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Opinion: Of a mess, dignity and grace

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Oct. 12, 2012

I spent the bulk of 2011 with Zabriskie and his teammates while writing and photographing a book on the Garmin team. At book signings, people approach me and incredulously demand, “Vaughters’ guys are really taking drugs, aren’t they? No way you can do a race like the Tour without doping.”

My response is that, after being with the team in their homes and apartments, at races, training camps, and restaurants for a year, I am convinced Slipstream is a program where chemical and blood shortcuts are not part of the riders’ lives.

Of course, I had no prejudgments when I started hanging around the team in January of 2011 like a houseguest that never leaves. For all I knew then, Vaughters could well have crafted cycling’s greatest Potemkin village. And if it blew up, I was there to document. By year’s end, however I was convinced. “Nobody was skulking,” I explain to those fans asking for dirt.

Zabriskie’s confession underscored what I witnessed first hand in busses, hotel rooms, and team cars from California to Belgium to Spain. More than an employer, Zabriskie found in Slipstream an escape again from a dark chapter in his life — the years racing and doping (in one year, for a $15,000 salary) with the U.S. Postal team. The same way he fled an addiction-stricken home by slipping into Salt Lake City cinemas and Wasatch canyon climbs, the team Vaughters and owner Doug Ellis built offered refuge from a pro cycling domestic life chronically distressed by drug abuse.

In his own confession, Tom Danielson writes, “When I heard about the team Jonathan Vaughters was creating, I knew that his team was exactly what cycling needed — it was exactly what I needed and I wanted to be a part of it.” The team coincided with his desire to step away. And for Zabriskie especially, Slipstream offered professional quarters where he no longer had to sleep with the very demon that killed his father.

Christian Vande Velde also issued a confession on Wednesday that showed grace and dignity. And while we tend to forget it in pro cycling’s daily Twitter-crush of snark and carp, those qualities run like subterranean rivers beneath the sport. There is appeal in watching a man push a bike over 160 miles of tractor paths and winning in a decrepit velodrome in Roubaix, as Garmin’s Johan Vansummeren did in 2011. In the harshest of racing circumstances, the Belgian was grace defined, a humble domestique pushing on with a show of effortless fitness; an allocation of energy in such ideal proportion to the task at hand that it seems easy. Propriety defined.

And a show of grace is really all people want. The French family waiting for the Tour to pass against the backdrop of a stone wall in Brittany, a wall build in Chaucer’s time — with a couple girls playing in the grass and waiting for the arrival of the publicity caravan while mom and dad drink dark red wine at a card table. When the field passes, a stream of fluent beauty, the race, the day, and the sport installs their youth with permanence, the heavy furniture of tradition and ritual.

In his statement, Vande Velde wrote, “I gave in and crossed the line, a decision that I deeply regret. I was wrong to think I didn’t have a choice — the fact is that I did, and I chose wrong.” He only casts blame at himself.

While we are right to ask why these pros waited until now to come clean, and why, save a few brave riders and journalists, the system cowered in silence while Armstrong waged his reign of terror on the whole of cycling citizenry, the fact is that when they did finally come forth, they proceeded with dignity. They looked toward their own selves as both the cause and remedy to their moral failings.

The night the 2011 Tour de France finished, the Garmin team celebrated at Les Ombres, a chic restaurant above Paris’ Musée du Quai Branly. At the party, Vaughters spoke of Tom Danielson, who had placed ninth in his first-ever Tour de France. “He’s a guy that reminds me of myself quite a bit as a rider,” Vaughters confessed to the rapt audience of riders, family, staff, and team sponsors.

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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