I don’t particularly like writing on doping, Armstrong or any of the current news events, as its way to partisan, and simply ends up producing bile and hatred as everyone seeks to tear into each other over their heroes and villains in a process that will never end such is the polarisation and near religious devotion of either sect of ‘fans’, with their name calling, foul language and general unpleasantness, but there is one issue that no one really seems to be picking up, so I’ll say my bit, then get back to concentrating on more fun things, like cyclo-cross, best of the year features, and, er, the Tour of Beijing…
Slipstream Sports, the company behind the Garmin-Sharp team, have an interesting history. They have been around since 2003 – a development project initiated by Jonathan Vaughters, sponsored by a magazine based in Denver, Colorado, where most of the team was based, and named after the city’s height above sea level in feet, 5280. The following year, a financial company came on board to boost the team, and it began to build and develop its young squad with a basis and tagline of being a 100% clean team. Indeed, the teams website, slipstreamsports.com, continues to claim that:
‘As one of the sport’s most talented and hard-working teams, Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda is prepared to race hard, race clean!’
So in 2008, the team began its main phase of restructuring and marketing, with a dominant Slipstream brand emblazoned on the jersey to entice potential sponsors, a huge degree of fan involvment, and a great deal of recruiting. Slipstream bought in Julian Dean, David Millar, Magnus Backstedt, Dave Zabriske, Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal, Christian Vandevelde and Tyler Farrar amongst others to try and break into the big time – a ride in the Tour. They even allowed their fans, besotted with their argyle patterning, to design their kit – the winner though, oddly, never got worn, with a different kit being used at the Giro, where the team won the TTT to take Pink, before Garmin stepped in for the 2008 Tour. At the time, Jonathan Vaughters, the team manager, declared that ‘Cycling is always, and especially recently, a challenging environment to find sponsorship.’ and that the teams goal was to complete clean: “If we really want to keep doping off of this team, off of the stage, out of cycling, we have to win within the context of humanity. It’s simply saying that some days are great, some days are not. The wins will come to this team, but when no one expects it. And when everyone thinks we’ll be there, we may fail.”
The team did eventually get its Tour debut, and now named Garmin-Chipotle powered by H30, they did well for their debut, elevating Christian Vandevelde to 4th place and almost winning stages with Will Friskhorn. In doing so, they made Lance Armstrong think he could still win the Tour as a combination of slow speeds and relative unknowns in the top 10 convinved the Texan to return. Impressively, Paul Kimmage, a man keen to weed out every last dreg of doping from the sport, assessed Vandevelde as the ‘new barometer’ of clean racing, and that he was now the yard stick for how clean riders could compete in the Tour de France et all.
And we haven’t even got onto David Millar, whose story does not need retelling, suffice to say that he has done much better as an ex-doper then he could have hoped to have had he not done it at all. It is also worth pointing out that he did not admit to doping – he was caught and then admitted it, and is not the saint that he seems to be protrayed as. But then, little of Garmin’s roster is.
For today, we were finally told in official terms that Christian Vandevelde, David Zabriske and Tom Danielson had all admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs in their careers, before stopping at Slipstream. Jonathan Vaughters had already admitted doping, bringing the number of cheats on the team to an impressive 5 out of 29, as they also have Thomas Dekker, who tested positive for EPO in December 2007. Maths wise, thats 17% of the ‘Clean team’ that have been drugs cheats.
The question of course is why on earth they didn’t come and tell us all this earlier, say, when they set up their great anti-doping crusade. If all the news currently circulating had come out in 2007, then we wouldn’t have had to put up with 6 years of rumour and innuendo which makes the idea that the moon landings could have been faked and kept secret more plausible, given the silence that has existed for the last half a decade. Armstrong would never have been allowed to make his comeback in 2009, and we would have been saved the pain of having to continue whining on about decades old news. But if we remember back to that first team presentation, we can deduce the reason why Slipstream and its cheats stayed so silent. Vaughters said, ‘Cycling is always, and especially recently, a challenging environment to find sponsorship.’
So was the silence a deliberate ploy to ensure the team gained sponsorship? It certainly seems that way. All but Millar, who didn’t really have a choice given his history, always avoided the doping question, instead insisting they were on a clean team, as interestingly, and I don’t say this intending to insinuate anything, they managed to get markedly better results they when they were on the juice. Thus, sponsors such as Garmin, Barracuda, Sharp, Transitions, Cervelo, Chipotle, Tata Consultancy Services and the like have all signed on to support and venerate certain riders as examples as cleanliness when they were in fact hiding their pasts. It seems unlikely that the sponsors would have been told about this anyway – would you sponsor a team who at some point where going to be exposed as being a harbor for drugs cheats? I know I wouldn’t. So essentially, where the sponsors told? It is surely a fraud similar to that Armstrong is accused of if they were not. Whether the sponsors react in any way will be interesting to note, as it would appear their investments are based on lies.
Slipstream haven’t exactly had the greatest record for being anti-doping either however. Although they have never had a rider fail a drugs test (not that that means anything anymore, as the legions of ‘fans’ on forums currently deconstructing Team Sky’s apparent mass doping ring on zero evidence can attest to), they don’t have a brilliant history of being particularly consistent in their policy. We can see what the point of Millar, the reformed anti-doping spokesman was, but Thomas Dekker? That was an odd decision indeed, especially given the unfolding drama of the women’s team at the time. Supposedly Big-Matt had signed on as a sponsor, then pulled out, and this meant the women’s team had to be dismantled. Yet Vaughters still had the money to sign Thomas Dekker, despite insisting the Big Matt money wasn’t that much and wouldn’t have simply covered the women’s team. It was an odd move indeed, and didn’t go down very well with those who thought dopers shouldn’t be allowed back in.
Which oddly enough, was what Slipstream’s ideology was at times.When Xavier Tondo finished 5th in the 2010 Vuelta, Vaughters decided he was drug cheat, on no evidence at all. As Vaughters said himself in an article for cyclingnews ‘Xavier was part of a Portuguese team whose doctor was found with doping products. I connected the dots and assumed Xavier was a part of this doctor’s nefarious activity…I was convinced there was no way he could perform at a high level without doping. I was right, I knew. And I judged.’ Vaughters thus did not try and sign him, only for Tondo to tip off the police when he received an email offering doping products, in turn uncovering a Girona doping ring. In his defence, Vaughters did apologise publically, but there is a strange hypocrisy in his view of signing Dekker but judging Tondo. What made the whole episode even sadder was the tragic death of Tondo only a few months later in a freak accident. It turns out to be ironic that Vaughters decided he didn’t want to sign people who he presumed to be cheats, but was quite happy taking on board those who were.
Landis. Hincapie. Hamilton. Leipheimer. There are other names to add to the pile of cheaters, and yet for some reason many sites are still venerating these men as if they were all somehow victims, and indeed their statments convey a sense of victim hood, of being ‘forced’ into taking drugs. As all mothers will tell you, you’re never ‘forced’ to do anything – you make your own decisions because you’re a mature grown up, especially when you get out of the system that was supposedly compelling you to do such things, ie when they all left USPS. Why not confess then? Why are we celebrating Tyler Hamilton, a man who famously claimed he had a twin die in the womb as a defense for his blood transfusion, or Floyd Landis, a man who can surely never be trusted to say a true word having sworn on oath he both has and has not cheated, as well as once hoping that his new best buddies, the USADA, would ‘in the future…[be demonstrated] to be a corrupt organisation.’
These men are not heroes. They have done nothing they can be proud of. They have cheated, and then worst of all, presented themselves to fans without revealing themselves or their past for six, long years. Six years. We fans are a devoted bunch. We really associate with these guys because we can ride the same roads and feel the same pain and sensations, so to discover that the last six years have been a lie, and that they will barely go punished for their deceit and cheating whilst everyone else has to reconsider their love of the sport is pretty hard to take.
But anyway. The chapter has to be closed now, and as Vaughters claims, we have to look the the future, not the past, although I hope his sponsors have a slightly different view. As i said at the start, I dont really want to write on this issue again, and hopefully that’s the way it’ll stay.
Look on the bright side, the Tour of Beijing is suddenly a welcome distraction.