Jonathan Vaughters founded Slipstream Sports in 2005.

Jonathan Vaughters founded Slipstream Sports in 2005.

“Come sono le gambe?” (How are the legs?)

I had one team manager who used to ask me that one question over and over; he’d ask me in the morning, he’d ask me in the team bus, he’d ask me at dinner. It was in fact about the only thing he would ever say to me.

It drove me nuts. Firstly, I thought – I’ve just got out of bed, so beyond still being attached to my body, I don’t really know. Secondly, it infuriated me that the sole input of this particular team manager (who at the time was responsible for a team with a several million euro budget) was to ask his riders how their legs were.

I could see his thought process. He just wanted me to say, ‘Yes, in the time I’ve been out of your sight, my legs have improved somewhat miraculously and I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll win today.’ Then he could relax, as he’d have a sponsor for another year perhaps.

Ten or fifteen years ago it was enough for a manager to say to his riders, ‘just be in form- there’s a good lad’, and it was enough for a rider not to question a lot of the time what they were told to do (or to take) because that was the job. A lot of managers were  former riders themselves, who had figured out they might as well become a team manager, as they didn’t know anything else, and their interest ran only as deeply as keeping their team going somehow, anyhow.

That was the way things were and always had been. ‘Le Metier’: do this, don’t do that, and don’t question why – just get results. It was a shortsighted and frankly dangerous attitude that did nothing but perpetuate the culture of doping within the peloton.

In the past five years things have finally started to change, cycling teams have become professional in their application of sports science, in their use of technologies, and in their acceptance and willingness to try new ideas. More importantly still, cycling teams have started to look at the bigger picture. It might not sound that dramatic, but at the end of ten very dark years for the sport it is undoubtedly one of the most necessary changes that the sport has been through.

2013 Tour de France

Vaughters runs Garmin-Sharp like a modern business.

One of the proponents of this change is undoubtedly Jonathan Vaughters. In only a few short years Vaughters has made an indelible mark on the world of cycling. His riders have won, among other things, the Giro d’Italia, Paris-Roubaix, and Liege-Bastonge-Liege.

In the space of five years Vaughters’ band of happy misfits seem to have proved that cycling teams can in fact be professional, forward-thinking and clean, while still delivering results.

So, how does it work? I spoke to Vaughters on the eve of this year’s Tour de France about his approach to team management, his philosophy and what goes in to Garmin Sharp’s preparation for the biggest race of the year.

Your approach to management is known to be quite unconventional – where do you look for your inspiration?

I think my style is honestly more in line with modern business structure. It’s basically giving people a voice in an organization and giving weight to their opinion, but also making them responsible for that opinion and for the consequences of that opinion. I consider that it’s not dictatorial, it’s not autocratic; it is very much a process where I let the experts do their job without me meddling in everything because I am not as much of an expert as any of those people in that area.

I mean, I consider Charly Wegelius an expert in his field, I consider Robbie Ketchell an expert in sports science, I consider Marya Pongrace an expert in communications and so on. But I understand all those areas, and maybe that is what is more unique about my position than anything else.

For example – if you want to sit down and talk about the revenue model of professional cycling, or marketing strategies toward sponsorship and business models and so on and so forth, I can talk to you about that, sure. But we also we have Matt Johnson, my business partner who runs the business side of the team. Am I as good as Matt at doing that? No. I’m 80% as good as him. But he doesn’t know anything about race tactics, for example.

At the same time I would say Charly Wegelius is an absolute expert at race tactics, I’m not as good as he is, but I am about 80% as good as he is. In communications Marya is an absolute expert – could I do her job? Not as well as she could, but then I understand it better than Charly Wegelius or Matt Johnson does. Same thing with Robbie Ketchell, I have a great knowledge of sports science, but not as good as Robbie’s…

So it is enough for me to make decisions based on their recommendations, and what they’re showing me, but its not enough that I should just sort of push over the top of anyone because they are all better in their individual fields than I am.

How does that work practically, in terms of the Tour selection for example?

The way the Tour selection works, is that basically I gather a lot of quantitative data. Some of that comes from Robbie Ketchell, and that includes climbing speeds, power data, and basic physiological testing data.

I also gather medical data from the medical staff, and that is basically: who is healthy? Who has a mild niggling injury? Who is coming off an illness? Who has been consistently healthy all year? Then you move on to the less quantitative and more subjective information, and that mainly comes from the directors.

From the directors it’s: who will function as a teammate? Who is willing to play a role in the team’s plan and isn’t overly focused on their individual aspirations? Who is ready for the race? Who has got the right attitude? Who is nervous?

And then, of course, how are they racing – which is one of the quantitative measures also. So you kind of combine all of that the quantitative and the subjective and so on, and then what I had everyone do this year was render an opinion as to which riders they think should go to the Tour de France. I took a look at their final opinions and selections and the reasoning behind those and then basically just came up with a final decision based on all of that.

Vaughters gives a talk at the pre-tour press conference.

Vaughters gives a talk to his riders at the pre-tour press conference.

It is a fairly complicated process but in the end it is my final choice. I don’t do that with any other race. But in this race, because it is always more prone to controversy and upset and so on, and in the end it is basically 70% of the commercial value of the team from a sponsorship standpoint, I feel I need to put my name behind the final decision.

Do you consider Roger Legeay (Vaughter’s former manager at Credit Agricole, who brought the likes of Chris Boardman – another man whose methods helped change the sport – into the European peloton) to have had any sort of influence over your management style?

Roger has a little more of a traditional management style than I have. The biggest influence that Roger had on my decision making was that he showed me first hand that it was possible for a team manager to have a profound impact on a riders decision making in regards to doping or not doping.

He took an unpopular decision back when I was racing with a cortisone shot in the 2001 Tour, when a bee stung me. (Legeay refused to allow Vaughters a cortisone shot that would have helped him finish the race, but would have violated anti-doping rules – Ed.), but that was consistent with his behavior. He did what was right, not necessarily what looked right, or people thought was right or what was going to pay off the most. He made ethically correct decisions and ethically driven decisions, and at that point in time that was a bit of a rarity.

In that respect he profoundly influenced the way I manage things because he showed me it was possible to do it that way, even in a highly competitive sport.

Garmin-Sharp is a team that punches above its weight in terms of the results it achieves relative to the size of the budget – which areas do you chose to dedicate your resources to?

Our resources are directed at speed and in results in big races. We recruit talent. You know we have great guys who get along well, but ultimately we look at end talent. So that is where our recruiting policies are with riders.

With staffing and with technology we focus on bikes and the fuel – so, nutrition and bikes. That is the way our budget is structured: what is essential for maximum performance, not fluff and extras. I mean, of course, would the riders like more soigneurs and more mechanics and more comfort and a big cushy bus? Of course – they’d love it. But what we have is an organization that is set up to maximize the efficiency of their results and their talent.

Don’t get me wrong, when we hit the start line in Nice for the team time trial there is no team that has a setup that is faster than ours. In terms of the bikes, the training that went into that, the information that went into selecting the team is second to none. In fact I’d say we’re absolutely the world’s best. But, when they get to the bus afterwards you know… the motor might start, or it might not… (Laughs)

In 2009 you said that climbing was your long term goal – looking at the team that you’ve got together for this year’s race, you’ve achieved that. How hard is it for teams to have long-term goals in a sport that traditionally demands everything immediately?

The business model of cycling is sponsorship revenue driven, which is not a fundamentally stable business model, which is regrettable and unfortunate as I think that is the root cause of the instability problems in cycling. At the end of the day I’ve done a lot to try to change that and pushed as hard as I can in the various areas and people that are in a decision making position to change those policies, but it hasn’t moved quite as fast as I’d like.

It is very difficult to manage everything in those circumstances but… at the end of the day when I go to bed at night I sleep well knowing that I have done everything I can to achieve that and to move those issues forward and to continue to try to move cycling into a place that has greater financial stability.

I don’t really care about financial growth because I feel like the sport has actually grown quite a bit and if it continues to grow, great. But that is not my end objective; you know, more money to pad my wallet. My end objective is that the environment is safer, healthier and more stable.

So what are the team’s long-term goals now?

If you look at short term, medium term, long term, we have riders that fill all of that. I mean if you look at our two highest producing riders this year, Andrew Talanksy and Dan Martin, they are both still young riders.

At the end of the day I think that for every manager, and for myself especially, the long-term goal is to win the Tour de France. Can that be with Dan Martin or Andrew Talansky? Well it could – I don’t know whether it will be, but it could, and we will continue to work toward that.

Could that some day be another one of our young guys we have now? Could be, absolutely. But the point is that as long as our process of selecting talent and nurturing talent is in place one of these days we are going to hit on somebody who is going to do it for us, and we are going to have the infrastructure and the teammates and the work ethic in place to support them in that.

And therein lies the real change in cycling – the fact that Vaughters talks of creating a structure that has been put in place for the long term, and can legitimately use words such as ‘stable’ and ‘healthy’, in a sport that fifteen years ago pretty much left athletes to their own devices (and as a result became a chemical arms race) is indeed a remarkable change.  It is not a change that has come about by more money or by tougher rules but that has come about by a genuine shift in attitude that will hopefully now percolate down into a generation of riders who, as a result, may well turn out to be the change that we’ve all wanted to see.

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  • christafano

    nice interview. ‘your long-term goal’ though, not ‘you’re’

    • Leo_Kent

      Good spot. We will correct that.

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