A conversation with Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters, part one

Part one of a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with Cannondale-Garmin team founder Vaughters ahead of the Tour de France

Photo: TDW

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The American team Cannondale-Garmin announced its 2015 Tour de France roster Monday, 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 team 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 below, Vaughters discusses 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, and what a rivalry between van Garderen and Talansky would mean for American cycling.

In the second half of this interview, to be published Thursday, 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, Team 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: Team selection for the Tour de France must be very difficult for any team manager or director. What can you tell us about Cannondale-Garmin’s Tour squad this year?

Jonathan Vaughters: We’ve been pretty organized in our team selection this year, and we’ve got a lot of younger riders this year, so the team selection for the Tour de France, which is typically a race for more experienced riders, has been a little easier on us this year than in years past. It’s all based around what our objectives are in the race. It’s not necessarily the top nine guys in the team, it’s the top nine guys in the team that can work together as a unit to accomplish the goals that we’re looking for.

VN: What are those goals? Andrew Talansky is obviously your GC rider, but beyond that, what are the objectives?

JV: Andrew has had a bit of a rough year this year, but he’s starting to show some signs of life. He did well at the Dauphiné. He’s good for a Tour de France like this one, where you have a lot of crosswind stages, cobblestones, a lot of hard fighting early on … He’s a pretty robust rider when it comes to that sort of thing. So he’ll be the GC focus, without a doubt. And of course we’ll have Dan Martin along with him. And Dan prefers to focus on stage wins. If we can get a good GC out of that, then that’s a bonus. If we can have two guys that are up in that front group, or even three — maybe Ryder Hesjedal recovers in time from the Giro d’Italia — it’s always better. Dan will be more focused on stage wins, the Mur du Huy [stage 3] being the first one.

VN: When you look at this year’s Tour, we have three former Tour champions in the field — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Chris Froome (Sky), and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) — as well as Nairo Quintana (Movistar), a Giro winner and Tour runner-up. How do you see the GC playing out?

JV: I think the GC has a number of different components, with time trialing not being a very big one this year. The early stages, crosswind splits, crashes … With a race the level of the Tour de France going to Holland, where there are 1,000 roundabouts, if there’s even a puff of wind, it won’t come out of it in one piece. That’s your first component.

The second component is obviously the cobblestone stage. The Mur du Huy is an interesting stage, and I don’t think the time gaps will be enormous on that, but it will be interesting to see who wins, and who are the guys in the top 10. Who are the guys that have the teams to position them at the bottom of the Mur du Huy? And then who can do a good climb? That will be interesting, but I’m not expecting big time gaps. And the cobblestones [stage 4] will have big time gaps. If it rains, even bigger time gaps.

And then, up in the north of France, more opportunities — crashes, splits … This is the way the Tour de France goes. It’s evolved a lot, even in my time, even since 2008 through now. If we go back to pre-2008, you’d have one team, maybe two teams, that were having five, six, seven guys pulling on the front to keep their team leader out of trouble. Now the Tour de France has six, seven, eight teams that are trying to do the same thing. And it’s changed the dynamic of the race, because you’re getting this constant drag race on the flat stages that, from a viewer’s standpoint, you might not even be aware of, but it’s gotten progressively more tense.

Then we get to the team time trial [stage 9]. Again, there will be some differences there, and that’s an indicator of whose team is strong and whose isn’t. I don’t think the differences will be enormous, but they are going to be there. And then the race becomes more straightforward; it’s just a horsepower race in the mountains.

VN: The team time trial could be pivotal. Whichever GC rider comes out of that with an advantage can ride defensively in the mountains. You can imagine a scenario where a team like Movistar excels in the TTT, and Quintana heads into the mountains without ever needing to go on the offensive.

JV: I’ve already stated that Quintana is my race favorite. I think he’s good in the crosswinds, he’s an excellent bike handler, he’s good in any conditions. If it’s hot, he’s good, if it’s freezing cold and snowing, he’s good. He only takes risks when he needs to, and he’s really good when he needs to be. I think he’ll be good on the cobblestones — not great, but good enough. If you’re looking at his major rivals, Froome, Contador, and Nibali, to me, of cobblestone riders, he’s the second best, with Nibali being the best. Movistar is going to go fast in the team time trial. And while I think there will be days where Froome and Contador will be better than he is in the mountains, I think that, over the full 10 days in the mountains … He doesn’t seem to have bad days. I put that together, and he’s my personal favorite.

VN: What do you think of Contador’s attempt at the Giro-Tour double, and what you saw from him at the Giro d’Italia?

JV: Yeah, well, if anyone can pull it off, it’s Contador, for sure. He was obviously pretty tired in the last week of the Giro, but then bounced back to win Route du Sud. That means he’s back on form, he’s not too fatigued. Contador has a good team for the crosswind stages, he’ll be reasonable on the cobblestones — not great, not bad. He’ll be good in the team time trial, not great. So then it comes down to Contador needing to be more explosive in the mountains than Froome and Quintana and Nibali on the mountaintop finishes. While I think early, in the Pyrenees, we may see some of that, I think the third week is going to be hard for him. Doing the double is one thing. He’s also a 33-year-old athlete doing the double, and not a guy who started racing later in life; he’s been racing since he was 13 years old, so there are some miles on the engine. If he’s going to have a problem, it’s going to be very late in the race.

VN: One of the riders that’s shown well in the lead up to the Tour is Tejay van Garderen, finishing second overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné, behind Chris Froome. He was once a member of the Slipstream Sports organization. He’s now with BMC, which is a bit of a rival American squad … any regrets about losing him from the organization?

JV: I mean, it’s always a regret. We did everything we could to hold onto Tejay. Initially he went off to the Rabobank development team, and from there, on to HTC, but I’ve always had a keen interest in him, I think he’s a great talent. I remember meeting him when he was about 14, at the top of Mount Evans for the hill climb, which was one of the last bike races I ever did. He’d just won the Category 3 race, or maybe the junior race, and he was super enthusiastic, and super competitive, always very talented rider, knows how to deal with pressure. He’s just a solid competitor.

VN: What did you think about what you saw from him at the Dauphiné, as the only rider able to go up against Froome in the mountains?

JV: He definitely burned some matches, trying to pull off the victory there. He had to go deep, that last day, trying to hold Froome’s wheel. Of course, with the long history I have with Tejay, I was cheering for him that day. Listen, I think he’s going to do a good Tour de France. For him to be on the podium — and I would say the same for Talansky — for either of them to sneak into that second, third, fourth area, they’re going to need luck. They’re going to need to make sure that they are always in the front in the crosswind splits. They’re going to need to nail the cobblestone stage just right, and make sure they don’t have any untimely punctures. They can’t get sick. For both of those guys, to be hunting for the podium, they’re going to need luck, as any rider does, but for them, they’re going to need it to go perfectly for that to happen. And I hope for it, just for a reinvigoration of enthusiasm in American cycling. A rivalry between Talansky and Tejay would be good to see at the Tour de France.

VN: Let’s talk about the national road championship. This may be a sore subject, but it’s not the first time your squad has had several riders in the lead group late in the race without taking the stars-and-stripes jersey. This year there were three Cannondale riders in the front group, with Joe Dombrowski finishing second to Matthew Busche (Trek Factory Racing). It seemed as though Alex Howes was the fastest finisher in that group, but then we saw Dombrowski attack, and Busche follow. Those two worked together until Busche attacked late, and won, with Dombrowski second, and Howes fourth. What happened there?

JV: Well, listen, information is never perfect in races like that. We don’t have race radios. The guys even have trouble communicating amongst themselves. But Joe was working for Alex. Alex was not on a great day, he was on a mediocre day. The last time, after the big climb, Joe had to drop back and get Alex and drag him back to the front group. At that point and time, they had established the tactic that they wouldn’t just go straight for the lead-out, because Kiel Reijnen [UnitedHealthcare] was still there. So the tactic was to attack, and try to get a guy away, solo. The thing is, is that Joe, as incredibly talented and strong of a bike racer as he is, he has almost no experience being in a situation where you’re trying to tactically win a bike race. He sort of went from a basic level of racing to Team Sky in such a short period of time, and a lot of that was based on winning bike races by going up a mountaintop finish climb, fast.

VN: Dombrowski has been primarily — almost exclusively — a stage racer.

JV: Yeah, and so he did what he was supposed to do, he attacked, but he wasn’t by himself. And if you watch the footage, where the more experienced rider would immediately look under their shoulder and see they have a guy with them, and let up, Joe went a full 45 seconds, or a minute, and then he looked back and realized he had Busche with him. At that point in time he started sitting on him, but it was a little too late in the situation. So it was a bit of lack of experience. Again, Alex wasn’t feeling great. On a better day, he might’ve been able to respond to Busche, and then be in that group, but Alex wasn’t on a particularly great day. And then Kiel Riejnen had a puncture at that moment, and you could say that we could’ve just pulled hard to make sure he was gone, and then won it that way, but if you look, Kiel still beat Alex in the sprint [for third], so it wasn’t as cut-and-dried as it seemed. I think Joe learned from his mistake, and water under the bridge at this point.

VN: The team was off to a slow start this year, with a lot of young riders, and hadn’t really taken that big win until Davide Formolo won stage 4 at the Giro d’Italia. Not long after, Talansky won the national time trial championship. When you look at the first half of the season, how do you rank the team’s performances, through June?

JV: Yeah, it’s our slowest start ever, as an organization. Maybe 2008, we weren’t that great, other than the Amgen Tour of California, which started really early back then [in February]. We’ve had a very, very slow start to the season. We’ve had massive organizational turnover. As opposed to doing a hard, hard training camp in November or December, we went out on sailboats, because I felt like we had to get the social aspects of the merger sort of put to rest before we started concentrating on the task at hand. And that was very successful, but obviously I knew the early season might be a little rough for us, because we haven’t done a more typical build-up, into it. We have a lot of new riders who just don’t have experience, don’t have the foundation to be able to pop into form in the early part of the year. Races like the cobbled classics are 50 percent strength and 50 percent experience, and basically that 50 percent of experience was just eliminated on our team this year. We have a young team, and lot of enthusiasm. We had some bad luck, too, but as disappointed as I was with our slow start, it wasn’t entirely unanticipated. I think for the Tour de France, and the rest of the season, things are rolling in the right direction. We had two guys in the top 10 at the Dauphiné. The Tour de France squad looks strong. The power numbers that everyone is putting out are getting better. I’m confident that we’ll have a good Tour de France, and a good rest of the season, but it took six months to get the team to gel.

VN: Formolo’s stage win at the Giro must’ve come as a sigh of relief after such a slow start.

JV: That was a very major sigh of relief. He’s a great kid, and an unbelievable talent. He’s very determined. We selected him last-minute for the Giro, but it wasn’t really last-minute. We just didn’t want any pressure on him. We didn’t even want internal pressure from him. We just wanted him to do the Giro for fun. It was his first time, and he’s a 22-year-old kid. And we pulled that off by basically throwing him in at the last minute. He’s going to be an incredible rider in a few years.

Read part two of the interview >>

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