Chapter 1: Winter Training Camp
Dave Zabriskie sits on a glowing Plexiglas stage in a darkened ballroom at the AC Palau, a hotel perched like a shimmering glass-and-steel sentry above the cobblestoned passageways of Girona. Dense curtains block views of the snowcapped Pyrenees. A lattice of studio lights illuminates the six-time U.S. time trial champion, while revolving fan blades cast shadows on a backdrop. A nest of Mavic wheels spins between the stage and boom-mounted television cameras. Zabriskie, the third American to wear the yellow jersey, following Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, looks like an action figure in a life-sized diorama.
DZ, as his teammates call him, stands up, puts his right hand on the small of his back, tilts slightly to the right, and winces. It’s January 31 at the team’s winter training camp, and while his Garmin-Cervélo teammates spent five hours riding in the Catalan countryside earlier today, back pain kept the 32-year-old off the bike. The American television network Versus is in Spain to film Zabriskie and his teammates talking about themselves. In four months the vignettes will be broadcast during the Tour of California and then the Tour de France.
Script in hand, the director asks Zabriskie about sweltering days ahead in July. “The Tour de France; what is it that makes it such a special event?” Gliding on a dolly, the camera films Zabriskie’s response. “The energy that everyone is feeling is different,” he says. A machine suddenly pumps fog onto the set, and Zabriskie leaps up. The vegan waves his hands at a descending cloud. A camera operator assures him it is harmless. Zabriskie arches an eyebrow.
The assorted Garmin-Cervélo riders move through the three photo and video sets in the ballroom as if passing through stations of the cross. Christian Vande Velde, the U.S. star who has been with the team since 2008, rides the rollers for the camera. When the director tells world champion Thor Hushovd they must be confusing him with stage directions, the Norwegian, a man of few words, responds with a faint smile. “I trust you guys.” While the veterans like Hushovd and Vande Velde take it all in stride—their work takes place on the road, but this is where the bills get paid—the younger riders, including 25-year-old Irishman Dan Martin, are agog. Martin, who turned pro with the team in 2008, snaps photos of the set with his camera phone.
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The day after the Versus filming wraps up, team director (directeur sportif in cycling vernacular) Bingen Fernandez sits in the soaring glass hotel lobby with his laptop open to a spreadsheet. It’s a daunting digital abacus with hundreds of cells scheduling some 250 days of racing for the team’s 29 riders over the next 10 months. Fernandez, 39, rode for six years with the Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi team and eight with French squad Cofidis. His experience is an asset for the still fairly young Garmin-Cervélo team.
The soft-spoken Basque says Garmin-Cervélo is different from traditional professional cycling teams. It takes an empirical approach to both winning races and creating a sustainable business that supports riders, staff, owners, and sponsors. “There must be a change in cycling,” he says in Spanish. “I think we need to leave the old things in cycling behind and adapt ourselves to modern life.” However, hailing from the tradition-bound Basque Country, he also values his sport’s conventions. “I like the old way of thinking a little bit,” he says. “But I’m also inventive. I like a combination. I like to innovate on top, but preserve the roots.”
Fernandez, who straddles worlds, cultures, and value systems, is a proxy for the revolutionary ethos of the Garmin-Cervélo team and how it is disrupting the 150-year-old profession’s history. The team was started by ex-pro and current CEO and sporting director Jonathan Vaughters in 2003 as a development team for young U.S. riders. Vaughters is a one-time U.S. Postal Service rider who raced professionally from 1994 to 2004 in Europe and the United States, and a former teammate of U.S. superstar Lance Armstrong. Vaughters quit racing because he did not buy into a culture that systematically overlooked, hid, and ignored doping. Then he made it his goal to make the sport more financially stable for riders, team owners, sponsors, and race organizers. Slipstream, the holding company he created, is ushering in a new approach to the sport, most strikingly by rejecting drugs as tools for higher performance. Doping scandals scare sponsors away, and Vaughters knows that changing cycling’s doping culture is key to ensuring the sport’s financial stability.
The challenges inherent in this project are constant. The week before the camp kicks off, Vaughters fires the team’s longtime directeur sportif Matt White, when he learns the Australian referred a past rider to a doctor not approved by the team. While it seems an honest mistake, the shadow of doubt is enough for Vaughters to can the well-liked and widely respected director, ending his three-year tenure.
Dan Martin says the move sends a valuable message to the organization at the beginning of the year. “It shows that there’s no exceptions. Matt White is one of the most important parts of this team. He’s crucial to the development of the team, and it shows that even he wasn’t exempt from not playing by the rules.”
In Martin’s eyes, firing White keeps non-racing pressure off of the riders by making the team’s success equation manifest: For any medical or nutritional issues, riders have doctors and scientists on hand whom they can trust. “We have to consult the team medical staff for everything. That takes the risk away from the team, and it takes the pressure off us as well,” Martin says. The medical staff members, he adds, “have got our careers in their hands.” There is neither a need nor an option to go outside this circle of vetted advisers. “I’ve grown up with this team, and it’s the only way I’ve ever known.”
“We’ve very much developed this anti-doping culture, as opposed to the sweep-it-under-the-rug culture,” the talented young rider continues. “This transparency that we’ve had from the beginning is one of the reasons that I came to the team.”
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While Vaughters and the team’s press officer deal with the fallout of letting a longtime director go, across town it’s just after sunrise at the team service course, when head mechanic Geoff Brown rolls up a metal door causing a clatter that echoes across the frost-covered countryside. Service course is a cycling term for a team’s mechanical headquarters, in this case a triple-bay garage in an industrial park on the outskirts of Girona. The unadorned cinder block structure swallows the team’s bus and fleet of trucks and cars like a whale eating fish. The industrial park is so new the building does not yet have gas or electricity. Brown starts the morning by plugging a fat extension cord into a generator. Dressed in mechanic’s overalls and a wool hat under a snugged sweatshirt hood, he pulls on a pair of gloves, walks to a well-used espresso machine, and brews a steaming cup of coffee.
Brown started working in his father’s bike shop in Ottawa, Ontario, when he was a kid. After he wrenched for the Canadian national team through the 1992 Olympics, the Motorola team offered him a job that later became a position with the U.S. Postal team. “I headed off to Europe, and I’ve basically been here ever since,” the 51-year-old says, laughing. He has seen a lot.
Next to Brown’s bike stand, a recycling bin overflows with cardboard boxes from the hundreds of Cervélo bicycle frames and Mavic wheels that arrived during the previous week from the team’s sponsors. Toward the back of the garage, a tower of unopened bike boxes awaits the arrival of the rest of the six-person mechanic staff.
The pretraining-camp tasks facing the mechanics during the last two weeks of January include assembling nearly 100 bikes, gluing tubular tires on some 300 carbon-fiber wheels, answering the riders’ unique bike-fitting requests as they filter into town, and building up a fleet of bikes for sponsor VIPs who arrive on January 30—all while outfitting the garage’s bare cinder block walls with racks and shelves to keep a season’s worth of equipment in order. At the same time, the mechanics are packing wheels and bikes in a shipping container for transportation to the Middle East. There, the mechanics will assemble the equipment for February’s Tours of Qatar and Oman.
By 8:30 the rest of the mechanics arrive. Spaniard Victor Villalba puts a Cervélo on a bike stand near the open door. Like an artisan stringing a guitar, he pulls cables from a box and threads them through the top tube, his frozen breath illuminated by the early morning sun. With a small boombox next to him doing its best to fill the cavernous garage with European techno music, Villalba’s work on the cables and bike assembly fills his morning.
After lunch at a nearby cafeteria, Villalba moves to a stepladder at a workbench, opens a red can of Italian mastic, and brushes the glue across the bottom of a partially inflated tire. His strokes are quick, precise, decisive. After one coat of glue, he tosses the tire to the floor; it looks like a truck crashed and lost its load of Hula Hoops at his feet.
Down the bench, New Zealander Kris Withington peers through horn-rimmed glasses at a wheel mounted on a truing stand. He slowly spins the $1,800 wheel—carbon-fiber from rim to spokes to hub—and brushes glue on its concave rim surface. His work overalls have an AC/DC patch on one side of his chest and a New Zealand flag on the other; it would be easy to mistake the college-educated mechanic for a rock band roadie. Brown says that over the course of the season the squad glues 500 to 600 wheels. “I got strong fingers,” he says. “And no brain cells. They’ve all been dissolved by the fumes!”
Completed wheels, already about 200 of them, hang on a rack at the back of the service course. At $140 per tire and $3,500 for each set of wheels, there is a reason the facility is secured by an alarm system and closed-circuit cameras. Behind the wheels, a separate shelf-lined room waits for the shipments of 20,000 CamelBak water bottles and 30,000 Clif Bars the team will use during the season.
Work on the wheels and bike building comes to a halt when a delivery truck pulls up with 140 boxes of North Face clothing and travel bags. Polish mechanic Andrzej Pozak and his Spanish colleague Joan Linares form a chain with Brown and soigneur Alyssa Morahan. A soigneur is a pro cycling jack-of-all-trades who does everything from massage therapy to preparing drink bottles to washing clothes to handing out bags in race feed zones. Without them and the mechanics, a pro cycling team would collapse. The group quickly unloads the truck into a tower of boxes in an adjoining service bay. Two days later, the garage will be lined with North Face suitcases, each one filled with North Face, Castelli, and New Balance clothing and shoes and tagged with the name of the rider and staff member or sponsor for distribution at the camp.
Riders begin filtering into the service course the following morning. It’s their private bike shop, where any problem can be solved at no cost to them. Colorado native Peter Stetina, 24, arrives on his bike with a time trial frame over his shoulder. The following week, after camp is under way, Matt Wilson shows up a couple of hours before a scheduled 10 a.m. training ride. The 34-year-old Australian national champion is fresh off a plane from the Tour Down Under race in his homeland. “I think this frame is too big,” he tells Pozak.
The quiet Polish mechanic pulls a 56-centimeter Cervélo S3 from a shipping box and puts it on a stand. Then he places Wilson’s 58-centimeter bike on a jig that measures bicycle dimensions and carefully records its every facet, down to the millimeter: seat to handlebar, top of seat to bottom bracket, seat setback from bottom bracket. Dressed in riding tights and booties, Wilson crosses his arms against the cold air. Pozak switches all the components from one frame to another, while the Australian watches carefully, only occasionally asking questions about the setup. Wilson interacts with the skilled mechanic with the gravity of a patient consulting his surgeon.
Two sponsors from Rotor, the team’s Spanish crankset supplier show up. One of them takes off his orange down vest and offers it to Wilson. The Australian gratefully puts it on. Thirty minutes later, the frames are swapped and Wilson takes the new bike for a spin around the garage.
Suddenly, the garage is awash with riders and people affiliated with the teams’ various sponsors. The day is to start with sponsors riding with the team through the bucolic Catalan landscape. The mechanics rush to adjust seat heights on the fleet of Cervélos they just finished building for the VIPs.
Outside, Hushovd pedals over to Jon Cassat, Garmin’s vice president of communications and a keen cyclist in his own right. Hushovd shows his Garmin Edge GPS unit to Cassat. Heads bent together over the device, they converse like kids studying a butterfly. This camp is one of the few times Cassat can build a relationship with riders outside of the races, where they are preoccupied. “We’re going to download new software to his Edge,” Cassat says later. Referring to the bonds that form over their common passion for cycling, the vice president explains, “I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t building a relationship with Thor Hushovd and riding with him on a Sunday morning. I don’t know how you put a value on that kind of thing, but that is why we are here.”
Cassat, who has been with Garmin since 1993, says the company first sponsored the team in 2008 for business reasons. “We didn’t do this for the love of cycling, and we still don’t justify it based on the love of cycling.” Garmin’s involvement with the team is a split from cycling’s past, where traditionally a wealthy cycling enthusiast who also happened to be a European industrialist would single-handedly bankroll and manage a team. “Our CEO doesn’t ride, our president doesn’t ride,” says Cassat. “This is about reaching a fan base that represents a customer base for us.”
“The guys are riding their asses off,” Cassat says. “They take it pretty seriously. I think the low point to the riders is having to have dinner and drinks with the sponsors! My hope is that when I walk in the room they don’t think, ‘Oh, there’s that asshole sponsor that I gotta to be nice to.’”
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The team, both the men’s and women’s squads, are putting in serious saddle time indeed—about six hours a day. On the second day of camp at 10 a.m. the squads pour into the service course from the hotel and their Girona homes and apartments. Without clipping out of their pedals, they ride to a table the soigneurs have set up at the back of the garage and go locust on the waiting Clif Bars, bananas, and water bottles. Andreas Klier and Roger Hammond, elder statesmen at 35 and 37, joke about the cold that leaves their breath hanging in air.
Directors Lionel Marie and Johnny Weltz map out a 100-mile loop that starts by taking the riders over Els Angles, a local climb that tops out at a whitewashed monastery where Salvador Dalí and his second wife, Gala, married in 1958. Except for a handful of riders racing in Australia, the full squads are here, an occurrence that will not happen again during the racing season. On the way up the twisting, 6-mile, 1,588-foot ascent, Martin taps out a steady cadence at the front, while Noemi Cantele from the women’s team rides comfortably behind him. At the top, a few riders strip off their Castelli wind jackets and get more food from the car. Single file over the top, they sibilate down the climb like a blue and black snake beneath a canopy of oak trees. The roads are astonishingly scenic and free of cars. You can understand why Weltz, a Dane who rode for the Spanish ONCE squad, settled here with his family more than two decades ago.
Johan Vansummeren flats as the team enters a series of rolling hills. For these guys, there are no tire irons and finicky frame pumps. The 6-foot, 5-inch Belgian calmly steps off his bike, removes his front wheel, and hands it to Weltz, who appears with a replacement. The rest of the riders do not wait, and Vansummeren does a monster interval over the undulating terrain to catch them.
The group stops to pee four times throughout the day. As if through occult communication, they just suddenly pull over en masse and water the landscape. During the third stop, in the woods at the bottom of a slashing climb, the riders mash into the back of Weltz’s support car, pulling bottles from a stocked cooler and tossing old bottles back. The tidy station wagon becomes a chaos of bottles, jackets, and Clif Bar wrappers.
In the cold, legs get stiff. British rider David Millar growls, “Let’s go. We aren’t out here to stand around.” As quickly as they stopped, the riders stream up the next hill as lightly as 30 blue fireflies.
After a couple of hours, Weltz stops his car, flags down the riders, and breaks the team into five-rider groups. Turning onto a highway with a wide margin, Millar, Wilson, American Tyler Farrar, Vande Velde, and Australian Brett Lancaster form a pace line. When he gets to the front of the line, 31-year-old Lancaster melts off to the left. Like a suitcase landing on an airport conveyer belt, he drifts to the back, where 10 brisk standing pedal strokes push him into the low-pressure zone behind Farrar’s rear wheel. Hands draped casually over his shifters, Millar neither flinches nor accelerates when Lancaster exposes him to the gutting head wind. Set to the whir of chain over sprockets and the occasional chunk of a gear shift, it’s a glorious flow; notes on a score. After two 10-minute intervals, Weltz waves the riders down. Their faces glisten with sweat in the 38-degree windchill.
That night, the riders filter into the AC Palau lobby at 7:00. Gathered sponsors and VIPs pluck champagne and tapas from trays carried by a stream of waiters. One important person who could not make the trip to Girona is the team’s owner and generous financial backer, Doug Ellis. In 2005, Ellis, a longtime cycling fan, was intrigued by the U.S. development team Vaughters started in 2003. The 47-year-old businessman cold-called the racing director and asked how he could get involved. The team was about to introduce its TIAA-CREF squad at a Denver restaurant. “Jonathan said the dinner was sold out, but if I could get to Denver, he would sneak me in through the kitchen,” Ellis recalls of their first meeting in 2005. He flew to Colorado, was impressed by what he saw, and that led to Ellis offering financial and moral encouragement for Vaughters to expand his sights to international-level pro cycling.
In 2007, Ellis, who grew up near Boston and now lives and manages his business interests from New York City, provided funding that allowed Vaughters to hire riders like Vande Velde and Millar for the 2008 season, a squad with enough firepower to earn the team an invite to that year’s Tour de France, where Vande Velde placed fourth. As for what inspired him to make that first call to Vaughters and then back it up with millions of dollars, Ellis says, “It was just a love of the sport.” Ellis is a private investor; he has no public company to publicize through the team. Refined, yet down to earth, he speaks with a soft, even-tempered calmness that’s void of bluster and the stereotypical New York businessman’s hard-edged pushiness. Without a trace of pretension, he states that his designs were no more complicated than joining Vaughters to help ease talented Americans into cycling’s European culture. His initial phone call was motivated by “some instinct that we could build a platform to get more U.S. athletes into the sport.” While a U.S. rider might have the physical talent to make it in Europe, just dropping him into a team in Italy might not work, Ellis explains. “He might be totally competent athletically and fail for cultural reasons.” He adds, “You can’t hold these guys’ hands for years and years, but is there a way we can make a program that just helps them develop some ability to last longer before they move on? That’s really what our program was like in the beginning years—we actually had dormitories in Girona.” Thinking back to 2005, he reflects, “I really didn’t have any kind of expectation about what it was going to be like. In fact I really wasn’t even thinking about the business. I was really just thinking about the sport.”
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Tonight, six years after that fateful dinner in Denver, Vaughters and American television cycling commentator Robbie Ventura stride onto a balcony overlooking the lobby. Ventura invites riders up in groups. The first includes Zabriskie, Wilson, Vande Velde, Vansummeren, and Belgian Sep Vanmarcke. Ventura turns to Vaughters, “Tell us about Sep Vanmarcke.”
With obvious pride, Vaughters points out that as a 20-year-old in 2010, “Sep was second place at Ghent–Wevelgem,” the 136-mile Belgian semiclassic race. “He is just an immense talent and a really, really humble and great person. Physically, the kid’s incredible.”
When women’s team rider and world time trial champion Emma Pooley comes up, Vaughters mentions that in addition to landing a world championship title, the Englishwoman is a PhD candidate. Taking a wireless microphone, Pooley shyly explains that her graduate studies have been forced into a secondary position. “I’m a professional cyclist now.”
“You heard it here first,” Vaughters adds to the crowd’s delight; “‘My PhD is like a hobby.’”
The following day is a Sunday. After a 120-mile morning ride, 15 riders gather around a laptop in the hotel lobby. The computer is streaming the cyclocross world championships from Germany. When a French rider bumps another cyclocrosser, Aussie-German Heinrich Haussler groans, “Ahh, Froggy!” Six-time British cyclocross national champion Roger Hammond glances over his shoulder and smiles at Frenchman Christophe Le Mével behind him. Clad in matching black tracksuits with big Cervélo é logos on the back, the riders look like free-spirited schoolboys.
Hushovd sits in a separate corner of the lobby, bathed in soft light that pours in from the high windows, tapping away on his laptop. When eventual race winner Zdenek Stybar attacks with Sven Nys, the cluster of Garmin-Cervélo men let out a roar. Smiling, Hushovd walks over and peers at the computer screen from behind the group.
On the other side of the lobby and hidden behind the bar, Vaughters, team president Matt Johnson, and logistics director Louise Donald are also huddling over laptops. Rather than watching cyclocross, however, they pore over spreadsheets to figure out how to make the team’s finances last through the year. With a budget that is about 30 percent of most well-financed ProTour teams (and ninth out of the top 18 ProTour teams), Vaughters, Johnson, and Donald have to make hard decisions about where to spend their money. Does the team buy a new bus or keep milking the old one along, which they bought used from another team? On top of the expense of flying 29 athletes all over the world, sometimes paying last-minute airfares, there are budgetary decisions such as whether to replace the team’s 12 Skoda automobiles—cars that are used extremely hard, not just during races, but also during the monumental transfers between countries all over Europe.
To keep it all going, Johnson is constantly selling. Working with a designer, a writer, and a pool of photographers, he prepares and sends out some 40 sponsor pitches each year in a constantly grinding effort to feed the financial beast that is a pro team race schedule.
A training ride two days later takes the team from Girona southeast to the Mediterranean Sea. On the way out, Tyler Farrar’s seatpost slips, and his seat inches down. The team bikes are brand-new, and training camp is where kinks like these are worked out before the real racing starts. Weltz pulls over the follow car and tightens the seat bolt. Minutes later the seatpost slips again, and Weltz repeats the process. Then, while Farrar hammers down a narrow farm road across a muddy, furrowed field, the sprinter from Washington State stops a third time. Even from 100 yards away, you can see from his tense body language that he is furious. He grabs his bike by the seat and top tube, winds up like a discus-thrower, and hurls it into the field.
“We’ll go back to the service course and get another bike,” Weltz tells Farrar when we pull up. Fuming, Farrar gets in the front seat, while Weltz puts the muddy bike on the roof rack. On the way back Farrar wonders aloud. “Why the fuck is there grease on the seatpost?” He is sorely disappointed by the interruption to a day of hard training.
Weltz pats Farrar’s leg. “You can motorpace back to the coast.” He points to the sun above the mountains to the east. “It will be warm in the afternoon.” Farrar’s mood brightens in the 49-year-old director’s calm presence. He looks at Weltz and smiles, plainly savoring the prospect of an unexpected hour of motorpacing on Girona’s empty roads.
Weltz drives while wielding a cell phone in each hand. At the service course Joan Linares waits out front with a bike. Although the mechanics are buried with work, Brown tells Linares to get in the car in case the seatpost starts misbehaving again—Australian national champion Travis Meyer is having the same problem. Before the riders return, all the mechanics get an e-mail from Brown with a heads-up about the slipping posts so the problem won’t happen again.
As the station wagon heads back out toward the coast, its speedometer sits unwaveringly at 65 kmh (40 mph). From inside the car, Farrar looks like a fish swimming in a tank, his face inches from the rear window. He is hardly breathing. We get to the coastal resort of Tossa del Mar then turn inland again on a long, twisting climb away from the ocean. We still haven’t caught the team; Farrar grabs the top of the car as Weltz tows him up the steeper sections to the 1,181-foot-high stone hermitage of Sant Grau, a wooded sanctuary that dates back to the fifteenth century. Farrar leans into the passenger window: “I’m glad we got some motorpacing in. I needed that.”
He catches the rest of the team just beneath the hermitage. About a mile into the team’s corkscrewing descent, the riders skid to a stop on the underside of a sharp bend where Farrar has crashed. Farrar stands in the middle of the crowd, arm bleeding, jersey torn, a hole in his shorts. Weltz jumps from the car and looks carefully into Farrar’s eyes.
“I think I hit some sand,” Farrar tells him.
While Linares inspects Farrar’s bike and adjusts his brakes, Weltz quizzes Farrar. “You OK, Tyler? Do you want to get in the car?” He doesn’t. Satisfied that Farrar has not knocked himself in the head or broken anything, Weltz gives him the go-ahead to ride. In the car, Weltz says, “It’s a tense day; I could tell from the start.”
These guys ride hard, and sponsors such as Mavic like that. The French component maker’s François-Xavier Blanc is at the camp to collect feedback from the riders and mechanics. He says the team’s exceptional use can reveal weaknesses in a product. “The way a regular consumer is using our products and the way those guys are using the products is different,” Blanc explains. And that uncovers issues Mavic might never see with products sold to the public. For instance, when in the middle of a peloton of 200 riders traveling at 40 mph, pros hit rocks and potholes at a regularity and velocity that does not happen anywhere else. “Sometimes we discover issues that we don’t see during our testing process,” Blanc adds.
While the riders and mechanics put a lot of trust in Mavic’s wheels, the company in turn has faith in Vaughters’s project. “We trust this team, we trust Jonathan, we trust what he is doing,” Blanc tells me. Without a hint of PR gloss, Blanc adds that Mavic sees Vaughters’s anti-doping culture and drive to make the sport more economically stable as “the future of cycling.” Blanc likes the new forces entering the sport with more catholic, empirical approaches. “Today smart guys like Jonathan are kicking the ass of the former Italians and Belgians. For me, it’s a revolution.”
A few hours after Farrar wipes out, the riders pull in to an industrial area outside the town of La Bisbal d’Empordà. Meters past a store with a yard full of ceramic pots and statues and across an empty field from a Cespa-Elf fuel station, they do a lap through a roundabout. They are looking for something; this is the sort of location only cyclists who spend their days seeking out-of-the-way places might find. The riders pour into a driveway and get off their bikes in front of Bar & Restaurant El Ranxo (El Ranxo means “the ranch” in Catalan).
One after another, they stack some half-a-million-dollars-worth of bicycles in front of the café, which is improbably (or perfectly) located in an industrial building next to the Zero Zero Grow Shop. Tom Danielson, born in Connecticut but now a Colorado resident, pushes open a pair of Old West–style doors, above which is a cartoon figure of a smiling green horse. The animal wears a red bib and holds a knife and fork in its hooves. The riders fill the café with the clop of cleats on hardwood. Cyclists are common in Catalonia; few customers take notice.
Farrar, Danielson, and Haussler pull up stools to the bar and order. “Café con leche, por favor.” Farrar’s left shoulder is still blackened with road grime, but he seems unfazed. Brazilian national champion Murilo Fischer sits at a table and laughs with Lithuanian national champ Ramunas Navardauskas; these are two of the most gracious guys on the squad, and their good humor masks the pair’s fearsome capacity to rip the legs off of mortals. After coffee and pastries inside, Hushovd, Kleir, and Hammond wander outside and slouch on red plastic molded chairs in the parking lot. Haussler joins them. Kleir and Hushovd poke and pull at the straps on their Giro helmets, dialing in the fit.
Later Hammond, a 37-year-old British classics specialist who came over from the Cervélo team that Garmin merged with at the end of 2010, says he really enjoys this preseason chance to ride with the entire squad. At races, riders fly in the day before, see each other in the evening, and “it’s high stress from there on,” Hammond observes. He is low-key, but he knows pressure. The multi-time British national road and cyclocross champion has placed third and fourth at the monumental French one-day race Paris–Roubaix and second at the Belgian semiclassic Ghent–Wevelgem. While the tension might not be apparent to an onlooker, Hammond says racing “is quite a heavy situation” that can profoundly alter a rider’s character. In contrast, on these days in Girona, “You’ve got hours to pass the time together, get to know each other, and build good relationships, because people are very, very different without stress.” Even though the team might be riding six hours at a steady 25 mph tempo, for Hammond, tempo makes all the difference. “You come here and do the big miles with the team, sit in the center for quite some time, and just ride.”
The next day it rains. The riders are scheduled to do a short ride in the morning then return to the hotel for media interviews. It’s not just wet outside; it’s cold. The directors call off the ride, and the entire day is now dedicated to media interviews and time with trainers set up in a hotel function room. Everyone gets the memo except for Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, seventh in the 2010 Tour de France, who walks into the hotel lobby soaking wet in his rain gear and booties. The lobby fills with journalists and photographers. Two or three are always waiting to talk to Hushovd. The team’s media relations manager, Marya Pongrace, gently taps reporters on the shoulder when their time with Hushovd is done.
I sit down with Vaughters in the lobby. “When you are 80, what do you want Jonathan Vaughters’s legacy to be?” I ask.
Vaughters, 38, lets out a short bark of a laugh, “Huh!” It’s a sound akin to improperly toed brake shoes on a bike rim. He does this a lot. It’s as if a proposition plops into his mind like a stone in a pond: If your idea is stupid, the sound represents spreading waves of dismissal. If it’s profound, it marks appreciation. The “huh!” sounds the same for both circumstances, so you never really know where you stand with Vaughters. “My dream would be, yeah, that I would be the guy that people point to and say, okay, he started the profound change in cycling. And not just anti-doping, but that it becomes a more professional, more transparent, more consumer-friendly, more stable and healthy place for the athletes to be. Across the board, a more cooperative sport.”
The fact that the entire team will be together only once this year, here at this camp, unlike other sports where players unify every week for practices and games, is symbolic of the sport’s fundamentally scattered and primitive nature. It’s a fractured state that Vaughters has made it his personal and professional mission to change, both by creating this team and by taking on the leadership of the AIGCP (Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels), an organization that represents teams and their owners. “There is no long-term strategic vision for the global aspect of the sport,” he observes. “It just doesn’t exist. Everyone’s doing their own thing.”
Vaughters compares the current state of professional cycling to wind tunnel testing on a bicycle wheel, but not factoring in the effects of the frame, components, and rider. “It’s the interaction of the whole” that is not being considered, he says. When I ask him what would motivate cycling’s various stakeholders—riders, team owners, race organizers—to take a long-term, holistic approach, he says, “Definitive evidence that they would eventually benefit from the whole being much bigger.”
As his Basque director points out, Vaughters is, above all, an empiricist. He knows the danger in dogmatism; his data are incomplete, and everything is subject to revision. “There has to be some real empirical evidence for people to make that leap of faith,” he says. “And even if there were, I think it would be viewed with suspicion.”
Vaughters has a roving mind; he has written for the Wine Spectator and is always conversant in the contents of the latest New Yorker. He is a student of sport, economy, and culture. As an American trying to change a European sport, he is aware that his upbringing equips him with a New World bias that both enables and hobbles his project. He points out that American sports like baseball and football were also fractured at various points in their history. What makes pro cycling different is that it rests on a different set of commercial assumptions than the ones underpinning those sports. “In America, everything always reverts to its mean, because you’ve got a constant entrepreneurial push. It is just what the society is.” In his home country, Vaughters maintains, fractured interests in sports like baseball and football always come back together, unified by the glue of making more money. “In Europe,” Vaughters says, with a mix of admiration and frustration, “personal differences are not given up over something as silly as money.”
Looking out from the vantage point of February and another year ahead tilting at the unruly sport that defines his life, Vaughters cautions that there is no way he can be the person that reforms pro cycling. The hard work of change is done by a host of unheralded experts, anti-doping scientists, business people, and athletes. Fifty years on from this gray morning in a city with two millennia of human transactions under its skin, he says he would like to look back and see himself as a spur: “the one that basically kept throwing the arguments out there and was known as the catalyst that fundamentally reformed the sport of cycling into something a whole lot better than it used to be. Yeah, that would be great.”
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