Title: One Way Ticket – Nine Lives on Two Wheels
Author: Jonathan Vaughters
Publisher: Quercus (UK) | Penguin (US)
Order: Quercus Books (UK) | Penguin Random House (US)
What it is: A chamoir, from Jonathan Vaughters
Strengths: The first half
Weaknesses: The second half
– I like to remember things my own way.
– What do you mean by that?
– How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened.
~ Lost Highway
Going into the 2015 Tour of Utah, Cannondale-Garmin’s Tom Danielson was looking to make it three wins in three years in the one-week event billed as America’s toughest bike race. Fate, however, had other plans and the former Discovery Channel rider and client of Michele Ferrari didn’t make it to the breakfast table on the first day. Instead, the night before, he sent out a series of tweets informing his forty-five thousand Twitter followers that he’d popped a positive, for testosterone, and would be sitting the race out.
On August 3rd, the day after Danielson’s announcement, his team put out a statement saying that “in accordance with Slipstream Sports’ zero tolerance anti-doping policy” the rider had been suspended, with immediate effect.
Having already copped six months on the naughty step as part of the USADA investigation into Lance Armstrong, Danielson was now staring down the barrel of eight years worth of gardening leave. For his boss, Jonathan Vaughters, the stakes were far higher, as he was faced with having to choose between living up to lofty words, or just being another hypocrite like all the rest.
The lofty words, they’d come as recently as December 2014 in an interview with Cyclingnews, following the team’s second merger in five seasons, this time with the former Cannondale-Liquigas outfit, having previously subsumed the Cervélo Test Team in 2011. Speaking to Daniel Benson, Vaughters was insistent that the ethos of the team had not changed since its inception, that it was still loudly and proudly anti-doping:
“This is still Slipstream Sports and it’s still built on the ethics of fair racing and anti-doping. Those are the foundations of the team and that’s been the same since day one. We don’t race around just one rider, and it’s all for one, one for all. We’re built on the same foundations with anti-doping and fair racing as the two most paramount principles, and then secondly we want to perform at the highest ability possible but on a natural level. I don’t think that’s any different to when we first started out with this team. We’re still a bunch of young kids trying to succeed and we’re trying to give them the platform to do that and to be successful and, of course, never have to make the same decisions that will detract from that or they’ll have to live with ten years down the line. As soon as that part changes there’s no point in Doug [Ellis] or myself being part of cycling anymore.”
Vaughters went on to emphasise how important never having a rider test positive was to the team:
“It’s true we ask for that [scrutiny] and still in ten years we’ve not had a rider dope on our team. Ever. We’ve lived up to that. That was the initial promise. If that ever is broken then Doug and I are out.”
A day after suspending Danielson, Vaughters took to Twitter to inform his ninety-odd thousand followers of his choice – words and deeds no longer had to match up:
“Selfishly, I’d like to disappear, but that hurts quite a few good people. Therefore, Slipstream’s owners (me too) have decided to push forward.”
And that was the end of the Tom Danielson saga. The story itself dragged on, it was November before there was news of the B-sample being tested, and it was October the following year before USADA finally sanctioned the rider, giving him four years on the naughty step. But for Vaughters, all of that was just background noise: in less than 140 characters he’d drawn a line under the affair and had nothing more to say about it.
Some episodes in Jonathan Vaughters’s memoir, One Way Ticket – Nine Lives on Two Wheels, take up more space than others. Winning the 2012 Giro d’Italia with Ryder Hesjedal, that merits just one sentence in the midst of a story about something else. Losing Bradley Wiggins to Team Sky, that’s worthy of twenty pages, some of which are given over to attacking Dave Brailsford’s team for its zero tolerance anti-doping policy:
“The policies that prevented David [Millar] from going to Team Sky soon became clear. When they launched the team in 2010, they shouted from the rooftops about zero tolerance. They built a successful team by padding it out with ex-dopers. And then later fired them when they were honest enough to admit what they’d done. [...] To me, zero tolerance was purely a marketing ploy on their part, without any basis to it. Simply put, the philosophical differences between Team Sky and our team were massive.”
Vaughters isn’t the only person who kicks Brailsford for his hypocrisy with regard to zero tolerance. To be honest, there’s very few that don’t. But how many of those people – especially those in the media who hold Brailsford to account for everything that happens on his team – challenged Vaughters over the Danielson case? How many of those people stood up then and asked Vaughters to explain himself in more than 140 characters? How many of those people are now standing up and asking Vaughters to explain how, in a three hundred and seventy-something page memoir, the only mention of Tom Danielson comes in a passing reference while discussing USADA’s investigation into Lance Armstrong?
As with Sky’s zero tolerance policy, the questions that arise in relation to Vaughters’s handling of the Danielson case aren’t about whether he should or shouldn’t have been true to his word and walked away from the sport. Most of us are intelligent enough to know that that was never going to happen. But what Vaughters should have to account for is the growing gulf between words and deeds, the growing feeling that his words don’t mean anything anymore.
Vaughters should also have to account for his failure to respect the fans that stood by his team as things started to fall apart, first with the Matt White thing early in 2011 and then the mishandling of the collapse of the women’s team later that same year. Since then, Slipstream has at times looked like a clown car with the wheels coming off in slow motion. Former riders have been justifiably critical of the manner in which Vaughters handled their departure, generally hiding from them. Meanwhile Vaughters and his business partner, Doug Ellis, have lurched from one sponsor to the next – Chipotle, H30, Garmin, Transitions, Cervélo, Barracuda, Sharp, Cannondale, Drapac, EF Education First – averaging the loss of one naming-rights sponsor a year, a churn rate no other World Tour team comes even close to matching.
Those fans Vaughters displays scant responsibility to, many have stuck by the team, four-and-a-half thousand of them ponied up half-a-million euros when the sponsor-to-sponsor lurching turned into a stumble in 2017. That said, it feels like a long time since Vaughters and his team were really feeling the love of cycling fans. With the sheen of innocence and the feeling of fun long gone from the team – and with a palmarès that now includes a Grand Tour (Giro d’Italia, 2012) and four Monuments (Paris-Roubaix, 2011; Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 2013; Il Lombardia, 2014; Ronde van Vlaanderen, 2019) – the little-team-that-could shtick that carried the team through its early years has worn thin and Vaughters and his riders are now being judged the same way other teams are judged: results.
The results, very few of them make it into One Way Ticket. The only one of those five major victories that Vaughters devotes any time to is the first, Johan Vansummeren’s 2011 win in the Queen of the Classics, which was already dealt with in Matt Johnson’s Argyle Armada – Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life. And while Hesjedal’s Giro win at least gets a mention in passing, in the whole of the book Dan Martin, who took two of the team’s four Monument victories, is never mentioned, not even in passing.
David Millar, on the other hand, he gets almost half as much space as Bradley Wiggins does. Millar, he used his last chamoir, The Racer, to throw shade at Vaughters and the compliment is returned here, with it being revealed that the Maltese-born Scot, together with Christian Vande Velde, nearly ousted Vaughters from the team a decade ago. There’s no details – Vaughters isn’t even clear on the year – just that the two had spoken to Doug Ellis ahead of an edition of the Tour and Ellis then spoke to Vaughters to tell him he was on the way out. With a few other pass-ag barbs tossed in Millar’s direction there’s enough going on to make you think Vaughters values winning arguments with his ‘enemies’ more than he does winning important bike races with talented riders.
Vaughters also values patting himself on the back, such as in the section given over to the ground-breaking revenue-sharing deal he agreed with RCS Sports’s Giro d’Italia boss Michele Acquarone:
“Michele proposed that in exchange for bringing their best and brightest stars, being available for the production of behind-the-scenes media content, and helping to actively promote the Giro, he would split the media rights revenues with the teams.
“It was a huge risk and a huge investment on his part. RCS would definitely lose money the first few years, and then maybe, but only maybe, would it be recouped later, if the race became much, much more popular due to the teams popularizing the Giro.”
The proportion of revenue to be shared, Vaughters goes on to say, was to be “fifty per cent of all media rights revenue from the Giro” and that Acquarone saw the Giro’s media revenue growing “by more than fifty per cent” within three years.
It sounds like a great deal, doesn’t it? Thing is, there’s a few problems with this story. First, Vaughters says Acquarone pitched the idea “a few days after Ryder Hesjedal won the 2012 Giro for our team.” That would put it sometime around the end of May. Somehow, though, Cyclingnews managed to scoop the story at the other end of May, opening the month with an exclusive: “Cyclingnews understands that a deal between Italy’s RCS and the sport’s major teams is close to agreement.”
More importantly, any time Michele Acquarone has spoken about the arrangement he’s tended to be a lot more conservative about what he was suggesting. First, his recollection says that RCS was already sharing about 40% of revenue with teams, through the AIGCP-agreed appearance fees (approximately $60,000 per team). Second, Acquarone suggests that the proposal was about sharing whatever increased revenue RCS could bring on board, not about simply handing over what was already being earned by the race.
Vaughters tells us the deal fell apart because the other teams were scared of offending ASO:
“All the teams knew, just like the French, how angry this deal would make ASO. Nobody wanted to be seen as being a part of anything that contradicted ASO, all-powerful promoters of the Tour. So they all hid under their desks, just like at Paris-Nice in 2008. Nothing had really changed.”
What Vaughters doesn’t tell us is that Orica-GreenEdge were already doing behind the scenes videos of the sort RCS wanted, and so naturally were cold on what was being suggested. Nor does Vaughters do the math and put a value on the deal for you. If his numbers are right, it would have meant another $15,000 per team in the short term, growing to about $50,000 over three years. Here you have to remember that central to all of Vaughters’s arguments about cycling’s failing economic model is the claim that sponsors are only interested in you if you can take them to the Tour. Yet here he is suggesting that the teams should have pissed their sponsors off, by throwing over the Tour in favour of the Giro, in return for a sum of money that wouldn’t even pay for two riders on minimum salary?
Another item Vaughters forgets to mention is that, on top of the $60,000 per team RCS were paying in appearance fees, they also do side deals with individual teams in order to get them to bring their best riders to the Italian Grand Tour. Lance Armstrong, for instance, is said to have pocketed a million dollars for turning up for the 2009 corsa rosa. If you were one of the teams with a rider RCS wanted at the Giro, would you give up the prospect of a big pay day for a handful of beans?
Oddly, this episode is one of the few references Vaughters makes to his loudly held belief in the need for economic reform in cycling. The ten-point plan, the breakaway attempts, Velon, there’s no room – or desire – to talk about them here. Nor is there room for the support Vaughters gave to Brian Cookson when it came to ousting Pat McQuaid, or comment on how well that worked out for the sport.
So what is actually being talked about? For the most part, what’s being talked about is what’s been talked about in the other Lance Armstrong: My Part in His Downfall books (Tyler Hamilton, Michael Barry, or George Hincapie) and in other Gen-EPO confessionals (Bjarne Riis, David Millar). This is the story of a little kid who could have been a contender, only he had his dreams stolen from him.
The story of the little kid who could have been a contender takes up about a third of the book, the years 1986 to 1995. That’s a lot of time to spend in the company of a moody teenager with a thing for “dark, alternative music [Depeche Mode, the Cure, Duran Duran] and gothic-looking women dressed in black.” Vaughters, he puts a curiously atavistic spin on the story here. Take, for instance, this description of an early race (1987), a memory informed by one of the few moments of hindsight Vaughters brings to the telling of his story:
“I was being hunted down and the adrenaline of fear surged up in me. It felt as if I would perish, as if in a scene out of a BBC Planet Earth video, a lone wildebeest chased down by a pack of rabid jackals. But this little 98-pound wildebeest would prove a challenge to the arrogant jackals.”
The zoological metaphors continue throughout the story of Vaughters’s early years. One rider is likened to “the lone wolf trying to kill the alpha all the time”, another “fought like a naked hairless tiger”, another is “a beast of a man”. Someone is described as a “portly walrus-like man”, someone else is “a black sheep”. All through it, everyone seems to be fighting with everyone else to be the alpha male, just like in a David Attenborough documentary. All through it, everyone seems more than a little fucked up, and the longer it goes on the more you feel that this was a generation of riders that was psychologically damaged even before they hit Europe and had to get their head around euro-pro racing’s warped morality. As Vaughters himself puts it:
“We were dysfunctional, outcast kids, pulled together by the outsider niche sport of cycling. We all dreamed of racing in Europe and bettering multiple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. And we were competitive, although ‘competitive’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. Our generation, born from 1971 to 1973, didn’t just want to be good cyclists, we felt destined to dominate cycling.”
The dysfunctionality, I really wish Vaughters had taken time to focus on that, to try and understand it and explain it. His childhood, as he paints it, wasn’t exactly happy. It wasn’t unhappy, he had two parents who loved him and had a lot of time for him. But there seems to have been a lack of communication, Vaughters describing his parents as stoic. He was bullied in high school, but you only learn that long after, when Vaughters uses it as the reason he came out in support of Floyd Landis and finally stood up to Lance Armstrong. And only very, very late in the book – ten pages from the end – does Vaughters drop that he’s recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. To me, the bullying, the Asperger’s, they’re not things you just drop in passing, they’re things that you use to understand why your childhood was the way it was and how all that played forward into the decisions you make as an adult.
The dysfunctionality, the psychological damage, it did play forward. Vaughters goes through One Way Ticket dropping the word ‘mentor’ every few dozen pages: he’s always looking for someone to look up to, someone to impress and get approval from. That partly coloured his reason for doping at his first professional team, the Opus Dei-run Porcelena Santa Clara. It partly coloured his reason for doping at Crédit Agricole, where he wanted to help his team boss, Roger Legeay. Vaughters, though, he doesn’t seem to be bringing much hindsight to any of the story, doesn’t see the hidden reasons behind the decisions he made, he sees it today the way he thinks he saw it then. Everything that went wrong went wrong because of a sport hooked on pills and potions.
At the outset of One Way Ticket Vaughters admits being complicit in leaving a cloud of doubt hanging over everyone who rode in the Gen-EPO years and the generation after:
“One of the reasons I wrote this book is to acknowledge the part I played in the creation of that cloud, and to document the things I have done since in an effort to make amends.”
To be fair to Vaughters, that goes further than Bjarne Riis or David Millar or Tyler Hamilton or Michael Barry or George Hincapie managed to go, each of whom managed to give the impression they cared more about their own stolen innocence than the presumption of innocence they stole from others by denying for so long that they had doped. But, throughout the first half of One Way Ticket, Vaughters is too wrapped up in his own lost innocence to acknowledge more than one rider in that whole era riding clean, Christophe Bassons. And throughout the second half Vaughters is too wrapped up in reminding us of his role in taking down Lance Armstrong to remember anyone who rode clean.
Add to that his failure today to be true to his team’s alleged ethos of transparency when it comes to something like the Danielson case and Vaughters is bit by bit undoing any good that may have come from tumbling Lance Armstrong from his throne, Vaughters is bit by bit helping to cast a new cloud of doubt over this generation of riders. The more Vaughters retreats from the years of openness and transparency – here in his memoir and elsewhere – the more he comes to look and sound like any other team manager. And the more the sport looks like it’s still riding on a one way ticket to irrelevance.