Why do athletes dope? asks Vaughters in the opinion section of the Sunday edition of the New York Times. He answers the question by recounting the story of his own career as an athlete that began in middle school and ended when he retired from professional cycling at age 29.
His own story, he argues, makes the case for the importance of supporting the strongest possible anti-doping measures, and he admits that he deeply regrets the decision he made to dope as an athlete. "The answer is not to teach young athletes that giving up lifelong dreams is better than giving in to cheating," he writes. "The answer is to never give them the option."
Vaughters’ confession comes after he paints a picture of his younger self, who dreamed of riding the Tour de France during his daily rides to school. It's poignant stuff. The bike offered an escape from the painful realities of growing up. Who can’t relate to that need and the dreams that come with it? Vaughters’ talent and stubborness took him a long way down the road to his dreams, but not all the way. He casts the choice to dope at the time he competed as an all-or-nothing proposition. He could dope or he could quit.
"The choice to kiss your childhood dream goodbye or live with a dishonest heart is horrid and tearing," he writes. "I’ve been there, and I know. I chose to lie over killing my dream. I chose to dope. I am sorry for that decision, and I deeply regret it."
This confession from Vaughters is not unexpected. Over the past few years, Vaughters has moved inch by hinting inch toward this point. Two weeks ago, he reopened the conversation by publicly inviting speculation about why he had left cycling before his career had run its course. Vaughters retired from Crédit Agricole at age 29. One of his teammates at Crédit Agricole the year he retired was Jens Voigt. Now aged 40, Voigt is still racing.
The conversation took a while to get to the point, but at last it did. Vaughters wrote that Crédit Agricole, then managed by Roger Legeay, held a firm line against doping. And indeed, that was the image the team had at the time, even during the depth of cycling’s EPO inferno. Vaughters inched closer to the edge of confession. “I hated letting them down when I couldn’t win,” he wrote, as if to say that he had only won before, because he crossed the line where Legeay held fast.
A read through the race results helps to fill in some of the story. In 1999 riding for U.S. Postal, Vaughters won an individual time trial up the Mont Ventoux at the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré. He set a course record and beat Alexandre Vinokourov and Vladimir Belli for the stage victory.
The following year, Vaughters transferred to Legeay’s Crédit Agricole where he spent three seasons. There was a stage victory at the 2001 Dauphiné Libéré, but not much else. Vaughters picked off results in races like the Red Zinger Classic in the United States, but the international results proved few and far between. He also never finished the Tour de France.
Since he began running the teams under Slipstream management, Vaughters has been out-spoken in his public statements in calling for more effective testing. Against cycling’s dark history, it can be hard to trust these statements, but Vaughters contends that the sport is changing.
During this year’s Tour de France, Vaughters argued that doping was steadily diminishing in cycling and that this year’s edition of the race, famous for its long history of doping scandals, was cleaner than in the past. The stricter testing regimes, he asserted, made it more difficult to reap an advantage through artificial means, and he pointed to the lower wattage numbers in the high mountains as evidence that the tide was turning in the sport.
After Pierre Rolland won on the Alpe d’Huez at the 2011 Tour, British journalist Edward Pickering wrote in CycleSport, “Today the racers took back the Tour de France.” Rolland was the first French rider to win on the storied climb since the pre-EPO era of the 1980s. It was the kind of signpost that suggested to many observers that the turning point was coming, despite continued scandals, such as the one that saw 2010 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador lose his title.
For Vaughters, the goal of anti-doping regimes is not necessarily the utopian goal of eradicating doping in sport. But rather, his public statements suggest he wants to make it harder to make the wrong choice, and easier to make the right one. “I made the wrong decision, but I know that making that right decision for future generations must begin by making the right choice realistic,” he asserts in the Times story. “They must know, without doubt, that they will have a fair chance by racing clean.” Vaugthers offers a rebuke to recent stories arguing that trying to control doping was futile and effective testing is a chimera.
Of course, there are plenty of skeptics who are not convinced. They criticize Vaughters for waiting too long to tell the truth. They suggest that he is out to manipulate public opinion ahead of damning evidence that might emerge from the Armstrong case now following parallel torturous paths through the civil courts and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s arbitration process. They argue that he is acting out of self-interest rather than altruism.
It’s difficult to read Vaughters’ New York Times piece only as cheap manipulation when it’s placed in the context of the history of the team he owns, his contributions to the sport more broadly, and his experience as an athlete during a time when doping controls were largely ineffective to the extent they existed at all. In 1997, the UCI began testing riders' hematocrit levels. Riders above the 50% level were required to stop racing, but there was no test for EPO until the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
“If the message I was given had been different, but more important, if the reality of sport then had been different, perhaps I could have lived my dream without killing my soul,” he writes in one of the more eloquent formulations in the Times piece.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The time is right, but it’s also a cause — stronger doping controls and enforcement — that Vaughters has consistently embraced since his early retirement from cycling.
Maybe Twitter personality @FakeFrankie said it best. “I appreciate the support, but I don’t deserve accolades for telling the truth,” the anonymous writer said on Twitter on Saturday night. “It doesn’t right past wrong, but maybe clears the way forward.”