I like Jonathan Vaughters. I like how he dresses and I liked his oddly sharp sideburns back in the day. In my head I think he would be engaging company. I think I project certain things onto him, that somehow I imagine him to be quirky, cool, and committed to making things work in a different way. He’s the indie music fan’s DS of choice. I reckon he listens to the National, which I can overlook for now because lots of other interesting people have a bizarre affection for this most boring of bands. I’m sure he’d like other stuff, like early REM or perhaps Deerhunter. Maybe not. Maybe he loves Counting Crows. I doubt it though.
It’s a book about bike racing, so it appeals straight away. However, I was also drawn to the complex sponsorship issues which threatened to unstitch his cycling team at various times. Lastly, there is the Lance thing. He’s an American cyclist who grew up in the same peer group, rode the same junior races and ended up at US Postal for a time. He was a protagonist in the rise and fall of Armstrong, a walking shadow; who fretted his hour upon the stage, and appears in the narrative of The Reasoned Decision.
All of which meant I was very excited when Quercus sent me a copy of his new book. I put aside my other bedtime reading and pretty much ripped through it in a day or so. It’s an easy read – as most cycling books are, and the chronology means you’re always reaching forwards to race to the bits you know, the USPS stuff, Bassons, Wiggins, what happened with Millar, the sponsorship sagas. Which is a shame, because these aren’t the best bits in the book. The writing is linear, conversational and straightforward, meaning this book lives or dies on the strength of the anecdote.
The first third or so is a classic tale, part American Flyers, part Breaking Away. It taps into the mythology of cycling in the US, the open spaces, huge journeys between races and sense of geographical and cultural dislocation from cycling in Europe, leading to an inferiority complex. It shows Vaughters’ determination and desire to win, even when losing heavily. All the key protagonists are there, from the Dad with his words of wisdom; “if you start something you damn well finish it…“, to the bike shop owner dispensing sage advice and fancy kit. Gradually the narrative shifts, as other key people emerge; Hincapie especially, but then Lance.
The second bit amplifies the first section, this time on the bigger canvas of continental cycling, with Vaughters, by now accustomed to winning, having to get used to losing all over again, yo-yoing off the back with Greg Lemond, wandering what the fuck was happening and experiencing a pervasive sense of disillusionment. The descent into PEDs is framed in the same way as other accounts, well, the more open of them. A sense of right and wrong being eroded, with noble choices being punished, and of institutional practices which carry a weight far greater than the individual, with a few notable exceptions. By 1997 Vaughters had cracked; “give me the damned chemicals, doctor, give me all of them.”
He got quicker, he took more drugs. He felt empty when winning but felt that it was the same for everyone; “We all knew what we were up to at the time… We were all just flawed humans trying to make the best of a short life.” He’s right, and there isn’t any point in throwing cant at the wall in the hope that some of it might stick. If, by some quirk of madness I had ridden in the peloton in the late 1990s I don’t doubt for one second that I would have ended up in a similar position. The pressure to take PEDs, the normalisation of the process, the lack of an alternative at that time, all point towards an endemic and systematic problem.
The book doesn’t break new ground in this respect. It flags up the issues. It summarises the difficulties. It does it with candour. However, it also does it from a resolutely singular perspective. In the middle third the book shifts away from straightforward PED-memoir, into a bit of score-settling. The reader is left in no doubt of Vaughter’s role in the ‘Reasoned Decision’ case, the interviews and contributions made to tackling the mess. It’s intertwined with lots of bad blood (no pun intended) between him and Armstrong which is never fully resolved. We find that Vaughters really doesn’t like David Millar; “…I never felt he was interested in what was best for the team, but what was best for David. However, I’m a forgiving guy and David was a damned talented rider, so we didn’t leave him out in the cold due to his turncoat ways“. He sticks the boot in a couple more times. He doesn’t like Wiggins, and devotes a whole chapter to the Brad-Sky debacle, “the child was once again throwing his toys out of the pram.” Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t like Brailsford either. There is a sense of someone who holds a grudge, often with good reason, but holds a grudge nonetheless. Some of the comments still seem sharp, even after some years. They also get a lot of words, at a point when as a reader and cycling fan I was looking forward to some joyous stories from the team car, watching Dan Martin being chased by a giant panda as he takes home a monument. Some of these are conspicuous by their absence.
The final third is devoted to the sponsorship wrangles. It’s mostly an illuminating insight, covering the current model of funding and the difficulties this causes. As with the first section, I felt admiration for Vaughters, his drive and determination. I admire him because he sticks at things. He is still there, celebrating with his riders, bringing on new ones, having faith in neo-pros, seeking to chip away at the edifice and do things his way. There is something to be said for those attributes, maybe because I feel I don’t have them.
Perhaps the most telling – and therefore bizarrely late – bit of the book is his reference to his diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. It adds an important element of context; the obsession, the failure to forgive, the determination to do one thing to the exclusion of others, and at times – the lack of empathy or awareness of social causation, but it comes so late in the book as to be almost irrelevant. Maybe this is an editorial decision, I don’t know. For me, it’s vital, and a real missed opportunity.
I liked this book in the same way I liked The Secret Race, or Racing through the Dark, or any other story of second chances. It’s not The Rider (nothing ever is) and it’s not in the top echelon of cycling autobiographies (think Fignon), but it is a story worth reading. It’s a shame the prism of Asperger’s isn’t mentioned earlier; it’s a significant part of the story, and a significant part of Vaughters. It makes him more sympathetic and his decisions, quirks and grudges more understandable.