By Jonathan Vaughters, Crédit Agricole cycling team
Yes, I asked to have my contract cut short, but it’s not quite as dramatic as OLN made it sound, I suppose I’m still racing with Crédit Agricole till the end of 2002 … or at least getting paid by them. I just asked to be released for 2003, simply because it just wasn’t working for me. I had lost my fire to be a pro in Europe, and as you’ve seen first hand in the Dauphiné, it’s just too hard to do it strictly for the money.
Rob, I reached my full potential over there, contrary to what some of my own very optimistic friends and fans will say, and in some ways exceeded what I thought was ever possible.
Ever since my amateur days, various coaches repeatedly told me that while I had an amazing talent for climbing, I’d never make it in Europe, as I was too fragile. You know this, too – as my friend then, you lived the disappointment of an 18-year-old hearing that his dream was not realistic.
So, with the help of no one, except the Missouri district rep at the time, Mike Murray, who somehow persuaded a friend in Spain to let me race for his team, I bought a one-way ticket (all I could afford) to Madrid, and left everything behind.
When I got there, it was sink or swim, as no cycling team in Europe treats anyone with kid gloves. That first year, I realized that the national-team coaches were right – I was too fragile. I caught cold after flu after throat infection. I simply couldn’t stay healthy for longer than three or four days in a stage race. I would quickly become run down, and then susceptible to getting sick.
At first I figured that that was it, and the skeptics were right – I just didn’t have what it took to make it in Europe. Somehow, though, my director convinced me I could make it work with time. He was a very cerebral man who intended the Santa Clara team to be a place to grow, and although I know he sometimes thought I could never overcome my weak constitution, he let me try. More than that, he gave me latitude to figure out how I could overcome my weaknesses.
That made all the difference in my career. Every time I was put in a situation where I simply had to train, eat, and sleep the same as all other Euro’ pros do, I quickly showed my true colors, wearing out and becoming ill once again. But when I was allowed to figure out ways around being not as durable as the others, I would slowly make progress. Someone had faith in me, finally, and this gave me all the incentive to prove all my detractors wrong.
I spent nine months a year in Spain, with phone calls home few and far between. I suffered in every race I did. I was unquestionably the worst rider in the whole of the European pro peloton. But I was slowly picking my way through my weaknesses. In the great American tradition, I figured out a better mousetrap.
Anyhow, as you followed, I slowly but surely made myself a rider who could compete in races other than just the Mount Evans hill climb. It was not conventional, and I did not have the support of many, but I had been allowed to figure a way to reach my full potential – something not many people get to do.
Soon, I was strong enough to take on racing at a higher level, with U.S. Postal. I continued to do things my way, and once again I found a director who supported me. Jonny Weltz knew that if I raced or trained too much, I simply broke down physically, so he made my program one that I could follow successfully.
In 1998, before the Vuelta, Jonny said to me, “Listen – a three-week tour may never be your thing, but you need to finish, so someday you are stronger in other races.” I finished that year, second to last, some two or three hours down. I never had one good day, but I made it in.
The next year, although difficult at times, proved that I was finally going to have my place in the European peloton. I won the time trial in the Dauphiné, and then the GC in the Route du Sud .The next year, signed by CA, I was top 10 in all the big weeklong races – Paris-Nice, Dauphiné, Tour Med. Undoubtedly, 2000 was as good as I ever got.
But I realized something that year, well before crashing out of the Tour. I was just barely making it to the end of these races.
Sure, I’d manage fourth overall, but the last day of the race I’d already be getting bronchitis or something. So, when I was being called a potential top-five rider in the Tour, I always knew different. In my heart, I knew I had carried my act to the pinnacle of my ability, and could not do more. I had figured my way around so many barriers, but this proved to be one too many. I wasn’t giving up – I was just realizing that when I looked back, I had made it further than anyone had expected.
Sure, people who had only recently started following my career thought that I’d be able to see it through, do a great Tour. But these weren’t the same people who knew me at the beginning, when I was the first rider dropped every day for a year. They weren’t the people I called, crying, when I was told I shouldn’t bother racing in Europe as it would be too hard for such a little weakling. Those people were you, Rob, my parents, Mark, and of course Colby – the people who realize I made something fairly impossible come true.
Anyhow, when 2000 had come and gone, I realized I had made my dreams come true. I had carried it as far as I could, and from here on out it was to be only a job. I continued to train, but now it seemed I was trying to fulfill other people’s dreams. Everyone thought I could be top five in the Tour.
The Tour this, the Tour that – this was not my dream, it was one everyone else placed on me. I no longer had a chip on my shoulder over not being able to make it in Europe. I no longer felt the need to prove myself. I was content. Soon I began to realize I had just spent nine years slaying a dragon, and with that done, I wanted to go back to enjoying bike racing.
I don’t think I ever enjoyed racing in Europe. Some might, but not me. I was someone who loved cycling, a true fan of the sport. I loved bike racing, and wanted to take it as far as I could. So I went to Europe to see how far I could go, because that’s where you go.
Never, though, did I love it as I do racing up Guanella Pass, or most obviously Mount Evans. The subculture of cycling in the United States is why I love cycling. The eccentric and intelligent people it attracts are where I found my friends, like you. None of that is true in Europe. Eccentricity is not tolerated, and intelligence is seen as a flaw (which, by the way, is why Lance kills everyone over there – he is more intelligent in many, many ways, but they haven’t figured that out, yet).
I’m still an immense fan of the sport over in Europe – I just no longer want to race over there. Quite simply, I reached the point at which I needed to go back to my love, and end my battle.
I’m back in Colorado, and I’m sure I’ll see you soon. I’ll be so happy to be able to spend time with Alisa and Charlie, and not feel like there’s a clock ticking in the background. So, come by and we’ll go for a ride.