Few people can claim to know Lance Armstrong in the same way as Jonathan Vaughters, a cyclist and native Coloradan who became Armstrong's friend, teammate -- and eventually, his enemy. Now, the CEO of Slipstream Sports is featured in a documentary called The Armstrong Lie, which is scheduled to open in Denver on December 13 and in Boulder next month (although the opening dates have already been pushed back several times). The film's director, Alex Gibney (We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) had followed Armstrong during his unsuccessful 2009 Tour de France attempt, hoping to capture a second return to glory for the sport's most popular personality. Armstrong didn't win, and the film -- as originally conceived -- wasn't made.
But in the wake of Armstrong's confessions of doping during his cycling career, and the International Cycling Union's decision to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles, Gibney returned to Armstrong to get the truth -- and paint a portrait of the man along the way.
Vaughters was top on his list of interviews. A vocal anti-doper when the sentiment wasn't much appreciated in the cycling community, Vaughters's team is now one of the most successful in the sport - -though not one without its own doping allegations.
Westword caught up with Vaughters to ask him about the Armstrong lies, what's makes Colorado special and what it feels like to dope.
Westword: You've raced all around the world. What's unique about the racing scene in Colorado?
Jonathan Vaughters: Back when I started out, it was really vibrant grassroots racing. It still is, actually, just now we have international events here, too. It was a great place to fall in love with the sport. The old saying goes, 'Trying to make it as a cyclist in Colorado is like trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood.' The level of the average amateur racer here is incredibly high. If you end up being one of the best guys here, you've got a good shot on the real stage.
What goes into managing a cycling team?
Just to give you the scope of it, the annual budget runs about $25 million dollars a year, we typically are functioning in three different time zones at once, and we race 250 days a year...We have everything from coaches to bus drivers to chiropractors to physical therapists. And I'm supposed to keep track of all that.
When you were racing, what was your relationship with Lance Armstrong like?
I met him when I was 15 and he was 17, in one of the first road races that he ever did. It's funny, we started off kind of rocky, because I actually beat him in that race. He was really upset about that. He was always an incredibly fierce competitor. The we became friends -- to a certain degree, then teammates. Then after we were teammates we weren't on such good terms. A lot of differences in philosophies and personalities.
So when you saw the now-infamous Oprah interview, what was running through your mind?
Well, I lived it, I knew that story before it was revealed. It was unusual seeing him be that forthright about all those events, because it has been so many years of very emphatic denials and legal actions, going after people who were questioning him, and so on. It was unusual seeing him reveal the truth in that way. But the content of it was very much known to me. Had been for along time.
You had seen this firsthand.
I was on his team. Doping was part of that operation, period. We did the same races together, and we did the same doping together.
What's it like taking EPO? (Erythropoietin, a blood doping agent)
I say this in the movie, it's a very subtle effect on your body. if you're trying to run two miles as fast as you can, there's this point where things aren't working anymore. Your muscles are burning, you feel like you have to slow down in order to keep up with your breath. That point of fatigue is delayed by a minute, two minutes. Just a little bit. But when you're dealing with the world's most talented athletes, that have all trained to an incredibly high level, who have been selected in this Darwinian way -- the margins are so small that that subtle difference makes a big difference.
In the film, everyone talks about this omerta, this code of silence. You had to work under that, as well.
Of course. The entire sport was basically carrying an enormous secret. He was obviously the most high-profile person who was carrying that secret. What was it like, having to try to escape that pressure and come forward with what you knew?
Not easy. You know, in the early years of the team, we had decided to become an anti-doping team and to take an outward and vocal stance on the issue. It was tough. The reactions from within the sport weren't always positive. Lance's reaction to it was basically calling bullshit. It was half disbelief and half anger that we were making him look bad. It had nothing to do with him, but he took it personally. Reaction from fans and sponsors was great, but internally, in the sport, it was hard in the early years. What happened was the quintessential change of paradigm in any business.
Sponsorship keeps the whole operation going, And once you had that, the doping started to stop, the level came down a little bit and all of a sudden we started winning races. It was a long and hard process, and it still is. Today, you can't say 'OK, the war is won, the witch is dead.' This is an ongoing process. I think we've come a long way and we've won a lot of battles, but you're trying to enforce the rules amongst a group of incredibly driven people, which pro athletes are, and truly enforce the rules, you have to stay on top of it constantly. The human condition is such that they're always looking for an advantage.
Did you meet Alex Gibney at the 2009 Tour De France?
Very briefly. And I basically told him, do not dare to film me or any of my guys. I told him to get lost,because at that point in time -- and he says this -- he was doing a puff piece, basically. Aggrandizing all of Armstrong's accomplishments and so forth. At that time we were the rival team for Lance's team, we were an anti-doping team and Lance hated that and was very vocally opposed to our team. So I looked at the situation: here's this documentarian doing a puff piece on him, he needs a bad guy in the documentary, right? I did the math on that and I was like, 'Oh shit, we're the bad guys.'
Then as the years went on, things changed and more information came to light, Alex and I got in touch again, we met and discussed things, and I realized that he was a far more objective person than I gave him credit for in the first place. We've become really good friends since then. In the later parts of making the film, he would call me three to four times a week, asking 'How should I treat this issue, how should I treat that issue?'
Is Lance Armstrong's story over, or does he still cast a shadow over the sport?
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I think, to the broader public, that shadow still exits, but its slowly dissipating. Within the sport and the hardcore fans of the sport, I think he's becoming more and more history.