Jonathan Vaughters and the riders who got away

The American team boss has been building WorldTour rosters for over a decade but find out which riders he almost signed over the years.

Photo: Getty Images

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Jonathan Vaughters has been building WorldTour level teams since the late 2000s and has signed some of the biggest names in the sport, including Dan Martin, Michael Woods, Rigoberto Urán, and Dylan van Baarle.

However, the list of riders who could have signed for his teams is a sight to behold, with some incredible talent either slipping through Vaughters’ fingers or just not working out for a number of reasons.

Listen to: Bobby & Jens – Jonathan Vaughters

VeloNews spoke to the EF Education-EasyPost team boss to find out who could have raced in his colors and why the transfers never quite worked out.

Chris Froome – 2011

Chris Froome wins stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana
Chris Froome wins stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana

In 2011 Chris Froome was on his way out of Team Sky after two uninspiring years. There was little to no interest in the future grand tour phenomenon when his then-agent Alex Carera started shopping the British rider around to several potential squads, and by August the Italian was struggling.

Almost by a stroke of luck, Carera was the agent of Thor Hushovd at the time, and the Norwegian was set to leave Vaughters’ Garmin squad and a spot needing filling. In passing, Carera mentioned that he had one rider at Sky who was still on the market in August. Froome.

Vaughters watched Froome compete in the Tour de Pologne and decided that there was enough potential to at least have a conversation with Carera on the first rest day at the Vuelta a España. Most of Vaughters’ team for 2012 had already been signed by that point the year but if there was a bargain to be had, he was interested.

The fee at the time for Froome was apparently in the region of €90,000 per season — certainly not an astronomical amount for a Sky rider, and certainly not a pinch of what he would later earn. With a provisional salary agreed on between agent and team boss Vaughters sat back and waited for the first rest day of the Vuelta.

Fast forward to the race’s first rest day after the Salamanca time trial and Froome — a rider who had never at any point threatened to compete for a leader’s jersey in a grand tour — sat atop the standings ahead of Jakob Fuglsang. All of a sudden his value was way above the initial €90,000 starting bid.

Vaughters informed Carerra that he was still interested in making the deal happen but he needed to go to his lead sponsor and pull out all the stops to ask for additional funds. Garmin was initially on board, according to Vaughters, but at the last minute they changed their minds, and Froome re-signed with Team Sky. Seven grand tour wins later and he’s still plugging away at Israel-Premier Tech.

Alberto Contador – 2010

Alberto Contador
The yellow jersey that never was. Alberto Contador riding into Paris at the 2010 Tour de France (Photo: Lars Ronbog/FrontzoneSport via Getty Images)

Back in 2010, Alberto Contador was THE grand tour rider in the WorldTour peloton. He had crushed everyone at the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España in 2008, and then put in one of the most devastating and frankly jaw-dropping performances to win the Tour de France the following year. No rider since his Astana frenemy, Lance Armstrong, had been so unstoppable.

However, in 2009 and through 2010 the relationship between Contador and Astana had rapidly deteriorated to the point where he wanted out. He had a contract for the following year but the team had been struggling to pay rider wages — that sounds familiar — and Contador had grounds to therefore step away.

“We had a deal with a potential sponsor who was going to pay for Alberto to transfer across to us,” Vaughters says.

Also read: Jonathan Vaughters: ‘It’s painful to watch when talent walks out the door’

The problem with the move came when Astana finally kicked in with the financials, and because Contador had a contract he had to honor it by staying until the end of the season. The following year Contador signed for Bjarne Riis’ Saxo Bank team.

“The sponsor was totally tied to Contador and they really wanted to hit the Spanish market. When it collapsed we had no sponsor coming in, no Contador, and we didn’t sign another rider.”

In the long run, Vaughters probably dodged a bullet with Contador testing positive the next season.

Primož Roglič – 2015

Primož Roglič announced himself as a top rider when he won a time trial at the 2016 Giro d'Italia
Primož Roglič announced himself as a top rider when he won a time trial at the 2016 Giro d’Italia (Photo: Luk Benies/AFP via Getty Images)

Did you know Roglič was once a ski jumper?

Back in 2015 the future three-time Vuelta a España winner was on the boutique Adria Mobil squad and tearing things up at the Tour of Slovenia. A former rider and agent approached Vaughters with the potential of signing the up-and-coming talent.

“He was up there and winning the Tour of Slovenia out of nowhere and, at that point, we had a bit of a trend for pulling in riders from other sports, like Mike Woods. I told the agent I was interested and let’s move forward but then almost instantly another agent came to me and said that they were representing Roglič. Then another guy did the exact same thing. It was just fucking weird,” says Vaughters.

The American got spooked by the lack of clarity and decided to step away.

“The first agent and I had essentially agreed but I think that he was getting undercut by another agent, so it didn’t really matter how far we got. I was convinced that Roglič was a good bet but once it became a game of agent musical chairs I backed away.”

Roglič signed for Jumbo-Visma for 2016 and went on to win everything but the Tour de France (so far).

Mark Cavendish – 2020

Mark Cavendish was at Bahrain-Merida in 2020
Mark Cavendish was at Bahrain-Merida in 2020 (Photo: Yuzuru Sunada/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2020, when Cavendish looked on the verge of slipping out of the WorldTour, he reached out to several potential squads. One of them, according to Vaughters, was EF Education, who got a call from an ex-rider who works on the team and had been a DS for Cavendish during his HTC days.

One of the main issues for Vaughters, however, was that he lacked the set-up to properly build a unit around the Cavendish. There was no leadout train or real history in supporting a bunch sprinter since the days of Tyler Farrar. Not to mention, few people saw Cavendish as capable of returning to the top of the sport after a string of illness-hit seasons.

“We just didn’t have the program for him, but I was interested in him, fair enough,” Vaughters admits.

“But another thing was that because of cuts, I had promised all the riders on the 2020 team that we would offer them a contract no matter how they did that year in terms of performance and results. They were all going to be offered a deal for 2021 so I didn’t have the flexibility or the space.”

What EF lacked, Patrick Lefevere could offer in spades and Quick-Step was a much better fit, with leadouts, Michael Mørkøv, and a sprinter-friendly race schedule.

Cavendish went on to win the green jersey and four stages of the Tour de France in 2021.

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