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Opinion: Of a mess, dignity and grace

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Oct. 12, 2012

Then Vaughters added a telling detail: “I was always frustrated during my career, of being able to not quite reach what other people thought my potential was. It brings me a lot of pleasure that Tom, you were able to achieve this year what I never could. There is nothing that brings me greater happiness than watching you overcome all the obstacles that you were able to.”

Both Danielson and Vaughters were frustrated by the need, whether explicit or implicit, imagined or observed, to dope to perform. “I crossed the line,” Danielson said in his statement. “And that is something I will always be sorry for. I accept responsibility for my choices and apologize to everyone in my life for them.”

Vaughters went on to recount that before the Tour, he wrote five goals on a piece of paper: win the TTT, win the overall team GC, have Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd both win stages, put a rider in the top 10 GC, and hold the yellow jersey for a day. “There is no way it will ever work out and it will stretch the team too thin,” Vaughters recalled, scolding himself at the time. “It’s just not possible.” Vaughters said Vande Velde had told him “You know, you are always just a little too optimistic and positive. We always think you are going to go a little bit crazy for that.”

And yet, the team accomplished all these audacious aims, without needles, without blood boosters, without deception. And that success of romantic idealism over lazy cynicism — at the very highest level of the sport, where cycling fans keep telling me it is impossible to find an honest man — suggests there is reason, if not wisdom, in the lion-hearted new standard Vaughters set out to create with his team in 2003.

Finally, as the Eiffel Tower shimmered with waterfalls of light outside the restaurant’s plate glass windows, Vaughters asked Vande Velde to say a few words about “the romanticism of the Tour.” Smiling at his boss’s phrasing, and with a celebratory beer in hand, the Chicagoan took the microphone and said words that, in light of the USADA report and the riders’ own confessions, are wrought with more significance today than when first I put them in a book earlier this year.

“This has been a very emotional Tour for a lot of us,”Vande Velde told the party. “Me especially. Dave especially. Jonathan I’m sure especially. We’ve come a long way in a short period of time when you think about it. From pipe dreams in 2003 for Jonathan to 2007 for a couple of us taking some serious risks coming to this team in the first place. From being ‘the little engine that could’ to standing the whole effen’ team on the podium in Paris. It’s been huge.”

Now we know exactly why those wins, at the Tour, Paris-Roubaix, and now the Giro, were so emotional for Vande Velde, Zabriskie, and Vaughters. We can now begin to understand how huge the risks were in crossing The Boss and the industry and government that circled and protected their rainmaker, and just how significant the peril was in thwarting a system rigged from top-to-bottom, from soigneur to United States congressmen, to protect the corrupt and expel the honest. Those riders were not just putting their faith in a new team. They were investing their confidence in a sand grain blown directly into the pupil of pro cycling; a way of life at odds with a corrupted status quo — the only one they previously knew in their pro careers.

In the wake of the Armstrong evidence and the mea culpas of his loyal subalterns, it seems the place where these riders found refuge is now, more than ever, a model for a larger pro cycling world. A place where all riders, rather than just a quirky few, can ride, race, and live in a state of grace.

Editor’s note: Mark Johnson’s book on life with the Garmin team, “Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life,” is available at booksellers everywhere. He has contributed writing and photography to VeloNews since 1993.

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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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