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Jonathan Vaughters Interview: Part 1: ‘Burns, Fans, Journalists, French Teams

Posted by bikezilla on June 3, 2011


Part 1, Part 2, Postscript

This is Part 1 of my interview with Jonathan Vaughters, the greatest societal menace since Jack the Ripper.

From May 26, 2011

Bikezilla:

What’s the status of the Shave the Burns Fund, because I know a lot of people would like to see those go.

Jonathan Vaughters:

(Laughing) “I tried to get some kind of little thermometer graphics on the website. Our web designer rolled his eyes and kind of grumbled off.

But last I heard we were around 3 or 4 thousand dollars away. It went really fast initially and then kind of slowed down. I guess one of these days I need to reinvigorate the campaign to get us over the edge.”

Bz:

What specifically are those funds going to be used for?

JV:

“It’s just travel funds for the U23 team.

The U23 team and the Continental team, it’s a little different from the Pro team the way we run the budget. The way we run the budget is the guys just go to race, go to races, go to races. Then all of a sudden some time in August or thereabouts they run out of money and that’s it.

This year they got an invitation to do the Tour of Purtugal, which is in August.

I figured, wah, it’s a little expensive. It’s almost a two week stage race and a little bit more of an undertaking than we typically deal with on the Conti team. So I figured, let’s see if we can raise the funds to send the guys there; Plane tickets, rooms, food and gas.

That’s pretty much it. It’s kind of an X factor in Continental team budget.

You can’t run a Pro team until it runs out of money. But with a Continental team you can as long as you continue to pay your staff and whatnot. But the travel funds . . . you hope to get a little more if you can, to help run the season a little bit longer.”

Bz: How do you split your time running two cycling teams?

JV:

“I don’t really run the Continental team. I oversee it. I fund raise for it. I’m the rah-rah guy.

Chan McRae runs the program. I help him out a little bit here and there. He runs it, I go and try to find money so he can run the program.”

Bz:

In a 2005 CyclingNews interview you said:

“A poker face is perhaps the greatest asset of a director.” 

You extend that to your dealings with fans and detractors. In fact I’ve seen it commented that you’re nearly unflappable.  Paul Kimmage said, “His calm is unnerving.”. 

When you speak in a public forum, you’re pretty good at maintaining that, even when you’re being heckled and badgered.

But your answers are very careful and often very general.

JV:

“I keep it under the surface, that’s for sure.

If the riders on a team feel that you’re stressed out about something, then they’re going to get stressed out and they’ll perform at a lower level. So it’s important to always be, just dead calm and make decisions the best way you can.

I’m actually, underneath it all, a pretty emotionally fired up person. But, I always do my best to make sure that that fire and that passion gets directed in a very long term and positive way. And it isn’t just unleashed in a fury that isn’t necessarily productive and doesn’t really accomplish what I want.

So, it’s a real discipline to, when you get fired up about something, to keep it calm and say, ‘Ok, I want this to change, and the way for me to make it change is X, Y and Z. That’s gonna take longer than me just screaming and yelling for the next ten minutes.’”

Bz:

I’ve noticed that the times you really seemed to get riled publicly, are the times that something is centered on one of your riders.

JV:

“Yeah, it’s usually not about me. I’m very defensive about my riders, that’s for sure. That’ll upset me.”

Bz:

You take it very personally. Almost like they’re family members instead of merely employees.

JV:

“Yes. Absolutely.

“More than anything else, when I read stuff that just is not a correct account, or it just doesn’t show a certain deep understanding of the situation, I sometimes get upset about (fans and media – Bikezilla) jumping to conclusions.

“Most of the time I keep my little Paul Kimmage Zen-like facade.”

Bz:

Except for the last couple of weeks, when you speak to the public you’re pretty good at maintaining that, even when you’re heckled and badgered.

JV:

“Most of the time if you actually want people to hear you, you can’t start yelling at them. If you’re yelling at someone, occasionally you do have to take it up that notch, but most of the time that means you’ve already lost the battle.”

Bz:

But while you talk to a lot of people on all different levels of and connection to cycling, you don’t reveal very much. 

It seems that your major focus is not to disseminate information, but to put out fires, to manage public opinion, to calm shrieking, angry fans. You invest significant time and effort toward that, and you’re very good at it.. But why is that effort important to you when you have so much else going on?

JV:

“More than anything else I think I try to make sure people have a correct perspective.

A lot of times, just shooting out information, that UCI list that was leaked is a great example, that information was not in context. So you’re right, I never give out information that’s not in context. Because not everyone is going to have enough perspective to make heads or tails of it.

People jump to conclusions and they make assumptions, and I don’t like that. So, you’re right, I’m more focused on getting their perspective correct than I am in disseminating information.”

Bz:

You’re more available and available to a larger cross-section of people than any of your peers. It’s not just journalists, but even schmo fans – like me. It’s unprecedented.

JV:

“There’s an importance to that. I feel like right now cycling is at a real crux moment, and people are either going to understand everything that’s transpired in the last 20 years and understand how it can go forward, or they’re not and they going to come to the wrong conclusions and be destructive about it.

The way I see it is, if the core has a good, positive way forward, you have to have as many knowledgeable fans, people who really do understand the ins and outs as possible.

So if you understand a little bit better than your mom or your grandpa, or your Uncle Willy or whoever, for instance the issues of the past couple weeks, when they say, ‘Aw, this sport that you like, Tom, everyone is a crook in it and what the hell is this?’, then you can say, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. Actually, X, Y and Z.” And you can explain it to them.

And at that point and time maybe you can do that with five people, so the way it multiplies is huge, and eventually your broader public understands everything a little bit better than just what gets blasted out to them.

I go on the theory that an educated consumer is my best friend.”

Bz:

So even though you have yourself spread far and wide throughout professional cycling, talking to fans and bloggers and whatnot is an investment you make. You’re not just doing it for fun, there’s a purpose behind it.

JV:

“Absolutely. It’s not a strategy, per se. I’ve been accused of that, ‘Oh, there’s a specific PR strategy.’ But not really. If you read my Twitter feed you’ll find it’s not that specific a strategy.

I just figure, like I said, an educated consumer really is my best friend. I feel that that’s important.

I like reading comments when I see people really understand the sport.

In places like in Belgium, in Flanders, people really understand the sport.

But the Anglo-Saxon body of cycling fans, well, there’s been a huge influx of cycling fans since about 2000 . A lot of them came into the sport watching Lance (Armstrong) win the Tour de France.

Watching Lance win the Tour is, nine guys go to the front, they throttle it on every hill and the race is won and that’s that.

Where as now they’re watching races like Paris – Roubaix and the tactics are really complicated. And there’s multiple really complicated things going on in the sport.

So you have the huge body of fans that really looove the sport, and they want to understand it, but they didn’t grow up with these highly nuanced races. They grew up with, “This guy (Lance) kicked ass and isn’t that awesome. So, now they’re being forced to look at the sport in a very highly nuanced way, and I think it causes confusion, a little bit of anger. People don’t always like it.

I figure, the more people you can get to understand what’s really going on, the better. Because then they’re going to stick around a little bit more. They won’t feel alienated by all this stuff going on, all these tangential items.”

Bz:

Compared to sports like American football or baseball, cycling has a lot more going on, a lot more to learn, a lot more to know.

NFL football, for instance, in some ways it’s made to be easier to follow.. You have a team, that team is linked to a certain city, it’s there for decades, the players have constant numbers, the numbers represent certain positions.

Cycling doesn’t have any of that. You can’t count on a sponsor, and so a team, being around for more than 2, 3 maybe 5 years if you’re lucky.

JV:

“I just did an interview with Flammecast where I was explaining that people need to understand that cycling is a team oriented sport and come to be fans of teams as opposed to individuals, and that actually benefits the athletes as much as it benefits the team.

“Sponsors want long term fan appreciation, they want the fans to be aware of them, they want long term fan loyalty. In order to get long term fan loyalty to a team, as opposed to an individual, the sport first has to be perceived as a team sport.

“If you’re a Fabian Cancellara fan and he goes around to three or four different teams, you’ll just be a fan of whatever team he goes to. Conversely, if you’re a Saxo Bank fan or a Leopard fan, then its irrelevant where Fabian Cancellara is going, what’s important is that you’re a supporter of that team.

“I think cycling has to get there if it wants financial stability.

“You’re absolutely right (about sponsorship duration – Bikzilla), but how do you get sponsors to stick around longer? Because I can tell you that none of us are pushing the sponsors away. We want the sponsors to stick around longer. But, the only way you make sure they stay for a long time is if you have fans that are like, ‘Listen, I’m a Garmin fan, dammit, and I’m always gonna be a Garmin fan and I’m always gonna buy Garmin products.” and you get that fan loyalty going. Then all of a sudden sponsors will be around for ten or twenty years.”

Bz:

In your CN blog, “Connecting the Dots” you talk about internet pundits, bloggers, twiterati, you say:

 “It’s not a winnable battle. If you withhold information, you’re hiding something, if you make information public; it’s picked through and placed out of context unfairly by people who aren’t experts on the topic. At times I think it’s not only an unwinnable battle, but an unwinnable war. Twitter becomes my Waterloo.”

““Unfair” “unjust” “unfounded” all seem to be at the tip of my thoughts every day. And “poor me” slowly leaks its way into my being. I was being picked on by gossip bullies! These evil purveyors of internet untruths are clearly not sentient beings, but indeed sub human, downright demonic rumor spreaders. I, instead, see myself separate as a knight armed with ethical objectivity and logical thought, who was being tarnished by such misguided vigil-antism. Clearly.”

And, of course, you’re right, people on the internet seem to be a lot harder on you than cycling’s “real journalists”. On the other hand, shouldn’t it be those “real journalists” asking you the questions you get from bloggers and twiterati? Shouldn’t those “real journalists” be doing the badgering, the accusing? And if they did, wouldn’t that pretty handily take the wind out of internet pundits’ sails?

JV:

“Yeah. That’s because the difference is, with real journalists I sit down in my living-room with them and I talk to them. They get to know me as a person.

At 140 characters at a time you’re never going to get to know me. All I am is this distance talking head.

Journalists know that I’ve got a dog and a back yard and a little kid. It’s a totally different interaction.

With a journalist you can convey what you’re trying to say and you can get them to basically say, ‘shit, I believe you, I like this, I buy into it.’ And then they write in the tone of what they feel about the person they sat down with. They see me as a human being.

There’s no way I’m going to be able to sit down with a hundred thousand bloggers.

My thought before was try to communicate through the journalists, because you can convey who you actually are to them and then let them put it forward.

I still believe that’s a good way to go about it. But, then I’ve also been interested, ‘You know, maybe I need to try better to convey who I am through the broader social media.

I don’t know. It’s much more difficult. It’s just hard.

People just don’t always see me as human. They see me as a talking head. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Bz:

I think that part of what people get frustrated with, is that they’ll read an article and there’s a question or an inconsistency that should have been followed up, but no one asks anything, they don’t say a word.

JV:

“Right. You know, a lot of the time . . . well, like that interview I did with Paul Kimmage.

Paul Kimmage sat in my living-room and got very upset with me and said, “Why won’t you answer this question?’ And he had every right to be (upset).

I told him, ‘I understand why you’re asking the question, to be frank I’m not going to answer that. You have the right to, and I understand why and it’s a totally acceptable question. But, I’m just not gonna go there right now.’

So, a lot of times I think people get frustrated with those interviews thinking that the question hasn’t been breached, but that’s not necessarily the case.

A lot of times, just like with Paul Kimmage, I just don’t answer it.”

Bz:

So a journalist may have asked a question, but because they don’t include your non-answer in the write up it may seem that they haven’t pursued something when they have?

JV:

“Obviously people are very curious about my 1999 past with U.S. Postal, but the fact of the matter is, that has nothing to do with Slipstream Sports.”

Bz:

The perception that the “real journalists” are not badgering, accusing, following up or asking questions is not always accurate?

JV:

“No, it is not always accurate. But, you know, they can’t force an answer out of you.

Most of the journalists in cycling are pretty hard-hitting.”

Bz:

French teams, who have the largest representation in the professional, elite level peloton, don’t perform to the level of their numbers. You’ve said that you believe French teams struggle because they’re cleaner. The recently leaked “secret list” would seem to confirm that. 

JV:

“You have to remember that the numbers on that list had a performance component, too. There was a performance component, and an unexpected performance component, and a when your most recent test was component AND the blood component. So, if you have a very low performing rider AND you have a very flat-line blood value, you’re going to be a zero.

David Millar is the best example; he’s a four (on the list – Bikezilla). David Millar has very, very stable blood values. Why is he a four? David is a four because David has a previous doping infraction. So, he’s always going to be targeted. And I’ve always been told that, from the beginning; ‘This rider will always be targeted no matter what.’

Ok, well that’s fair. I don’t see a problem with that.

I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think that less necessarily is totally reflected.

Did French cycling take very strong steps to clean up its own act well in advance of it becoming popular on a broader scale?

Yes. Absolutely, they did.

Does that account for all of the performance discrepancies between French teams and other teams? No. Absolutely not.

I think there are a number of factors at play in French teams.

One is, I’m an American team, how many Americans do I have on my team?

There’s also a component of, they have a lot of teams and they have the Tour de France in their home country.

You said it’s the largest component the Tour de France peloton. Yeah, you’re right, it is. So, it’s a little bit easier if you’re a good French rider to get on a team, than it is if you’re a good American rider or you’re a good Australian rider.

A lot of your Americans and Australians and other countries, they have to fight, they have to claw tooth and nail to get a contract.

So the winning and athletic level tends to be a little bit higher (on non-French teams – Bikezilla). Go to the U23 ranks, go to the Junior ranks. Who’s winning World time trail championships? Who’s winning World road championships? It’s Americans, it’s Australians, it’s British. It has not been French for a little while. With the exception recently of Romain Sicard winning the Tour de L’Avenir (2009 – Bikezilla) and Jerome Coppel doing well in the World Championships (U23 Time Trial: Bronze 2006 & 2007 – Bikezilla) a few years back.

So, my point is, you cannot draw the conclusion that it’s totally because these teams are doped and these teams aren’t. That’s taking certain data points and taking them out of context and not putting other data points in the equation.

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