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:

Cycling Photography Tips: Take a Look Inside the Argyle Armada Photo Bag

I’m often asked what type of camera gear I used during my year shooting Argyle Armada. Here’s the down-low on cameras, computers, and a few other essentials:

Cameras: One Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and one Canon EOS 1D Mark II N camera body. These are digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Heavy, fast, and tough.

Nikon or Canon? It doesn’t matter. Both companies make extraordinary cameras. If you are debating Canon vs Nikon, try them both and go with what feels most intuitive and comfortable in your hands. Keep in mind that once you start buying lenses, you are locked into that particular brand.

Lenses: When telling a story, I try to express one of two things: context or emotion. That is, the circumstances surrounding any one moment in time, and how those circumstances affect the subject. Wide-angle lenses provide the former, telephotos the latter. As a result, the two lenses I used most frequently in Argyle Armada are a wide angle zoom, the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L and a mid-range telephoto zoom, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L EF IS.

I kept the telephoto on one camera body and the wide angle on the other, saving me from having to switch lenses. This photo of Norwegian Thor Hushovd fans on the Col du Galibier in the French Alps shows how the 16-35mm captures context. 

For most of the year I was travelling and shooting without an assistant, so I tried to pack light; if it wouldn’t fit in my trusty, tough ThinkTank Airport International, then I left it behind. That means I often did not bring one of my  favorite lenses, the luminous Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS. (My other fav is the Canon 85mm f/1.2L, but more on that later.) This photo of Dave Zabriskie at the Tour of California from page 82 of Argyle Armada is with the 300mm.

Instead, I got extra telephoto reach without the weight of another big lens by popping a Canon 1.4x EF Extender on the 70-200. Extenders, also known as doublers, increase the telescopic effect of a zoom or fixed-focal length lens. Besides saving me from shlepping the 300mm lens, using a doubler, especially when shooting from a motorcycle, was more practical. Here’s a shot of Tom Peterson with Peter Stetina in the background with the 70-200/1.4x extender set up. 

Note that the 1.4x extender cuts the 70-200’s lowest aperture down to f/4 from f/2.8. However, with the Canon Mark IV, I could easily counter this loss of lens speed by upping my ISO to 800, 1000 or even 1600, keeping my shutter speed high enough to freeze action without any noticeable loss of image quality. Nothing wrong with grabbing a bit more f/4 depth of field, either.

Other lenses in my regular rotation were the Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye and the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS. And if you look closely at chapter eight on Québec and Montréal, you’ll find an image I shot with an architectural lens I brought to Canada for kicks, the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L tilt shift.

My  favorite lens for shooting podium awards is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L. This portrait lens is not the fastest in terms of focusing speed, but it delivers otherworldly backgrounds and exquisite detail. Here are shots of Ryder Hesjedal and Thor Hushovd with the 85mm.

If you like the look of the 85mm f/1.2 but can’t spare the (significant) dough, consider a 50mm f/1.4. It gives a similar feel at a fraction of the cost. I use Hoya or B+W UV filters to protect my lenses. It’s easier and safer to wipe mud off a filter than the lens element itself.

Flashes: Bringing in multiple light sources adds depth and dimensionality to photos, and I’m a big believer in busting out the strobes when I can. I travelled with three Canon 580EX flashes and a set of PocketWizard FlexTT5 and PocketWizard MiniTT1 radio slaves. Those slaves triggered the three-light setups you’ll find at the Tour of Spain on page 143 (note the rim light on Heinrich Haussler) and in the shot of Dan Lloyd in Colorado on page 132. Here’s a three-strobe lit photo of Andy Schleck in Colorado’s Garden of the Gods. With the sun, that’s four light sources bringing every spoke, corner and curve to life.

This shot of Christophe Le Mével at the Vuelta uses three strobes and the 15mm fisheye lens. You’ll find it in the book on page 148.

I also constantly used my Canon OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord. That widget allows you to got the strobe off your camera, which pushes your photography outside the realm of deer-in-headlights snapshots. I used the off camera shoe cord for the image of Ryder Hesjedal in Canada on page 167 of Argyle Armada.

Light modifiers: Light modifiers change the quality of light coming from a flash or the sun. My most-used strobe light modifiers were a Sto-Fen Omni Bounce and LumiQuest SoftBox III. The small, compact Sto-Fen diffuses harsh flash output, while the larger LumiQuest delivers a nice soft light and is sized perfectly to light faces with an appealing light fall-off. For this photo at the start of a Vuelta a España stage in Astorga, I used the LumiQuest Softbox III with the off camera cord to light 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre’s face.

In my suitcase I also carried a reflector disc, collapsable white shoot-through umbrella, and a Manfrotto portable light stand. Additionally, I had two 6″ bungie ball tie downs and a Manfrotto justin clamp on hand for affixing flashes and umbrellas to just about anything. If I were to pare things down even more, I’d just travel with the reflector.

Other accessories: When shooting races, I strapped on a ThinkTank Pro Speed Belt equipped with the following pouches: Lens Changer 75 Pop Down for the 70-200mm or 24-105mm zoom, Lens Changer 50 for the 16-35mm zoom or the 15mm fisheye,  R U Thirsty for a water bottle or extra lens, Strobe Stuff for a flash and diffuser, and Speed Changer for batteries, pens, notepad, business cards, Olympus digital voice recorder, lens cloth, Clif Bars, and a Seagate 1TB external hard drive. The ThinkTank belt frees you to work all day without carrying a camera bag.

I also relied on two Black Rapid camera straps. I prefer these to standard over-the-shoulder straps because they allow you to push the camera behind your back. And unlike a standard strap, it is impossible for these to slide off your shoulder.

For rainy days, I used a ThinkTank Hydrophobia and carried a small chamois to keep the gear sort of dry.  Sometimes, however, rain comes when you don’t expect it, and days like the one below fried four strobes over the course of the year. (That’s why I have insurance.) In fact, because my strobes were dead and drowned, some photos in Argyle Armada are shot with available light in situations where I would normally blaze away with 580EXes. You’ve got to roll with circumstances.

Black gaffer’s tape was another essential. The day you go out to shoot without it is the day you need it. I also carry a sensor cleaning kit; it’s a royal pain editing out dust spots in post-processing, and sensors get dirty quick in the dust up of 200 cyclists and a thundering follow caravan of vehicles.

Juicing up: Cameras, flashes, phones, voice recorders, laptops and all the gizmos that make 21st-century journalism possible require nightly recharging. I travelled with a six-outlet power strip and used a travel plug adapter to plug the strip into a power receptacle wherever I was staying (often the only free outlet being in the bathroom, placed conveniently above running water.) This allowed me to charge my collection of electronics from a single outlet. I stored the tangle of chargers and cords in a ThinkTank Cable Management 50 organizer.

Computer and software: I travelled with a 15″ MacBook Pro loaded with Adobe Lightroom for my image editing and asset management tasks. I carried the MacBook in a ThinkTank Artificial Intelligence laptop bag, which slides nicely into a stretchy pocket on the front of the Airport International for transport through terminals, train stations and press rooms.

I shot all the images in RAW format and converted to DNG when importing into Lightroom. The images you see in Argyle Armada went through an additional process in Adobe Photoshop; conversion from DNG to TIFF and from the ProPhoto RGB color space to the printer-friendly CMYK color space. What with soft-proofing the CMYK images, that was a mountain of work;  I did not sleep much during the final month of image prep and output.

During many races I was also shooting for clients who needed images quickly. In those cases, I would record RAW images to one memory card and JPGs to the other (the Canon Mark IV and Mark II N have two card slots). While Lightroom was grinding through the RAW-to-DNG conversion process, I could simultaneously grab the JPGs from the other card and FTP them to my clients without any editing or image conversions.

Clothes: Take a look at the photo above and you’ll note my two most important clothing items: a floppy hat to cover your ears and sturdy, waterproof boots to protect your feet. It’s amazing how happy you can remain in cold and wet if your feet are dry and the hat is keeping water off your face and viewfinder. And of course, the hat is a hands-free, cancer-foiling sunbrella. Boots also protect your ankles and allow you to move confidently in mud, brush, dirt and gravel without having to step gingerly or worry about spending the day in sopping socks.

Ready for disaster: I started every day with the assumption that all my gear would be stolen. But that didn’t stress me out, because every night I would back up all my images from the laptop to two Seagate 1TB external hard drives. One remained with me in my Speed Changer pouch or jacket pocket all day, and the other stayed in the car or wherever I happened to be stashing my luggage. In sum, while on the road I always had all my images backed up to three hard drives stored in two or three physical locations.

Upon returning to my office in California, I would make three more backups of my images: one on my Mac Pro desktop hard drive, one on a RAID array, and one on a 3TB external hard drive I stored offsite in case my office was burglarized or burned down.

It sounds like a lot of redundancy founded on pessimism, but my worst nightmare was to spend a year shooting images for the book, then have them all disappear because of theft or fire. This never happened, but I slept soundly knowing I could move on without pause if it did! While in the field, having backups also frees you to focus on shooting and observing rather than fretting over whether your gear will be there at day’s end. If it’s gone, you still have your work and your project stays on track. You can’t control thieves, but you can manage your response to their destruction.

Getting around: Especially in countries like Belgium, where road networks are as intricate as lung capillaries, my Garmin nüvi 2450 with European maps (downloaded separately) was critical. And no, Garmin didn’t give me the nüvi–I bought it from Amazon in the US. When you arrive in Europe, just change the country setting on the GPS and off you go toward your nearest slip road. I also bought Michelin maps in advance for whatever area of Europe I happened to be travelling. (They cost about 7 Euros in Europe, but it can be hard to find them on the road.) You can try the cheaper maps for sale in tourist shops and gas stations, but in my experience, you will regret it; Michelin maps are the best.

The Words: I wrote Argyle Armada with the Mac word processing program Pages, and saved the files to a Dropbox folder. I also stored my nearly 150 hours of digital interview recordings on Dropbox. Keeping the files on Dropbox ensured that I could carry on writing the Argyle Armada story without a hitch if my laptop were ever stolen.

If you have more questions about my setup, please get in touch.


Argyle Armada book coverOrder your copy of Argyle Armada today and get an all-access pass to the world of professional cycling. Available from your local bookstore or bike shop or from these retailers:

What’s It Like to Train with Team Garmin?

I’m often asked if I rode with the Garmin-Cervélo team during my year with them. I did get that chance at their winter Girona training camp.

On an easy (for them) February day out with Michel Kreder, Murilo Fischer, Dan Martin and director Bingen Fernandez, I grabbed some footage with my iPhone. Catalan countryside, stone villages, Murilo and Michel cyclocrossing a muddy field, and coffee and pastries. It was a very fine day indeed.

When I got back to my apartment, I downloaded the footage and made this quick video on iMovie. Here it is, a rest day on the road with some of the Garmin-Cervélo boys: