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Commentary: Vaughters rewrites the book on cycling’s doping era

Jonathan Vaughters's new book "One-Way Ticket: Nine Lives on Two Wheels" sheds new light on pro cycling's 'EPO era'

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Calling Jonathan Vaughters’s new book, One-Way Ticket: Nine Lives on Two Wheels, a doping book is admittedly a reductive thing to do. In truth, One-Way Ticket is a soaring autobiography that chronicles a 30-year period of Vaughters’s life, from his days as a wide-eyed racer in Colorado’s junior leagues, to his current position as manager of the EF Education First WorldTour team.

Throughout his book, Vaughters places a magnifying glass upon a handful of controversial and important periods of his career. One section focuses on his first taste of pro racing in the underdeveloped U.S. domestic scene, while another chronicles his involvement in the federal investigation into Lance Armstrong. Vaughters also replays the messy professional divorce between himself and his former star rider, Bradley Wiggins. Nearly a decade later, Vaughters attributes the ugly breakup largely to the meddling of Team Sky/Ineos principal David Brailsford.

All of these sections could spawn their own 1,000-word columns, and I do recommend reading One-Way Ticket for new insight into these moments in history.

With all of that said, it’s the book’s section on Vaughters’s own use of performance-enhancing drugs that, in my opinion, brings valuable new perspective to the ever-evolving conversation about our sport’s doping specter. Every few years a new doping book is added to the growing collection, and the last decade has produced several strong reads that take readers inside pro cycling’s so-called “EPO era.” Each has its own insight into the reasons why riders chose to dope. Tyler Hamilton chronicled the transformative physical effects of EPO and human growth hormone (HGH) in his 2012 book, The Secret Race, and discussed in great detail the methods used by him, Armstrong, George Hincapie, and the other U.S. Postal Service riders to elude testers.

Vaughters racing for Credit Agricole in 2001. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

Thomas Dekker’s memoir, The Descent, showed us how doping opened the door for riders to pursue wild and reckless behavior off of the bike, and illustrated, in plain terms, the financial carrot that lured many riders to the “dark side” of cycling.

Vaughters’ book shows us something completely different. In his retelling of this era, Vaughters doesn’t want to dope. He knows it constitutes cheating, and wrestles with the decision through several lackluster seasons in Europe. Eventually, he gives up and gives in. Years later, it’s the internal strife around doping that drives Vaughters to retire at age 30.

His retelling of this period of his career illustrates how someone who is staunchly anti-doping can, over years, lose their moral conviction and do something that, deep down, they believe to be wrong. And his interior focus shows the psychology and emotion that fuels this transformation.

In the other books, the decision to dope feels like a foregone conclusion. That’s not the case in One-Way Ticket. Of all the cycling books that touch on doping, it’s the only one in which the psychology is somewhat relatable to an everyday person like you or me.

And Vaughters also illustrates an angle of the doping conversation that I had yet to see discussed: The schoolyard-like social dynamics within the European peloton. In his retelling, the European peloton feels like a high school cafeteria, with the popular riders sitting at one table, and Vaughters and the lovable losers on his Porcelena Santa Clara team on the other. Doping is what separates the cool kids from the outcasts. Sure, doping brings victories and cash — it also brings confidence and social standing within this strange world.

Conversely, choosing to race clean, in Vaughters’s retelling, makes him a loser. When Vaughters is one of the first riders to buy an expensive SRM power meter — a training tool he hopes will help him keep up with the dopers — he’s openly mocked by his peers.

“The Italians could not believe that a shitty little rider like myself would waste so much money on a training device… They would point and laugh, and then go to another friend and point and laugh again. It was worse than being made fun of for wearing Lycra shorts in high school. The teasing was more sophomoric and definitely more vicious.”

I recently spoke to Vaughters about these schoolyard dynamics. He said that, now, looking back on cycling’s go-go era of doping, it was these social pressures that were far more powerful than cash or glory. Riders cheated because the entire social apparatus in the sport pushed them toward drugs, and then socially rewarded them for going this route. And, by encouraging others to dope, riders diminished whatever internal guilt they felt for breaking the rules. It was a powerful cycle that lasted for years.

“This was the largest element of convincing young riders to dope back then — it’s like how drinking a beer at a high school party is encouraged,” Vaughters said. “It’s that undertow of social pressure.”

I’ve never seen cycling’s doping era explained through this lens. Again, it’s a more relatable dynamic than multi-million dollar paychecks or hematocrit numbers. And in Vaughters’s retelling, a somewhat buffoonish character within this sophomoric scene is Armstrong. In a scene from 1995, Armstrong, who is presumably clean, rides at the back of the pack and rants about how the peloton’s “cheating bastards” have ruined cycling.

“Now they were dropping him on every hill. He couldn’t believe it and was angry about it in a way that only Lance could be. He ranted about quitting cycling while he was ahead, as he wouldn’t do what these rat [expletive] were doing… Then, he’d start up about how the UCI and the drug testers needed to figure something out before this problem got completely out of hand.”

Contrast this with Armstrong’s recent interview on NBC Sports, where he proudly proclaimed that he wouldn’t change a thing about his decision to dope.

Vaughters and Armstrong were teammates on the U.S. Postal Service team at the 1999 tour de France. Photo: AFP

Several scenes later, Armstrong and Vaughters are teammates on the U.S. Postal team at the 1998 Vuelta a España. Armstrong proudly injects himself with EPO in front of Vaughters — an alpha move that adds a further wrinkle to the odd social dynamics within this strange circle.

While the social pressure to dope was powerful, it’s the distinct lack of it in today’s cadre of WorldTour riders that gives Vaughters hope. Pro cycling will never be rid of riders who look to banned chemicals for an unfair advantage, of course. But today’s riders no longer fixate on illegal potions and banned methods.

“When people ask why I’m so confident that things are so good right now, it’s from observations of the social environment,” Vaughters said. “When I was a rider we’d sit around the dinner table and talk about doping for two hours… Now, I watch the guys talk about normal topics for 20-something-year-old men. They laugh; they’re happier.”

One-Way Ticket is published by Penguin Random House and will be available in the United States in August.