Commentary: Vaughters and unintended consequences

In the wake of Tom Danielson's failed doping test, there have been calls for Jonathan Vaughters to step down. But the truth is cycling might need him more than he needs cycling.

Let’s leave Jonathan Vaughters alone for a bit. I know that’s not going to sway Lance Armstrong. But I’m hoping I can appeal to people who do better with nuance.

In the wake of Tom Danielson’s failed doping test, many people have justifiably pointed to Vaughters’ past statements about his drug-free team and how he would shut it down in the wake of a doping positive. Vaughters said those things, and we get to discuss them. It’s okay to ask why he’s walking back from those statements.

But after the initial discussion — and after Vaughters said he would be sticking with the team — there have been increasing calls for him to leave the sport, along with accusations that his Slipstream teams have been as dirty as any others in cycling.

Hang on a minute. This team has been racing since 2005, and Danielson is the first doping positive. One in 10 years. Vaughters founded the parent organization in 2003 — when doping was at its peak — with the specific mission of racing clean. Vaughters isn’t the only person fighting drugs in cycling, nor even necessarily the most effective, but I challenge you to point to a current team manager who has been more vocal about cleaning things up.

Vaughters isn’t perfect. He can come off as prickly, imperious, and condescending. We know he doped during his racing career; he told us (though he took way too long to admit it). My guess is there are riders on the team who would rather be riding for someone else. But he’s still an important force for change from within the sport. He has also, by force of personality, managed to keep a U.S.-registered team funded at the WorldTour level. I know I couldn’t pull that off. So even if Vaughters has to go back on his word to stay with the team, cycling is probably better off with him than without him.

An acquaintance of mine, Vivek Wadhwa, was until recently one of the most outspoken advocates for gender equality in Silicon Valley. A well-known technologist and author, he publicly took Twitter to task in 2013 when the company filed for an IPO without any women on its board. The New York Times and other outlets jumped on the issue, and Twitter was forced to respond. Wadhwa has also written extensively about women in tech and was editing a crowd-sourced book on the topic. He was making a difference.

But when several people — whose side he was ostensibly on — questioned how he went about things and whether, as a man, he was sometimes patronizing toward women, he got overly defensive. He shouldn’t have responded that way. They had a point. He could have listened and become a better ally in that fight. But in the face of a growing chorus of attacks, he vowed to drop the cause entirely. Justified criticism turned into unjustified vitriol, and the movement lost someone who was doing good work and probably could have been nudged into doing even better.

Likewise, Vaughters has room for improvement but is still a force for good in our sport. If he leaves, it will be cycling’s loss more than his.

In 2008, when I was at Outside magazine, Vaughters offered to let me have a writer room with David Millar during the entire Tour of California to see firsthand how the team’s internal testing — then completely groundbreaking for the sport — and anti-doping policies worked. What other team does things like that? If he leaves, what are the chances that whoever takes his place will be as effective a voice for change?

Look, Vaughters has a mess on his hands. The merger with Cannondale hasn’t been the smoothest; the organization seems to have lost the quirky personality that made it a fan favorite; the team lacks both wins and marquee stars; and now Danielson has been popped for testosterone. There’s also the perception that, as Vaughters has pursued his MBA over the past couple of years, he hasn’t been as involved with the team as he should be.

We can and should ask him tough questions about all those things. We should also ask him if, in light of the Danielson news, he maybe shouldn’t have been so willing to give former dopers a second chance. (For the record, we’ve been reaching out over the past couple of days. He hasn’t wanted to talk.)

That doesn’t mean we should ask him to leave. Saiz and Bruyneel — those guys had to go. Danielson probably deserves a lifetime ban. But we are better having Vaughters do what he can to clean up the sport, rather than wash his hands of it entirely.