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Wednesday, December 5, 2012
From the inside

By Joe Lindsey
ESPN The Magazine

Vaughters (left) testified in the USADA case against Lance Armstrong.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 10 Interview issue. Subscribe today!

Jonathan Vaughters is co-owner of highly ranked Garmin-Sharp and endeavors to manage it as a clean team. The 39-year-old recently admitted to doping during his own cycling career, including 1998-99 on the U.S. Postal Service team. He also testified in the USADA case against ex-teammate Lance Armstrong.

"LANCE ARMSTRONG NEVER, ever, ever for one minute of his life believed that any of his competition was clean. Ever. So to him, I think he enjoyed some of the cloak-and-dagger aspects. You have to be very smart -- and Lance is highly intelligent -- and the people around you have to be very smart to figure out: How do you evade these advanced tests? How do you evade French police? This is a fairly complex equation.

"My first two years racing [1994 and 1995], I raced clean and there was no testing whatsoever for [the blood-boosting hormone] EPO in Europe. I would be barely hanging on the back of the peloton, finishing 130th. You were stuck sitting on someone's wheel just praying the race would slow down at some point. Then I'd come back to race in the U.S. and win -- it was amazing the difference when it was all 180 guys on EPO in those European races. The race is just faster and faster and faster because everyone always has the energy for a counterattack.

"It's against the law of nature in the pack that the guy spending 30 percent more energy pulling in the wind for kilometers on end for his team leader can suddenly somehow still hang in there for third or 13th place. The race is just faster and faster and faster because everyone always has the energy for a counterattack. Fleche Wallonne in 1994 [when riders from the same team finished 1-2-3] was the seminal moment, when it went from individuals to team-based doping. So you had an en masse decision, with doctors and managers and riders saying, OK, gig's up; we've gotta do this. And the attitude among the riders was: This is medication given to me by the team doctor. He told me I need to take it.

"With EPO in the 1990s, that was the first time in the history of sport where you had a totally undetectable drug that definitively gave a performance gain to everyone, and there wasn't a downside. By 1996, in big races like the Tour de France, I think doping was very close to 100 percent prevalent. Then came the Festina scandal in 1998 [when Alex Zulle and his Festina teammates were ousted from the Tour de France for using EPO]. Even calling it the Festina scandal compartmentalized it, and for the governing body, by blaming a few brazen individuals as opposed to recognizing it was a systemic problem, it slowed down the process of producing a test immensely. That's why there was a 12-year lag between when EPO started to be used and an EPO test.

"Post-Festina, or post-EPO test I should say, all of a sudden the team management wants nothing to do with doping because now it's become a crime. But I think U.S. Postal Service, Lance Armstrong's team, showed it was still a team thing. For many teams, the approach was: There's a test in place and police in place. Now we need to learn how to evade all those things.

"Around 2004, about a year after I retired, I said something publicly that could've been perceived as saying Lance doped, and he was upset about it and called me. I said: Listen, I know this has nothing to do with you, but I feel guilty about what I did. Don't you? And he never admitted doping in this conversation. But what he said to me was, 'Listen, the 180 guys who you raced against when you did what you had to do back then, they all put on their racing cleats, right?' And I said, Yeah. And he said: 'Exactly. You put your shoes on too. I don't lose any sleep over it; you shouldn't either.'

"I anonymously admitted to my own doping in The New York Times in 2006, and if I had done it on the record, I think you would have seen a lot of our team's sponsors go away for reasons unknown, race invitations disappear for reasons unknown. And by that time, this moral dilemma was really hitting me: I was responsible for a medium-size team and a lot of jobs. People forget about the impact that would have been felt if I'd made that decision to answer on the record. For instance, [one of Vaughters' riders] Timmy Duggan would never be U.S. Pro champion. He was not good enough to go to another team at that time. Why should Timmy Duggan, just a young up-and-coming rider at that point, pay that price? In a lot of ways, I felt like maybe this is the penance I have to pay; I can't just blurt it out because I'd destroy a lot of careers for a lot of young riders. And at the same time, my conscience wouldn't allow me to go all in and say, Yeah, I really support Lance.

"There is the huge misconception, though, that this is about Lance. This is about a culture that Lance was a part of, and that he participated in. The problem is because his stature was so important to the sport that to dismantle the doping culture is very difficult unless he's exposed as part of it. The one thing that kept the cover on recognizing that this entire culture existed was that there was one guy -- all the rest are busted -- but this one guy at the top hasn't been busted. From 2008 to 2010, when reporters would ask if I ever doped, most journalists did not actually care whether I doped. They cared far more about what the answer to the follow-up question was: 'You were teammates with Lance; did he ever dope?' It's very discouraging when you're in a position where you are unable to admit your own past without taking on this behemoth.

"There was a point in time where I felt like maybe silence was the best decision but now, at this point, silence is no longer the best decision. The best decision is to step forward for the good of the sport, to unveil this culture to get to the truth. Because in 2004, defending Timmy Duggan's career was a priority. Throwing myself out as an individual, self-immolating in the press, wouldn't have done anything; it would only have killed Timmy's career. Well, flash forward to 2010, I was going to kill Timmy Duggan's career by not saying anything. Because at that point if I remained silent, then that same culture that had pulled me into a position when I was younger that I never wanted to be in -- and made me feel like it was OK to dope -- could very well manifest itself in the younger generation as well. So at that point it's: OK, you know what? Now I have to risk everything.

"Now with this current investigation, it makes everyone aware that just because you think you got away with it when you did, doesn't mean you actually got away with it. This all of a sudden puts in every young rider out there the knowledge that, If I dope now, I can get caught 10 years from now. That's a different message than has ever been established in any sport.

"I'm a longtime supporter of a truth and reconciliation commission [allowing for riders to confess without consequence, although future failed tests could result in a lifetime ban]. It would serve an immense benefit if people were motivated to come forward and admit this was a cultural, sociological problem and learn from all that -- as opposed to [investigations] touching potentially hundreds of people over the next, say, six years. Instead, we just have everyone come out of their foxholes. We say: War's over. Let's figure out how to prevent the next war from happening.

"If you want people to be truthful and want to know what actually happened, as opposed to chasing ghosts for the next 10 years, then you have to let them know that we won't chop your head off. If you say, 'You need to come forward and be truthful, but if we don't like that truth, you're out of here,' then what's the incentive for anyone to tell the truth? The majority of people are going to lie. That's not specific to cycling; that's society. The greatest asset we can take from this is to dissect what happened here and prevent it from happening again.

"And the testing in place now is very effective. My guess is fewer than 5 percent [of riders are doping]. When I crunch the numbers like mean hemoglobin, basically we see that if you took 200 people off the street you'd get a very similar average level. Climbing speeds are less impressive than in 20 years. To me, the combination of those factors means that if doping is occurring, it's at a small level and it's not effective. It's not going to win you the race every time. Not even close. While it is impossible and unrealistic to eliminate cheating in any sport, to me the doping problem in cycling is contained enough today that talented, hard-working riders on the best teams win the majority of top races. For the first time in 100 years of cycling, that formula is working more often than it ever has. 2012 was an incredible year for clean cycling. And we're on a good track for 2013."

Joe Lindsey interviewed Jonathan Vaughters on Nov. 13, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.