His clean team dirtied, Vaughters wouldn’t change a thing

With four riders having gone public with doping confessions tied to their early careers, Garmin boss says ethics come before image

The sky was going to fall on the Slipstream Sports franchise when the doping revelations broke someday; it was just a matter of time. The “clean team,” the one so often cited as a model of internal testing and irreproachable ethics, was certain to appear, at once, very dirty.

Those days inevitably came. Four of its riders have now confessed to doping, and aided in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into the EPO era. Tom Danielson, Dave Zabriskie, and Christian Vande Velde each released a statement last year, admitting to taking performance-enhancing drugs, and earlier this week Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, the 2012 Giro d’Italia champion, also admitted to taking PEDs earlier in his career, after Michael Rasmussen claimed he taught the former mountain biker how to use EPO in 2003.

But knowing that, Garmin-Sharp CEO Jonathan Vaughters said he wouldn’t do anything differently. Or, more bluntly: “Fuck protecting our image. Let’s actually do the right thing,” he told VeloNews Thursday. “Did you ever think about what might be ethically right in the situation? Did that ever occur to you? I think it’s really unfortunate that that’s not the thought process.”

There’s no doubt the Argyle Armada has taken a thorough lashing for its pre-Garmin transgressions, and there’s no telling what’s been said inside the peloton. The team has been viewed by some as a safe haven for dopers, something Vaughters takes umbrage to.

“I don’t think it’s fair. We stuck with the same athletes who I hired in 2008. … I’m sorry, I’m not abandoning, I’m not casting them off to the side of the road to make myself look better, because that’s unethical. I know what that generation went through,” he said. “This goes back to the policy that we published … I know I’ve referred to this a million times, but I feel like people need to revisit this thing. But from a team policy standpoint, our policy has always been that people are open, honest, and truthful to anti-doping authorities. And Ryder accomplished that a long time ago to the satisfaction of us.”

Asked about Hesjedal’s time on the Garmin team specifically, Vaughters said he had a “wonderfully” stable blood profile, and that the Canadian was a rider who’d slowly improved over his time with the team.

“His blood levels have been, again, incredibly stable the entire time, and he’s been an athlete in his time with me who has had absolutely irreproachable ethics,” Vaughters said. “I am not going to just burn an individual at the stake for what was the fault of an entire ecosystem of journalists, of governing bodies of — no, I’m not going to just say Ryder Hesjedal gets to take the fall because it would protect the entire image of the team. No, I’m going to take the hit personally and go, ‘fine, make my image suck.’ but I’d rather do that. I can sleep at night better doing that, knowing that I took that route rather than to scuttle under the couch, kick the guy off the boat, and just pretend he never existed.”

It would have seemed the obvious public relations choice for Hesjedal to cop to doping at the same time his teammates did, lessening the blow, but for whatever reason, that’s not how it happened. Only after Rasmussen’s book excerpt ran earlier this week — more than 12 months after the “Garmin 3” admitted their parts in the U.S. Postal Service doping scheme on the day USADA published its reasoned decision — did the Canadian admit to “choosing the wrong path.”

“That’s not the route that USADA took; they didn’t ask for his testimony. So, later on … they did ask. And he went ahead and did that. No subpoena, nothing like that,” Vaughters said.

Vaughters noted he’s usually asked two things by fans, journalists, etc.: why don’t athletes come forward to the public sooner, and why doesn’t he fire them once they do?

The answer to the first, he said, is usually to avoid interfering with ongoing investigations; riders can talk to whomever they chose, so long as they’ve been forthcoming with authorities. “The policy of the team is that you’re talking to the authorities. You’re truthful to the authorities or you’re fired. If we find that you lied, you’re fired,” Vaughters said.

The answer to the second? He can’t fire them if they’ve gone to the authorities for past transgressions (before joining Garmin). It’s not part of the team’s initial doctrine.

There’s no arguing the fact that Garmin riders have taken a lashing for a compromised system. They’ve been criticized for light punishments, and in Hesjedal’s case, no punishment at all. To that, Vaughters says it’s part of the system, and the long-polished Omerta.

“First of all, I’ll say the punishment is up to the World Anti-Doping Agency. It’s not up to me,” he said. “Secondly, if you want to have a real [truth and reconciliation] process, which, basically our team has singlehandedly got the ball rolling on — if you’re going to say, ‘come in and tell us the truth,’ and, ‘wham, oh you just lost your job because you told us the truth,’ then who’s going to tell the truth? Nobody.”

It’s a dodgy time to have been a rider in the EPO era, and it’s a tougher time to be one of the initial riders on the “clean team.”

“It sucks. It absolutely sucks. I don’t like it at all. But that doesn’t mean that we would change the way we went about it,” Vaughters said. “No. I stick with that decision. As much heartache as it’s brought us.”