About Mark Johnson

Writer and photographer and author of Argyle Armada, a book about life with the Garmin-Barracuda pro cycling team.

What’s Viagra Got to Do With It?

Pro cycling has never had powerful, effective leaders. It’s something I cover in depth in the last chapter of Argyle Armada. Now, however, the Lance Armstrong implosion may be precipitating positive change, including the November, 2012 gathering of a summit in London that includes Jonathan Vaughters and John Hoberman, a fascinating professor from the University of Texas, Austin.

In this piece for VeloNews, I spoke with Hoberman about his 25 years of scholarship on doping in sports and society. Because he does not focus solely on pro cycling, Hoberman, 68, brings illuminating perspectives into our understanding of how our culture handles doping in sports.

For example, the fact that performance-enhancing drugs like Viagra have been seamlessly adapted into the fabric of our lives–and without stigma–affects how we judge athletes who cheat.

Hoberman was an expert consultant in the 2005 SCA Promotions lawsuit against Armstrong, and he also discusses how nationalism can compel national and intentional sports governing bodies to turn a blind eye to cheating.

Hoberman does not feel that more punitive measures are the answer to performance enhancing drugs in sports. Rather, he argues that the approach that a team like Garmin is taking–creating a team culture where doping is neither supported nor expected–is a more promising way forward.


David Millar on the team bus at La Flèche Wallonne. April 20, 2011.

In chapter three of Argyle Armada, “The Ardennes Classics,” I spend an afternoon on a bus in Holland talking to David Millar. The Scotsman began using EPO in 2001 and confessed to doping in 2004. He served a two year suspension and came back to pro racing with Slipstream.

“The majority of people who work in pro cycling today have experienced doping,” Millar told me. “That’s a hell of a statistic.” After the release of USADA’s findings on Lance Armstrong, we know Millar’s statement is not an exaggeration.

At the end of our conversation Millar explained why he got involved with Slipstream: “Our original mission statement was to give people hope again in the sport in what was a very dark time. And be proactive in our stance and make it clear that we were going to do our best to guarantee to you that we are clean.”

Millar made mistakes and came back into cycling wanting to be a positive role model.

Millar’s words came to mind as I scrolled through reader comments to a piece I wrote on how Slipstream was a refuge from a corrosive and corroded pro cycling culture.

I was struck by the number of readers who felt Vaughters and the Slipstream riders who doped should be forever banned from pro cycling.

I understand the emotion driving this sentiment. Cycling fans have been burned over and again by pros who claim innocence then later confess they were lying all along. Why would anyone want to give the time of day, let alone another shot at a career in cycling, to these unflinching con men?

But I don’t agree with the logic.

To ban Vaughters forever is tantamount to telling a repentant and reformed drug dealer he cannot return to his inner-city neighborhood to teach the error of his ways.

Keeping a reformed criminal out of the churches, schools, and community centers that were once the theater of his sins might seem to solve a problem–keeping bad guys away–but it does not solve the problem; how to create a culture where young people are not assaulted with a multitude of bad choices. Solving the short term lets the larger long-term problem grow.

In the case of the riders who finally spilled the beans to the USADA, yes, their date with honesty came too late, and for the wrong reasons. But at least the truth finally came out from the Vande Veldes, Zabriskies, Danielsons, and Vaughters of the world. They also apologized for their ways and have chosen a more honorable path since renouncing their doping.

Of the late Who drummer Keith Moon’s creative genius, writer James Wood wrote that “Making mistakes is simply part of the locomotion of vitality.”

Like Moon, the pros who doped are flawed characters. They are human. Acknowledging their humanity takes humaneness on our part. Forgiveness.

Banning a Millar and a Vaughters from pro cycling might grant fans the satisfaction of knowing ex-cheaters are no longer in the pro cycling neighborhood.

But quenching an emotional thirst for retribution would also closet forces who have truly dedicated themselves to ending a doping culture. Not just confess and sit silently, but take action to change pro cycling. Throwing them out might salve our personal need, but at the expense of allowing a dishonest way of life to to flourish.

When acknowledged and owned, missteps can be the locomotive of human improvement. And when matched by a spirit of mercy on our part, that’s an engine that just might pull pro cycling to a better, cleaner, more honest place.

Tiger Talansky

Andrew Hood’s recent interview with Garmin-Sharp rider Andrew Talansky captures the fiery personality I also found during my year with Talansky and the Garmin team.

In Hood’s interview, Talansky is offended by riders who challenge his ability to ride in Europe without doping. Talansky, who finished seventh at this year’s Vuelta a España, calls out Andy Jacques-Maynes, a domestic U.S. rider who Tweeted his opinion that “everyone racing in Europe has been doped at some point.”

When I spent time with Talansky at the 2011 Vuelta (his first Grand Tour), he showed a similar flash of anger when I brought up the topic of Paul Kimmage, the author of Rough Ride and a long time anti-doping critic. Even though Kimmage is complimentary of Talansky’s team, the young Floridian told me he found the Irish journalist’s very presence among the pro peloton deeply offensive.

From chapter 7 of Argyle Armada:

    Talansky is visibly saddened when he talks about fans and journalists who don’t believe any riders are clean. Yet, upon hearing that doping denouncer Paul Kimmage finds Vaughter’s team a beacon of hope, a shadow crosses Talansky’s face again. “I think it’s great” that Garmin-Cervélo gives Kimmage hope, he says. Then he says, darkly: “I also think that somebody like him has no place in the sport of cycling and doesn’t deserve to write about it.”
    Talansky explains that there are other clean teams out there, and he feels it’s unjust of someone like Kimmage to only focus on Garmin-Cervélo while tarring the rest of the peloton. “I’m really sad for him,” he confides. “It is puzzling to me why these people are still around the sport….I get a little angry about that.”

A year has passed since I interviewed Andrew on that quiet September afternoon in Northern Spain, and the wall of silence surrounding pro cycling’s dope-ridden past has begun to crumble since then.

It’s good to see that this young rider, the vanguard of a different generation of pro cyclists, has not lost the moxie that makes him one of the most compelling men in the pro peloton today.

You can read more about Talansky in Argyle Armada. 

Blood and Ice

Watching the carnage of the first week of the 2012 Tour de France, you can’t help but think how fortunate the team was at the 2011 Tour. While Ryder Hesjedal suffered a terrible crash during stage one, during last year’s first eight stages the team largely kept the rubber side down. They also carried the yellow jersey for seven glorious days.

This year, of course, has been the opposite, with crashes forcing lead-out-man Robbie Hunter to abandon along with GC contenders Hesjedal and Tom Danielson. Smack downs with the European pavement seriously compromised both health and GC potential for the rest of the squad as well. “We are down to six,” Vaughters said. “We have just got to soldier on.”

But crashing is bike racing, and last year that was especially apparent at September’s Tour of Spain. There, the team lost both Brazilian Murilo Fischer and Tyler Farrar to crashes during the first week. In a freak accident on a wide, flat road, Frenchman Christophe Le Mével also went down so hard he at first thought he broke his hip.

Showing the marks of a crash earlier in the day, and with a bag of ice down his bib shorts, Johan Vansummeren finishes the Vuelta a Espanã stage 15 on the Alto de L’Angliru. September 4, 2011.

This photo shows Johan Vansummeren during Vuelta stage 15 on the Angliru, a vicious climb in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain. The blood on his fingers, arm, and leg are traces of an earlier run in with a sharp bit of Europe’s infamous road furniture–traffic-calming devices placed in roads to slow cars.

You will have to read Argyle Armada to get the gory details, but consider that in addition to getting stitches in two parts of his body after the stage, injuries forced the Belgian to ride the stage with a bag of ice down his shorts. The 6’5″, 167-pound Vansummeren also resisted the race and team doctors’ strong recommendation that he finish the stage in an ambulance, not on a bike.

During another Vuelta stage, Sep Vanmarcke got tangled up with another falling rider and flew over a guard rail on a steep mountain descent. After launching 40 meters into a ravine, the young Belgian hit a tree and crashed to a halt in underbrush just meters from a river. The caravan didn’t see the crash, and Vanmarcke had to drag himself up out of the woods before word filtered out to the team car to come back and assist him.

Traumatized, Vanmarcke got back on his bike and rode to the finish. “At that moment you just realize what you survived. I was totally mentally broken. I started crying for two hours. I couldn’t stop. I had no power. I was shocked.”

Jonathan Vaughters recently argued that, considering the grave risks inherent to pro cycling, the minimum rider salaries should be twice what they are today. That’s part of his larger vision for a reformed sport. Getting compensation more in line with the hazardous nature of the pro cycling hasn’t happened yet, but both the 2011 Vuelta and the first week of the 2012 Tour suggest their may be some merit to the Slipstream boss’s wish.

Go inside the pro peloton with Argyle Armada, available from your local bookstore or bike shop or from these retailers:Argyle Armada book cover

Who the Hell is Ramunas Navardauskas?

The other day an interviewer asked me to put on my fan cap and tell his readers who my favorite team riders were. I mentioned Ramunas Navardauskas–the 23-year old Lithuanian national champ who held the 2012 Giro d’Italia GC lead for two days after Garmin-Barracuda won the May 9 team time trial.

Navardauskas on July 15, 2011 in Lourdes, France after Thor Hushovd won the 13th stage of the Tour in a breakaway on the descent of the 5,607-foot Col d’Aubisque.

Ramunas Navardauskas with Robby Ketchell, the team’s sports science director and the braintrust behind their team time trial wins at the Giro and Tour de France.

I first met Ramunas at the team’s winter training camp in Girona, Spain. At the time, the then 23-year old gave me the impression of a wide-eyed innocent awestruck at the fact that he was even in a room with the likes of Dave Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde and world champion Thor Hushovd. And with reason. It was January, 2011, Ramunas’ first week on a ProTour squad.

Vaughters had just pulled Navardauskas up from the French amateur team Vélo Club La Pomme Marseille.

During stage 15 of the 2011 Tour de France, Ramunas Navardauskas streaks through Abeilhan, a hamlet in southern France’s Languedoc-Roussilon region.

In chapter 5 of Argyle Armada, Vaughters explains that Navardauskas is one of the most promising talents he’s ever encountered.

Navardauskas after a wet stage 11 of the Tour de France in Lavaur.

After catching wind of the rider from Lithuania–a West Virgina-sized country between Finland, Poland and the Baltic Sea that’s more known for its basketball players than cyclists–Vaughters ran Navardauskas through a battery of physiological performance tests and found that he was putting out “6 watts per kilogram–better than the guys we were sending to the Tour” in 2010.

Navardauskas passes through Uriage-Les-Baines during the 2011 Tour de France stage 20 time trial outside Grenoble.

If Navardauskas was so talented, why hadn’t other ProTour teams already nabbed him?

“He won too much,” Vaughters explained with signature frankness. “The Frenchies all thought he was doping.”

Navardauskas rides behind Dave Zabriskie near Avranches during stage six of the 2011 Tour de France.

Vaughters quietly monitored Navardauskas’ performances throughout 2010. On more than one occasion, within hours of him turning in a winning performance, Vaughters sent Ramunas a plane ticket to the Slipstream headquarters in Girona.

In the renowned Provence wine village of Chȃteauneuf du Pape, Navardauskas is about to enjoy a well-earned desert during the second rest day of the 2011 Tour de France.

There, within hours of his race, the team’s doctors conducted blood and urine tests as well as power output examinations. What they found confirmed Vaughters’ sense that the Lithuanian was simply an extraordinary athlete. And an honest one, too.  “The objective data pointed to a completely clean rider that was just super talented and super strong,” Vaughters recalls.

During stage six of the 2011 Tour de France, Navardauskas, Tom Danielson, David Millar and Ryder Hesjedal keep Thor Hushovd in the yellow jersey for another day by drilling it near the town of Vire.

In mid June, Vaughters sent Navardauskas a message that he was not expecting: he was on the Tour de France team.

Navardauskas scales the Col du Galibier at the end of a Tour de France stage 18 that began in Pinerolo, Italy.

“It was a big surprise to be in the top ten,” Ramunas told me at last year’s Tour. “When Jonathan sent me the email that I am top-ten on the list, I thought, I will be the guy who, if something happens to these other nine guys, then maybe on the last day I will come to the Tour.”

Navardauskas shows the strain of the Pyrenees at the finish of Tour de France stage 14 on the Plateau de Beille.

Today, less than a year after his first Tour de France, Ramunas has two Giro maglia rosa leader’s jerseys for his wall. For a rider who started cycling as a kid when a friend got a bike and said, “Maybe you should try,” to Giro race leader, Ramunas Navardauskas’ story proves that in some cases, nice guys do finish first.

In Paris, Ryder Hesjedal congratulates Navardauskas for completing his first Tour de France–a race he only learned he would race 10 days before the start.

You can read another Mark Johnson profile of Ramunas Navardauskas here.

Argyle Armada book coverLearn more about Ramunas and other Garmin riders in Argyle Armada.

In the book, writer-photographer Mark Johnson was embedded with the team for an entire season. The book includes incisive text about the business of cycling and what it’s like to ride for an elite cycling team. Order the book from your local bookstore, bike shop, or from these retailers: