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Taylor Phinney got his start as a bike racer in 2007, with Jonathan Vaughters’s TIAA – CREF development team. According to Vaughters, it was that team’s nascent track program that introduced Phinney to the boards and paved the way for his 2008 Olympic debut.
Shortly after those Olympics, Phinney left TIAA – CREF for Lance Armstrong’s new Trek – Livestrong U23 team, which was both a huge step in Phinney’s development on the road and yet another footnote in the years-long acrimony between Vaughters and Armstrong.
Here, in light of the official announcement that Phinney has signed for Cannondale – Drapac, Vaughters talks about his early years with Phinney and what it means to have him back. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)
VeloNews: How did the relationship start a decade ago? You signed Taylor before he had ever raced.
Jonathan Vaughters: It basically boiled down to word of mouth, stuff trickling through to me from Boulder [Colorado] group rides. People were coming to me going, “Hey this kid hasn’t raced yet, but he’s stronger than all of us. So maybe he should try racing.” It wasn’t any more scientific than that.
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We were his first team. He wasn’t on some club team or bike shop team or whatever. We literally put him onto the best junior team in the country straight from just being a kid who was riding bikes with his mom and dad.
Obviously, he was super-talented, a natural right off the bat. At that point, we were doing a lot of track racing with the team. I had this theory — UK sport used this approach to develop Team Sky — if we developed a bunch of Olympians, sponsorship would come our way and we’d be able to chip our way into the WorldTour.
So that was the approach: capture America’s interest through up-and-coming Olympians. To go to the Olympics on the road, you have to have already been racing at the WorldTour level. So the track was the place.
VN: So that’s how Taylor ended up on the track?
JV: Yeah. And he was like a fish in water. Just “Boom.” Incredible at it right from the start.
VN: He left after two years to sign with Lance Armstrong’s Trek – Livestrong development project. What was that like?
JV: Well, it’s part of the history. I don’t always like to talk about it, because it was really painful. It doesn’t reflect negatively on Taylor in any way, though.
He went to the 2008 Olympics while he was riding for us. We put a lot of effort into media training him for the Olympics, because he was getting a lot of publicity. He had never really done an interview before, and all of a sudden he had people like Lester Holt flying out to interview him. So we tried to put as much buffering around him as we could and help him learn how to deal with the media.
We had come to an agreement right before the Olympics for him to move onto our U23 team for 2009. We hadn’t written that into a contract, though. I was thinking, “He’s a junior rider. We’ll get to the contract.” He was still a kid, and I didn’t see any point in putting a kid under high-pressure contract negotiations. I was just like, “Yeah, sure. You’re going to ride for us next year.”
Then, all of a sudden, after he got back from the Olympics, he went radio-silent. I didn’t hear anything from Taylor or his parents for a long time. Then I started hearing rumors that Taylor was up in Aspen riding with Lance, and Taylor was going to this event with Lance, and he’s getting flown here by Lance. It was pretty uncomfortable, but I was thinking, “Well, Astana doesn’t have a junior team, so I guess there’s nothing I should be concerned about.”
After months of silence, I got a call from, I can’t remember if it was Connie or Davis, but one of them called and basically said, “Listen, we’re really sorry, but Taylor is going to ride for Lance.”
It was confusing. At that point, the Livestrong team didn’t exist, so it all seemed bizarre. It was a tough thing. Was this about development cycling or was it a middle finger from Lance?
VN: Do you have an answer to that now?
JV: Oh, who knows? I just know that it was a tough thing, personally.
And by no means did I ever hold it against Taylor. He was a 17-year-old getting invited to ride with one of the biggest sports stars ever — the biggest star in his chosen profession. Of course the kid is going to be star-struck. Of course the kid is going to think, “Well, gee, maybe J.V. isn’t so great compared to this.”
VN: Does signing him now put the past in a new light? Or, at this point, is it more just the annual cycle of riders going in and out of teams during the offseason?
JV: It’s not a normal in-and-out thing. He started with us as a kid. He was someone we believed in massively. And when he left, I was personally hurt. So were some of our investors. But I’ve matured a lot since then. He has, too. We both pulled on our big-boy pants. We realized that the fit was really good in 2008 and is still good now.
But, no, it’s not normal business. There’s a greater emotional investment in bringing him back. I think that goes for both of us.