the unilateral force we discussed — how do we change it? The only way is to say, “We’re not going to do your event until you give our athletes their share of their rights here.” And there’s no team that can withstand even the threat of not doing the Tour de France. Even a mention of not doing it and sponsors are up in arms. There is not a good balance at this point. But sure, if I were a shareholder of the ASO, I’d be happy about that imbalance.

VN: What did you think of Team Sky putting Richie Porte in an RV at the Giro d’Italia, and the UCI shutting down their attempt to do the same with Chris Froome at the Tour de France?

JV: Listen, I understand the spirit of the ruling is equitable competition — everyone needs to deal with the same conditions. That was the way the Tour de France was founded. But at the end of the day, looking at other modern sports, motorsports … when they are doing the traveling road show, which cycling uniquely does, this isn’t Major League Baseball, or the National Football League, where you can always stay at the Ritz Carlton downtown when you’re playing baseball games, or whatever. You’re sometimes staying out in the middle of nowhere. Other sports, that have a high travel component to remote areas like that have already gone down the RV route, for sleeping. It seems like, it’s a good thing to consider, long term. I understand the short-term thinking, we need to keep everyone on the same page, but in the long term, end of the day, it comes down to this — these athletes today, your Contadors, your Froomes, are being paid anywhere from 2.5 million euros to 5 million euros. And if they sleep in a hotel room that has bed bugs, or they get food poisoning, or the air conditioning hasn’t been cleaned in three years and they get some kind of sinus infection … really? You’re going to explain to a sponsor that the athlete they are paying 5 million euros a year has a bad back because the mattress sucked last night? I think that’s pretty tough.

VN: Let’s talk about your MBA from the University of Denver. After your racing career you briefly got into real estate, then you launched Slipstream Sports, which became one of the biggest American teams in cycling. Then you got involved in the governance side of the sport, somewhat, as the president of the AIGCP (International Association of Professional Cycling) for a number of years. That was back when Pat McQuaid was president of the UCI, and the sport was in a bit of turmoil. And then you decided to step away from your day-to-day with the team and get a masters degree in business. There was some speculation that that might have been part of a long-term strategy of someday running for UCI president yourself. What was the motivation there, with the MBA?

JV: [Laughs] Well, it wasn’t to run for UCI president. I think that seems like the most horrible job in the world. Listen, after years of serving on the CADF, the anti-doping board of the UCI, and serving as president of the AIGCP, the teams’ union, and years of sitting on the board of directors for the UCI, I realized that there are very, very few people in pro cycling that have any sort of business education, not so much business acumen. They’re all old bike racers. This is a big part of the reason ASO is so dominant; they actually do have business acumen, so they run circles around everyone else. And they have 100 years of history to back it up. At the end of the day, it’s hard to be critical and say, “These guys sitting on the board of directors are just a bunch of old bike racers, what do they know about moving the business prospects of professional cycling forward” …. Well, what was I? I was an ex-professional bike racer with no business education whatsoever. I was basically criticizing myself. So I figured I should go and fix that.

We were at a juncture with the team where I could step back, I could step back from the AIGCP, I could step off of this board, [Brian] Cookson was coming in, it just seemed like a good time for me to let someone else take the reins for a while. Charly Wegelius has proven to be a very competent director with great managerial skills, and he really stepped in. Louise Donald, our chief operating officer, came all the way up from just doing logistics … we have people with incredibly high levels of competence on our team, so I could take the time to step away and go do this.

It was a really interesting process. I loved going back to school. I was not focused on any one particular thing, it was just developing my brain, and just putting a few letters behind my name, for pride’s sake.

VN: You graduated last August, you’ve had some free time since then, and you’ve taken up flying. How did that come about?

JV: Flying requires such a high degree of focus. It’s a lot to learn. And I figured that, coming out of the MBA program, my study skills were pretty refined, and honed, and I thought, “Well, I’m 41 years old, I’ve got good study skills now, but that’s not going to last forever. I see guys in the flight club who are retired and learning to fly at 70, and that’s very hard, if not impossible to do. I have wanted to learn how to fly an airplane since I was a little kid. I subscribed to flying magazines, and went to every air show I could. I went to Oshkosh with my grandpa, which is this huge air show in Wisconsin. And I was finally in a position where I could actually get this done, I’m going to go get my pilot’s license. I love the intensity of it, and the concentration it requires. It’s been an adventure.

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