Denver Cycling Legend Jonathan Vaughters on Victory, Pain and Doping

Jonathan Vaughters's EF Education First team preparing for the 2018 Tour de France.
Jonathan Vaughters's EF Education First team preparing for the 2018 Tour de France. EF Education First Pro Cycling via YouTube
In One-Way Ticket: Nine Lives on Two Wheels, a new memoir out this week, Denver cycling legend Jonathan Vaughters takes readers on an epic journey that begins with his bike-crazy youth in the Mile High City and rolls through international renown, feverish competition with besmirched hero Lance Armstrong both on and off the road, whistleblowing infamy that included confessions about his own doping, his key role in helping to clean up the sport, and his current status as the founder and manager of the EF Education First team. But if the book has a defining theme, it's karma, and Vaughters's belief that he deserves any payback he's received for wrong turns along the way.

Consider his take on the annual Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb.

"I've always had a special relationship with Mount Evans," notes Vaughters, who's scheduled to talk about One-Way Ticket at an event in Boulder next week; get details below. "It was the mountain that I saw every single day going to school for years and years of my life. It was straight in front of the road that my parents' house was on, and I became obsessed with breaking the record. I won it a number of times when I was really young, before doping, and it's always been a really pure thing to me. The race was named after Bob Cook, who was an incredibly talented and pure person, and Mount Evans and Bob Cook deserve to be off in this separate and still idealistic world."

Once he started doping, however, "the sport became more about my commercial value and winning because my sponsors wanted me to win, and because the team needed me to win, and less about the purity of the sport," he continues. "So in a weird way, I'm glad I never broke the record on Mount Evans. Well, maybe not glad — but it was karmically just."

Here's a video of Vaughters riding on Mount Evans in 1994.

During the era of Colorado sports when Vaughters came of age, "The Coors Classic was almost the landmark event in the state — other than the Broncos making the playoffs," he acknowledges with a laugh. "The 1986 world championships were in Colorado Springs, which was one of the few times they've been held in the United States, and I just fell in love with what the sport was about — everything from the speed to the danger to the pain, which in some sort of odd way brings a real introspective peace. Not to everybody, but to me, anyway."

Vaughters doesn't skimp on outlining the agony that's required of top-flight competitors; the narrative is filled with accounts of vomiting and exertion so extreme that he's frequently afraid of shitting his shorts.

"One of the goals I had in writing the book was to convey how difficult a sport professional cycling is: the mindset you have to have and your ability to tolerate everything," he reveals. "Bike races don't get canceled because of storms. You have to go through rain, snow, hot, cold. The gladiator nature of these men and women who are able to go out and do this is something I don't know that people really understand. You watch the Tour de France and see these beautiful, colorful uniforms flowing through the French countryside, and it appears to be this healthy, peaceful sport. But the reality when you're actually racing at the top level is far from that. It's incredibly cutthroat, incredibly tough. There is zero tolerance for excuses, and safety measures are basically nonexistent."

If a rider crashes, he continues, "you're crashing at 45 miles per hour. It's like driving up the highway, opening up your car door and throwing yourself on the road in your underpants, because you're wearing this millimeter width of Lycra and nothing else. It's a brutal, brutal sport, and the dichotomy of that versus what it looks like on TV makes it an interesting thing to write about."

The same can be said of the local cycling quirks that Vaughters shares, including an account of the Meridian Ride, a bi-weekly event that has taken place for decades in the Denver Tech Center area while somehow remaining an underground phenomenon mostly unknown to the public at large.

"I haven't been for a few years, but I hear it's still going strong, still 100 people out there every Tuesday and Thursday — and it truly is the fight club of the Denver bike-racing scene," he says. "Anyone can show up, and there are no rules. It's open traffic and dangerous as hell. It used to be less dangerous in the ’80s, when it wasn't as developed out in the Lone Tree area. Now you've got people pulling out of a Mexican restaurant in the middle of a race. But there's a kind of beauty in this behind-the-scenes cycling world, where some kid is out-sprinting a forty-year-old expert by blowing through a red-light intersection. The Meridian ride, and equivalent rides in places like New York and L.A., are where the next American winner of the Tour de France or the next American gold-medal winner is going to come from. This is the way champions are made in cycling."

click to enlarge Jonathan Vaughters during a 2014 interview. - YOUTUBE
Jonathan Vaughters during a 2014 interview.
That proved to be the case for Vaughters, who steadily rose through the ranks of the U.S. cycling community to earn acclaim in Europe and membership on the U.S. Postal Service team headed by Armstrong. Vaughters recounts an episode in 1995 when Armstrong ranted against those cheating to get ahead in the sport, "but I don't know if he was passionate about anti-doping," he concedes. "It might have been that he was passionate that somebody else had a weapon he didn't. You could see the wheels grinding in his head. His first option was, 'Let's get this rule properly enforced, and if EPO [Erythropoietin, a hormone produced by the kidneys] is illegal, we need to get a test for it so we can stop it from being used.' But if everyone is using it and they can't be caught..."

To Vaughters, the psychology that leads to doping is far more complex than it's typically portrayed. "The arrogance of a top-level pro athlete is that we all believe if it's an equal playing field — if nobody is doping — then of course we're going to be the best. And that can easily twist itself into, 'If everyone else is doing it, I need to level the playing field.' In my experience, there are very few pro athletes or pro cyclists who are actively seeking to be one step ahead of everyone else. They're all just thinking, 'I'm only doing this so it can be fair.' Sometimes that's true and sometimes that's bullshit, and sometimes that's sociopathic behavior. It depends on the situation. But for the majority of guys, they think, 'This is about me making it fair.'"

There's also a healthy measure of self-delusion, as Vaughters makes clear in telling his own story. "It was a slow wearing-down of the moral compass. It's like, if a vitamin B12 shot is okay, what's the difference between that and amino acid? And if amino acid is okay, what's the difference between that and a hormone? And then all of a sudden, you're all the way to EPO. It slowly numbs you to the decision you're making — and that's why it's so important in any sport that the people who've gone through that, like myself, are willing to stand up and take responsibility for making sure that the culture and the decisions that young people are presented with are different. If I went back to my 25-year-old self, I'd probably make the same damn decisions again. But my 45-year-old self would say, 'Here are the pitfalls, and through my life experience, I can guide things in a different way.'"

That's important, he goes on, "because at 25, a lot of athletes don't have the maturity or the wisdom of the coaches and managers and sponsors and adults in the room. You can't expect someone who is totally okay with going around a switchback in the French Alps on an oil-stained street in the pouring rain with a 5,000-foot drop-off on the other side — someone who is willing to risk their lives for the sport because they're so in love with it — to make good decisions if we're encouraging a win-at-all-costs attitude."

In 2003, Vaughters shifted from racing to management, and after launching the 5280/Subaru junior squad with financial backing from 5280 magazine CEO Dan Brogan, he created Slipstream Sports. A few years later, the team operating under the Slipstream umbrella would go on to make anti-doping history by "helping WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency] initiate the biological passport, which we were the test group for," he explains. "New drugs were coming out so quickly that testers couldn't keep up with them — or, in the case of EPO, we all have that in our body, so how can you identify the natural from the unnatural? But the biological passport says, 'We're not going to test for the drugs themselves. We're going to look for the physiological effects of the drugs we have, and if they go beyond the biological normatives, we're going to flag that.' So it's looking for smoke, not fire, and that revolutionized anti-doping and the whole arms race of doping."

click to enlarge The cover of One-Way Ticket. - AMAZON
The cover of One-Way Ticket.
Slipstream, meanwhile, made riding clean its brand. As he recalls, "We popularized anti-doping; we made it cool, and we made it make business  sense. It sounds so harsh and pragmatic, but the reality is, in 2008, we were so loud and proud publicly about our anti-doping stance — we were getting articles in the New York Times and Outside and ESPN — that we started pulling in more sponsorship revenues and more new fans than just about anybody. We weren't winning that many races, but on the business side, we were the most successful team in the world, and it made the other teams go, 'Well, shit, maybe that's the way to do things.'"

The result was a culture shift that's still in place today, Vaughters believes. "There will always be people who'll try to circumvent the rules, so I can't say pro cycling is 100 percent clean. But what I can say with a lot of conviction is that compared to when I was riding — when a clean rider had zero chance of a successful career in riding — now clean riders have every chance of having a successful career and winning the biggest races in the world. And that's 180 degrees from where it used to be."

Not that everything has been smooth pavement for Vaughters since then. One-Way Ticket reveals how close his team of riders came to bankruptcy in 2017 before being rescued by EF Education First. "Now we've got a great new, very strong financial backer that has long-term ambitions," he allows. "We're rebuilding the team into one that I think in the next five or six years will challenge for the Tour de France victory. We think this team can be the best in the world."

His relationship with Armstrong is in considerably worse shape, and he's uncertain it can be repaired: "I don't see any great desire on his part to make amends to the people he hurt. I don't see his sort of bullying attitude changing very much. I think Lance struggles with ever truly taking responsibility for what he did."

At the same time, though, Vaughters feels that "this sport has made absolutely immense progress, and that's really heartwarming to see. But the responsibility is on guys like me to make sure that kind of crap doesn't happen again."

Jonathan Vaughters will talk about One-Way Ticket from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 5, at Rapha Boulder, 1815 Pearl Street. Click for more details.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts