Cycling Legend Jonathan Vaughters on Taking the Sport Into the Future

His memoir “One-Way Ticket: Nine Lives on Two Wheels” is out now

September 11, 2019 6:00 am
Jonathan Vaughters
Jonathan Vaughters in 2008, at the Paris - Nice cycling race.
Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Jonathan Vaughters has seen the sport of cycling from a lot of angles. During his years as a professional cyclist, including a stint on the U.S. Postal Service team in 1998 and 1999, he was a winner at the Route du Sud and Duo Normand before retiring from competing in 2003. Not long after that, he helped found what is now the EF Education First Pro Cycling team, which has put up impressive results in races around the world since it began in 2006.

Vaughters is also a leading advocate for keeping doping out of the sport — something that’s led him to  draw on his own experiences with performance-enhancing substances in competition. EF Education First maintains a strict policy against doping — but also asks riders to be candid about their own past use. Now Vaughters has written a memoir, One-Way Ticket: Nine Lives on Two Wheels, in which he writes about his long history with cycling, his recent diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and his friendships and rivalries with some of the biggest names in the sport. 

What makes it most interesting is his exploration of the period after his competitive days: much of One-Way Ticket is also designed to help younger cyclists avoid the mistakes that Vaughters made early in his own career.

“In professional sports, it’s gotta be that we’re fair no matter how hard the consequences are when somebody falls afoul of those rules,” Vaughters tells InsideHook. “From a mentorship perspective, people who are sort of the responsible adults in the room, who’ve been through it, need to really impart that knowledge on these competitive athletes.”

When he says this, he’s speaking from experience. “Because my 25-year old self did not have the decision making ability that my 45- or 46-year old self has,” he says. “I would have made those same mistakes at 25, those hyper-competitive, ‘I don’t care what the risk is, I’m just going to do it’ [mistakes]. I didn’t have a mentorship figure sitting by me saying, ‘Whoa, slow down, let’s think this through.’”

Cycling abounds with contradictions, and one of the most compelling aspects of One-Way Ticket is how Vaughters delineates them. He calls cycling “the only sport in the world where teamwork is completely imperative to win a race, and an individual is the one who wins.” Now that he’s in a management role in the sport, he refers to the process as “almost like a social experiment.”

But the balance is one that’s difficult for cyclists and management both, as he explains. “You have to have people that are entirely selfless and then you have to have more people that have the mentality that are more selfish,” he says. “They serve different roles on the team, and it’s a tough balance. How do you convince really ambitious professional athletes to give up all of their chances of winning a race to help somebody else do it? That is where the magic is in managing professional cycling.”

In his memoir, Vaughters writes about his own experiences as a young cyclist making his way through the mountains of Colorado. Did that environment prepare him especially well for his career? Vaughters argues that a local community makes much more of a difference than the specifics of the local terrain.

“The places that the best racers come from are the places where the racing and cycling community is the strongest,” he explains. “Therefore the racers, when they’re really young, are the most competitive. And so in order for them to flourish, they have to be really good.”

The two countries that he goes on to cite — Belgium and Colombia — have both produced amazing cyclists, but have very different geographies. For Vaughters, however, the local scenes there are strong, and that’s what makes a difference.  

“Cycling, for the last 15 years or so, has been the most popular sport in Colombia and because of that, so many 10- [to] 12- year old kids want to be professional cyclists,” he says. “And because of that groundswell of grassroots sinterest, they’ve produced the best riders in the world. You look right now and a lot of the talent in professional cycling are from Colombia.”

“Every kid grows up wanting to be a professional cyclist,” he adds. “When you’ve got that many kids wanting to do that, the base of the pyramid, if you will, is a lot broader. The pinnacle becomes a lot higher.”

Jonathan Vaughters (PASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

The contradictions between cycling’s history and its fast-paced growth are not lost on Vaughters. “It’s a very traditional sport. It’s a 120-year old sport. So that’s good, but that’s also somewhat limiting, too,” he explains. 

“A lot of people think you need to totally reinvent it and make the races really short and action-packed so you can just boil it down to 10 minute clips on TV or whatever. I think that takes away from the epic nature of it,” he says. “There is something about doing 170-mile races day after day that captures the imagination of the fans. But it does have to evolve. And it’s got to evolve from the way it’s put out there in an entertainment perspective, the way it’s managed.”

When Vaughters looks at the world of professional cycling now, he sees one in which massive investments have altered its shape. In One-Way Ticket, he refers to a massive growth spurt between 2010 and 2017. “The sport [is] being pushed by massive amounts of money coming into it,” he says. “For teams like ours that are backed by sponsors like EF Education First, we’re going to have to continue to be creative to keep up with that push of money from places that have a lot more than we do.”

Late in One-Way Ticket, Vaughters refers to the struggles many professional cyclists face as their racing days draw to a close. “With EF Education First, we’re trying to implement some stuff where we help our athletes transition out,” he explains. “They’re in such high intensity roles that when they retire, we need to put them in other high intensity roles. It might not be as high-profile but it needs to be something that’s fairly fast moving because that’s where they’re going to excel and that’s what’s going to keep them out of trouble.”

(Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)
Corbis via Getty Images

Vaughters makes a compelling case for cycling in his memoir — but it’s not just of the competitive variety. It’s hard to read his passages about the joys of propelling yourself across scenic landscapes without seriously considering following his lead. And cycling has a very compelling advocate in Jonathan Vaughters. 

“Cycling is such a beautiful thing just from an activity sport perspective,” he says. “It’s carbon-neutral and it reduces traffic and it’s healthy and it’s exercise. I mean, imagine what cities would be like if 50% of people driving cars decided to ride a bike in their five mile commute to work.”

And when Vaughters makes the case for cycling — not competitively, but simply riding for the sake of riding — he can sound almost utopian. “Health problems would dissipate and our traffic congestion would go down. People would be happier at work,” he says. “And so it’s got a real place in the future of this world. In the next ten years, it’s just a matter of us pushing through this moment where those transitions to utopic cities where people are riding bikes around, that hasn’t happened yet.”

Even though Vaughters’s days of competitive cycling are over, riding remains a central part of his life. “I still ride two or three times a week,” he says.” I love it. I love just being outdoors and going fast around corners and ripping through traffic. It’s exercise, and a release and an opportunity to be outside.”

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