By Neal Rogers
Ten days before the start of the Tour de France is a busy time for any ProTour team manager, but Wednesday was a particularly crazy day for Garmin-Slipstream team manager Jonathan Vaughters.
During the same news cycle that reported rumors of Garmin’s interest in signing 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, the team also released its nine-man Tour roster, leaving off three active riders from last year’s squad.
On a day he described as one where the phone was “stuck to his head,” Vaughters spoke with VeloNews about the difficult decisions he faced with Tour team selection, the team’s long-term plan — and whether or not that might include signing a top GC rider like Contador — and a BBC report that Garmin’s David Millar and Bradley Wiggins might be joining the British Team Sky.
On Contador and Vande Velde
Rumors that Garmin was in discussions with Contador had rumbled through the racing community for weeks and were first reported Tuesday on Joe Lindsey’s blog on Bicycling.com.
Lindsey’s story reported that Contador was exploring his options should the current Astana team dissolve due to financial problems, and that the Spaniard and several compatriots were looking for a new home, while Astana’s Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer would use the team’s infrastructure, owned by manager Johan Bruyneel, to start up a new squad sponsored by Armstrong-affiliates Livestrong and Nike.
The story went on to report that the deal between Contador and Garmin was to be announced last Saturday until Astana was able to guarantee its $6 million bank guarantee with the UCI. Additionally, according to a team source, Garmin’s team Felt bikes were already on the way to Contador.
Vaughters refused to directly confirm or deny the rumor of contract discussions with Contador, saying, “Our team policy is that we don’t discuss private negotiations before they are closed. We never have, and that’s going to be the case here. Whether we were or weren’t talking to Alberto, we’re not going to talk about it, period. All negotiations are confidential until finalized.”
Felt marketing director Doug Martin told VeloNews he had heard nothing of the team’s signing Contador, and that no one at Felt had shipped bikes to him, but that didn’t necessarily mean the team hadn’t shipped a bike from its own stock to the Spaniard.
“I can tell you that we definitely did not send any bikes to anybody,” Martin told VeloNews. “I have no doubt there is a lot going on behind closed doors right now, but that is team business which is handled by JV and his staff, not us.”
The addition of Contador to Garmin would have a huge impact on the American team on several fronts: not only would Garmin take a race favorite to the Tour, but it would also mean a potential split in team leadership between the Spaniard and the team’s current GC leader, Christian Vande Velde, who finished fourth overall at last year’s Tour but suffered multiple broken vertebra during the first stage of the Giro d’Italia last month.
Vande Velde returned to racing at last week’s Tour of Switzerland but finished an anonymous 81st overall, and 38th in the final-stage time trial, 3:20 behind stage winner Fabian Cancellara.
An argyle-clad Contador would also likely bring the American team in direct competition with Armstrong, who told VeloNews last week that he still considers an eighth Tour win a possibility.
For his part, Armstrong wrote a Twitter post Tuesday night saying that “JL (Lindsey) may not be far off on this (for once). I’m choosing to ignore and remove myself from drama. TdF – hard enough.”
On the topic of the American team replacing its American team leader with the 2007 Tour champion, Vaughters said that he wouldn’t make a decision on such a matter without first discussing it with Vande Velde.
“I wouldn’t make any major decision for signing a big rider without Christian’s blessing,” Vaughters said. “Since this team began, or at least the ProTour iteration of the team, Christian has been the team captain, the team leader. He’s also a longtime friend of mine, and I wouldn’t make any decision like that without talking to him first. If Christian didn’t want it to happen, it wouldn’t happen. It’s just that simple.”
Vaughters added that whether or not the team was considering signing another grand tour GC contender would be regardless of Vande Velde’s injuries at the Giro.
“Whether or not Christian is injured or not injured is beside the question,” Vaughters said. “That would be an independent factor. I don’t know what Christian will be capable of at this year’s Tour, but I think it’s pretty incredible, after five broken vertebra, to be doing the Tour at all.”
On Contador and Garmin
Dating back to the Colorado-based team’s inception in 2004 as TIAA-CREF, the Slipstream Sports-managed squad has been primarily American and English-speaking, with Colorado riders such as Timmy Duggan, Danny Pate, Will Frischkorn and Blake Caldwell all long-time members of the squad from its developmental days.
That changed somewhat at the outset of the 2008 season as the team signed foreign riders such as David Millar, Magnus Backstedt and Julian Dean, as well as foreign team directors Matt White and Lionel Marie; however those staff members are all English speakers. Vaughters said that as the team grows it must expand, particularly given Garmin International’s broad marketing objectives, and that he wouldn’t preclude signing non-Anglophone riders.
“Garmin has a more international sponsorship interest,” Vaughters said. “We do have to look at foreign riders in building the best possible team, versus a strictly American team. Of course we will always carry a good number of American riders, because that is something (team owner Doug Ellis) and I are passionate about. But the team is going to be come more performance-oriented, and we’re going to pick the best talent in world versus talent in the U.S.”
Vaughters’ team has also become known for its strict anti-doping policy, and since 2007, for spending its own money on third-party blood-monitoring programs such as the Agency for Cycling Ethics and Don Catlin’s Anti-Doping Sciences Institute to ensure its riders are racing clean of performance-enhancing drugs.
Though he’s never tested positive, Contador’s name was originally linked to the Spanish blood-doping network Operación Puerto. The Spaniard was excluded from the 2006 Tour after he and several of his Liberty Seguros teammates were implicated in Puerto. A Spanish judge and the UCI both later cleared Contador of any involvement.
Without addressing Contador specifically, Vaughters said any rider coming into Garmin program would be subject to “the same level of scrutiny,” including a review of UCI medical records, anti-doping results and biological passport files. And though he wouldn’t confirm discussions with Contador, Vaughters added, “I like Alberto. I think he’s a massively talented rider. He’s a cool cat.”
On Millar and Wiggins signing with Team Sky
Responding to a BBC report posted Wednesday that Millar and Wiggins would leave the team at season’s end to join the new British pro squad, Team Sky, Vaughters said he hadn’t seen the story and wasn’t overly concerned.
The report quotes British Cycling coach Shane Sutton as saying that he expects Millar, Wiggins, Steve Cummings and Geraint Thomas to form the core of an initial 25-rider roster on a team that hopes to develop a British Tour winner by 2014. “All these guys are going to move on to the Sky pro road team,” Sutton told BBC. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”
However Vaughters said that Wiggins, who has finished second in time trials this year at Paris-Nice, the Giro d’ Italia and Criterium International, is in the middle of the first year of a two-year contract. As for Millar, whose arrival in 2008 came with a small ownership stake in the team, Vaughters said he couldn’t say for certain.
“Brad won’t be going anywhere,” Vaughters said. “As for Dave, you’ll have to ask him. I would find it very unlikely, but then again, I’m not inside his head.”
On Tour team selection
On the same day that Vaughters was answering questions about Contador and Team Sky, his Garmin team announced its Tour roster. And while many of the names on the list weren’t surprises, there were a few notable absences.
Missing from last year’s team is American Will Frischkorn, who not only finished second on stage 3 last year, but also finished his first Tour. Also finishing their first Tours last year and left off this year’s team were Aussie Trent Lowe and Dutch rider Martijn Maaskant.
Riders in contention for the Tour team but left off include American climber Tom Danielson and Canadian strongman Svein Tuft. Vaughters said leaving Tuft off the team was a difficult decision, particularly after the team had withheld Tuft from racing the Giro to preserve him for the Tour.
But Vaughters said that Tuft, who took a silver medal at last year’s world time trial championship, has struggled this year after a concussion at the Tour of California and a knee injury at Three Days of De Panne.
“Svein just wasn’t on his game at the Dauphiné Libéré,” Vaughters said. “And we didn’t feel comfortable starting him in his first three-week race in the condition he’s in. We still have a lot of faith in Svein. If anything, he pushed himself too hard. He may have over trained this year out of enthusiasm, and it’s hard to fault him for that. Now he just needs to rest up and get his feet back under him.”
New to Garmin’s Tour team this year is Wiggins, American sprinter Tyler Farrar and Irish climber Dan Martin. Martin was originally slotted as the Garmin rider most likely to ride alongside Vande Velde in the high mountains, however Vaughters said that even with Vande Velde’s GC aspirations in question and Farrar showing increasing promise in sprint finishes, Martin deserved a ride at the Tour “based on what he’s capable of.”
“Of course we are bringing Julian Dean and Wiggo and Dave Millar, three guys who are very experienced giving lead-outs, so Tyler will have support,” Vaughters said. “I would say our focus is more diverse than it would have been two months ago, but it doesn’t preclude Christian from coming into top form, and if he does, we will work for him. The team is versatile and can go in a lot of different directions.”
Vaughters said one goal remains — winning the team time trial, even if he caught heat from Columbia-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish prior to the Giro d’Italia for stating Garmin’s season “began” with the Italian TTT. Garmin finished second on that stage, just six seconds behind Columbia, with Cavendish taking the race’s first maglia rosa.
“Obviously with riders like Wiggo, Millar, Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie, Ryder Hesjedal, Tyler Farrar and Danny Pate, we think we can win the team time trial,” Vaughters said. “I don’t care to get into any of the pre-race hype beforehand this time around. I saw that as counterproductive last time around, and I accept responsibility for that. I won’t make that mistake again. But we are still doing the same training camp as we did before the Giro, and yes, that includes team time trial-specific training.”
Asked for an objective prediction of this year’s Tour’s winner, Vaughters said, “I still believe Contador is the most talented rider in the race. It’s just a matter of how well his team works together. I’m sure Cadel will be strong, but I think Contador will win.”
One thing appears certain, however — should Contador stand atop the final podium in Paris, he won’t be wearing argyle.