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Podium Cafe Interviews Jonathan Vaughters: Part 2, Transitions!

Garmin-Transitions, Amgen Tour of California, 2010.

Interview by Jen See and Chris Fontecchio

In our first installment of our four-part interview with Garmin-Cervélo's Jonathan Vaughters, we talked about how the merger (if that's the right word) came about between two ambitious, young franchises. From instability comes some serious ballast; from chaos comes a broader program, a bigger, more ambitious single project under the Slipstream Sports franchise. So what does that mean on the road for the newly transformed team Garmin-Cervélo?

More riders. More stars. More wins. More top dogs. This is the story of what an American cycling team owner does when something big and powerful drops in his lap — whether that's what he was looking for or not. Anyone familiar with the sport could look at the package of Cervélo Test Team stars suddenly cut loose and say, sure, I'd love to have them on my team. Names like Hushovd (and his fancy jersey), Haussler, Klier, Hammond, who wouldn't want them around? Who can say no to the Rainbow Jersey?

But nothing is ever that simple. Take my kids, for example. Walk them through our neighborhood toy store and they'll point out hundreds of enticing items. As it happens, their birthdays are both in December, the toy-gettingest month of the year already. So once a year, life backs up a truck and buries us in a cascade of toys. Before long, unbridled joy is replaced by total play-paralysis, until us parents intervene, clear the playroom floor, and establish some order. Maybe you can have all the toys you want, but until you know what to do with them, it's not as great as it sounds.

Vaughters has the toys now. And the trick is to figure out how to play with them.

The New Classics Heavyweight

PdC: Is it fair to say that the transformation of the team into a classics behemoth wasn't planned, it just fell in your lap?

JV: Yeah, that would be a very fair assessment. But you know, when we looked at all the different elements of how are we going to do this, that was something we really liked. You know, wow! We can build an incredible squad. And, earlier in the year, we had had discussions with Fabian Cancellara, and those didn't go anywhere, but it was interesting in that, when we looked at it in the end, it was like "well, OK, we're not going to get Fabian, so how do you win the classics?" The only way you beat the guy is if you build a team where you've got eight guys who are 99% as strong as Fabian, and if they cohesive as a unit, then you can actually beat him.

Jonathan Vaughters Garmin-Cervélo at Podium Cafe. Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty.It's interesting...  I'm not saying that this was our second choice, because (talking to Cancellara) was months and months before the Cervélo deal, but in retrospect it was hey, it looks like we're going to get what we want anyway.

PdC: So have you called Giorgio Squinzi yet for advice on how to deal six or seven aces at a time?

JV: [Chuckles] Yeah, it's going to be tricky, there's no doubt about that. We're going to have run a very disciplined outfit or the potential for conflict arises. It's a matter of really operating as a team, and one of the things I made clear in the Caymans (winter training camp) was the objective of this team to be the number one ranked team in the world by the end of the year. And not by the weird UCI weighting system for the licensing...

PdC: The real ones.

JV: Yeah, the world tour points, you can go online at the UCI website and look at.

PdC: What about our world rankings? I thought for sure you were going to say "by the Podium Cafe World Rankings."

JV: Sure! any ranking. — But yeah, in that objective I said, in order for us to achieve that, everyone is going to have to perform, everyone is going to have to work for other people. Depending on the race, everyone once in a while is going to have to bite the bullet. And then everyone is going to have the opportunity.

And if you step one foot back you realize, wow, my opportunities are going to be greater than they were before. Like, Paris-Roubaix for example. Thor is as of right now you could say Thor is definitely going to be our leader for Paris-Roubaix, right? But in one of our meetings with Andreas Klier, he pointed out that of course the team will work for Thor, but in doing so we create so many options. You know, OK, to set up Thor, we're gonna have Sep Vanmarcke attack, and everyone will be watching Thor. So hopefully we have 6 or 7 guys in the lead group, you create a dynamic where the other teams don't want to blow their wad chasing down Sep Vanmarcke, and then therefore he gets out there and maybe he... (Ed: best not to say it aloud just yet). So there are opportunities for the other aces that are created by having such a strong team. It's just a matter of everyone being very unselfish and working as a team and we'll get there.

Luckily, between Thor and Tyler, they're both very unselfish people naturally, so that helps us a lot. I mean, with different personalities this becomes more difficult, but with those two guys, they're very genuine and good people.

PdC: Yeah, it's good not to have guys chasing down teammates, that gets very ugly. And then you get heckled on the internet for that. 

JV: Yeah, you do definitely get heckled for that.

Big Thor/Bryn Lennon, Getty.PdC: Well, with Thor and Tyler in particular they might get categorized as the same type of rider, but they're actually different in some ways. So is it possible that as one way to sort this out you're looking at a four-week block from Milano-Sanremo to Paris-Roubaix. With Roubaix being a special target for Thor at the end of that time, will you have them time their peaks differently?

JV: Yeah, well, the human body is hard to time perfectly. I know, you're right, one of the ideal races in that time is Gent-Wevelgem, that's a race where we should be for Tyler 100%. He can certainly make the lead selection in that race and be the fastest sprinter there, so Tyler could be maximum priority for Gent-Wevelgem while Thor is maximum priority for Paris-Roubaix. Flanders, I think is a mix and we have a bunch of guys who can do well there. Thor can do well, although historically he never has. Tyler can do well, David Millar... Flanders I think will be a very open game for us and we'll see how it develops.

You can break it down and prioritize guys, but if you take a totally rigid tactic, you say "this is the guy we're looking for and that's it," then you lose a lot of those opportunities with guys like Sep, Andreas Klier, Roger Hammond, Martijn Maaskant, all those guys can play a really important role. Of course they can chase down breakaways, they can also be in breakaways and make everyone else chase.

Tour de France: Men of Intrigue

PdC: So turning to the Tour, I was curious if you've given thought to a GC leader next year, or if you're planning more like what you're doing with the classics. Is it a group project?

JV: Yeah, it is a group project for the GC. We had Ryder, who did an incredible ride, we've got Christian who's done an incredible ride in the past. Every year, three years' running, we've produced the surprise of the GC. So I'm hoping that's what happens this year. Who's it going to be? I don't know. 

We have a number of candidates, and if I would have said Ryder Hesjedal at this point in 2009, people would have chuckled. And you know what, quite frankly I knew Ryder was really strong, I didn't know that he was capable of 7th in the Tour de France. Same as Brad Wiggins. I love Brad Wiggins, I absolutely wanted him on the team, same as Ryder. I push these guys, and I basically give them opportunities, they can do whatever they think they can. But in the end they're the ones who end up surprising me.

So who can that be this year? I think we have a number of candidates, you guys can look them up, but there's Christophe Le Mevel, there's Tom Danielson, there's Dan Martin, it could come from a number of different places. I'm not saying just those three guys, I don't even know yet if those three will be on the Tour de France team. But we seem to be able to produce the surprise of the year.

This year's gonna be a little trickier to do that because of our first week objectives. You look at the team time trial, there are some of those stage wins we'll be going after, there's a couple of those hilltop finishes that Thor really loves. So amongst all-that it's gonna be tricky carrying too many GC-oriented guys on the team this year.

Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Transitions. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty.

PdC: That was my next question — how do you anticipate balancing your sprinters' ambitions, since you have two guys that are on fire, with your GC ambitions.

JV: With Christian Vande Velde or Ryder, it's not so difficult. You think of the Tour, are they strong in the team time trial? Absolutely. They're both pretty big, strong guys. They're guys I can send to the front with 10k to go to help with lead-out. They're GC riders, but they're not Carlos Sastre.

PdC: [laughing] I want to see Sastre do the lead-out! Man, that'd be awesome.

JV: The balance is really easy there. But for instance, you look at Christophe Le Mevel or Dan Martin, it's a bit tricky. Can I ask those guys to go pull on the front for 20k? Mmm...

PdC: They're climber dudes! That wouldn't be very nice.

JV: So we want to have a guy, maybe two, up in the higher end of the GC, but we're pretty focused on winning stages. I'll remind you guys, Slipstream Sports has never won a stage of the Tour de France. So first things first.

PdC: What do you think of the changes to the points competition? As a team with multiple options, do you think it's a more favorable format than the old format which relied more heavily on stage wins?

JV: I think that remains to be seen. It's definitely going to make the racing more aggressive. The most anticipatable thing about this that you can easily say is that the first 100k of each stage with this mid-race sprint are going to be really interesting in the HTC versus Garmin-Cervélo duel. It's definitely going to push both of our teams in ways that we haven't pushed before. What the outcome of that will be or who it favors or doesn't favor? Those are good questions but we don't have the answer yet.

Or put it this way — say a breakaway of five guys goes off. Those mid-race point sprints go down 15 deep. You still have to sprint for that sixth place.

What About That Irish Kid?

PdC: I want to ask about Dan Martin. I know it's still a chance that he goes to the Tour. Is there any way for a guy at his age — he's young, he's dynamic, he obviously has a very serious future ahead of him. He's got a Vuelta and a Giro in his legs. Does he need to be at the Tour to continue his progression this year, or is that not necessarily the case?

JV: Well, Dan has shown — and we've all seen it, in one-day races and one-week races — Dan has shown an incredible talent for explosive climbing. What I want to see is, before we stick Dan in the Tour — because Dan has a winner's mentality. Dan is either 134th or he's first. And it's funny, his cousin Nicholas Roche is the exact opposite, he's always 6th place or 12th. So it's interesting watching those two guys, cousins, grew up together, similar age, and they're totally different.

Dan Martin, Garmin-Transitions, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 2010. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty.The thing with Dan is, he's a winner. If he's racing, he's racing to win. I don't know how to describe that, he just has that in him. So if you take Dan to the Tour de France, and he's having to pull on the front... ahh, I don't know if that's the best decision for him.

Conversely, even though he's done the Vuelta and done the Giro, he's never done very well in them. So for me, the next step for Dan is winning the week-long races and the one-day races with a little more consistency, and then going to the grand tours and being good. I'm not saying win the Vuelta or win the Giro. I'm just saying, on a little more consistent basis that he's up there in the mountains. So that's the next step for Dan. And then after he does that, then we can start throwing him into the whole Tour de France pandemonium.

PdC: It seems like there are a lot of stages at the Giro this year that would suit his mentality and strengths.

JV: Yeah. I agree with you. But Dan, he had a lot of problems with allergies, though now he's gotten those corrected so we'll see with Dan.  You know, there are a lot of guys who you can sit down with at November camp and plan out their whole season, and it pretty much sticks to just that as long as they don't break a collarbone or whatever. Dan, he's more up and down, and you have to be ready to change his schedule on a moment's notice. Like, you've got great form, you have to go to the next race cause you'll win it. Or, man , things aren't going too well, you were supposed to do this race but maybe let's not do it. You've got to be ready to change things around.

* * *

Cycling teams aren't divided in "cobbles" and "grand tour" segments, like the sections of your cupboard; they're more like the recipes you make, from a wider array of ingredients that you mix and match together in different ways from one day to the next. So what looks like a roster logjam in one race is an ideal scenario for the next one. There are a lot of races on the calendar, a lot of wins to chase, and while it may get a little harder to decide in advance how to attack de Ronde, there should be enough opportunities to go around. HTC and co. have struck this balance pretty well over the years, even with an alpha dog sprinter occupying much of the attention.

But then HTC have seen their share of raiding parties attacking their roster, and while it's cool to see Garmin-Cervélo loaded up beyond belief for the classics, it will take more than a few successes to convince all these aces to stay together beyond 2011. Less stacked teams will come calling on... I dunno, Haussler? Hushovd? next transfer season, offering full captaincy, no questions asked. The cobbles season, one of the team's primary focuses, is so brief and fleeting that we might not know how this kind of supercharged machine can work in a single year's time. So it'd be a shame if the window was only open in 2011.

This is more insider-y than I could know, but my hunch is that the trick for Garmin-Cervélo is not merely to spread the win chances around; it's to sell the incoming guys like Vanmarcke and the ex-Cervélos that the Slipstream project is different in some way, and better for them long-term. The way Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner and Andreas Klöden believe their fortunes are best served in a crowded Team Bruyneel, so too must Vaughters convince the new guys that Slipstream is where they belong, as racers and as people. By the end of the year, the merger phase will look like the easy part.

Tomorrow: Doping and Sponsorship! We move away from Camp Argyle and gab about the sport more broadly, touching on two of a team owner's biggest daily challenges.

Go to Part 3: Creating Value for Sponsors