In the context of his own life, Jonathan Vaughters' (JV) sheds light on decades of doping in the peloton and the ethical dilemmas that many cyclists faced in the race to compete at the professional level. His book is a valiant effort to "lay it all out there," not only with regards to the cycling world but also with his own life including struggling to fit in as a kid, two failed marriages, and a rollercoaster business career.
Should You Read It?
If you like cycling and want to learn more about how an entire professional organization lied, cheated, and justified it to themselves. Yes. Also, if you want dirt on Lance - I can't look away, that bastard!
Why I Chose it?
I think Amazon recommended it to me. Of course when I finished it, Kindle recommended about 10 other books by ex-pro cyclists and their "tell-all" stories. It seems that being a professional cyclist has gone the way of being a Navy SEAL or Obama staffer: Let's live a rough life for 8 to 10 years and then write a book about it.
I'm pretty pumped for when books on submariners have their hay day.
What Resonated With Me.
I always wanted to believe that cyclists were clean. This book clearly explains how the cyclists I loved watching (Armstrong, Landis, Leipheimer, Hincapie, etc) subverted the doping rules and just how impossible it was (and still is) to compete at the professional level without taking banned substances (EPO, Testosterone, HGH). Pretty much everyone was in on it. I know, I should have known.
JV ends the book by defining his purpose and explaining how tragic professional cycling is in how it requires up and coming amateurs to choose between their dream and their soul:
...can see what my purpose has been the last decade. My purpose has been to do everything in my power, use every bit of knowledge and hurt, to prevent the decision between a dream and losing one’s soul to never ever be one that is confronted.
Along with his defining purpose at the end, he also reveals a diagnosis for Asperger's syndrome.
That led to another revelation as I worked through my post-divorce depression. I’m quirky. In fact, I’m diagnosably quirky. I started to explore why, and how this might be affecting my ability to stay partnered with someone. I started looking back at all the hard walls I’d bumped into over my career and how I’d had a very hard time connecting with most people. Eventually, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
I kind of wish I had this context from the beginning, but perhaps he was going for some special effect. Would I have read through a different lens? Why did he hold on to this until the end?
There is a strong tone of regret at the end of the book. He wishes he hadn't doped. Wishes he could have dedicated more time to his marriages. But he contrasts it with pride and optimism for the direction cycling is headed, the efforts he put in to bring down doping, and a love for his son with his first wife. I applaud JV for wrestling with his insecurities and displaying the human side of a professional athlete.
Here's his This Is Who I Am statement:
There are many people I need to apologize to. And yet, if I’m honest with myself, I’d probably make all the same decisions and errors all over again. Sometimes, I really do wish I was someone more empathetic, someone who made relationships work, who made marriage work. But I’m not. And that’s a hard, hard thing to think about, late at night.
👏 or 😧 ?
On the Joy of Suffering, there's just something about it. If I like it too does that mean I might have Asperger's or anger?
One by one, I started passing kids that couldn’t hang on to the back of the peloton. While they looked much better on the bike than I did and were, I’m sure, much fitter than I was, I was able to suffer—to tear my guts up just that little bit more—to hold on. Twenty minutes earlier, I didn’t even want to be there; now I was having the time of my life. And that was a new experience for me.
Being little and being picked on instilled a deep need for success, for proving people wrong, and it also fueled anger, an anger that was key to my journey of becoming a bike racer.
The years taught me that if you weren’t waking up in the dark, you weren’t really bike racing.
On the Joy of racing:
But once I caught him, I was like a kid who’d just eaten his first Pringle. I was addicted.
Loved the description of working in the bike shop with a guy who spoke his mind.
“Riding Shitmano is like fucking with a condom on, Gianni. It’s safe, it works, but it fucking sucks,” he said of the Japanese component giant.
“Gianni, that thing looks like someone took a shit in the lugs. The glue is just hanging out. I’m not touching this fucking frame, it probably has herpes.”
Just after New Year, I got my signing bonus check from Saturn in the mail, and went out and bought a rusty 1971 Porsche for $2,000. It was tricky fitting my bike inside the Porsche, but I didn’t care about that. I needed a car that expressed my personality, and clearly, a barely functioning, rusty orange Porsche was just that.
Trying to understand how teams work in cycling when it's an individual who wins the accolades. Selfishness vs. selflessness is a theme that comes up often in JV's book.
I couldn’t quite figure out what one was really supposed to do in this strange sport, where selflessness is rewarded with hugs and pats on the back, but selfishness is rewarded with contracts, success, accolades, and money. I was torn. I was competitive and wanted to win, to succeed and move forward with my career, but I also wanted to be liked by others in a way I never did at high school.
Well, that depended on who you spoke to after the race. There was no black or white because cycling was a sport that lived in the gray; selfishness and lying were rewarded, but so were selflessness and sacrifice. Experienced riders and coaches taught both behaviors, with no thought to how contradictory they were. Perceptions of “good” or “bad” behavior depended on circumstances and, also, who the judges were. There was one truth that I did learn, though—if you did either half-assed it was sure to end badly.
Drugs and Biology in Cycling. These passages helped me understand some things about doping.
These guys had never seen me do a single bike race; they had not even seen a single mile of me training on the open road. Yet I was being offered a pro contract based on my left ventricle and my hemogolobina. I quickly signed and so began a round of meetings with coaches, directors, and doctors.
This passage was before he started doping and worked with a coach on team Santa Clara who was anti-doping.
I also made it my business to study endocrinology, just to get a basic idea of exactly what all of this medical talk really meant. By this time enough people had been honest with me to ensure that I knew that the three big doping products used were EPO, growth hormone, and testosterone. I wanted to see what the side effects were and if there was a way to avoid the pressure to take them. Was there a way your body could achieve the same outcome, naturally? I educated myself. Learning about luteinizing hormone, thyroid, cortisol, erythropoietin or EPO, human growth hormone—HGH—and all the pituitary or hypothalamic releasing factors that went along with them—really fascinated me. It appealed to my constant desire to learn.
👑 It seems that to be a cyclist you also needed to have a deep education in endocrinology! EPO was king
It was clear that EPO was the only way to succeed, or even to survive. Unlike previous forms of doping—cortisone, testosterone, amphetamines, whatever—EPO was a serious game changer. It wasn’t the difference between first and second place, it was the different between first and last.
🙈 Oh, so it WAS that bad!
Unless a rider was a first-year professional, by 1996, if you raced a Grand Tour, you were almost certain to be using EPO.
Instead of injecting the EPO subcutaneously and in standard doses, you had to inject it intravenously and in a very precise and low dose, or micro-dose. If you injected 10 IU per kilogram that would ensure it was undetectable after twelve hours.
Humans are experts at self-justification. Here's an example:
So instead of feeling guilty about injecting myself, I felt empowered. I felt like I was finally doing something to give myself a chance. I was fighting back, not just letting myself get pushed into a corner. I was feeling the same anger I’d seen in Lance the year before. My career as a pro cyclist was close to being stolen from me by all these dopers.
I realized that the unwritten rule of the peloton was “cheat, just not too much.”
🧬 The Chemicals Made Me This Way! 🧪
“Viva la quimica!” he bellowed. “Estoy tan fuerte o la quimica me ha hecho asi?! Ha! Viva la quimica!” “Long live chemistry! Am I really this strong or did the chemicals make me this way!?”
🤷♂️ How a naturally high hematocrit actually became a disadvantage in the world of doping.
But, because of the UCI’s 50 percent limit, he said I would not really be able to dope at all. Maybe I could take a little testosterone or growth hormone, but no EPO, as I was already so close to the threshold. This wasn’t good news. You could take enough growth hormone and testosterone to kill an elephant and it wouldn’t make you ride that much faster, but the impact of EPO was different, very different. My natural level meant that even on EPO, due to the 50 percent limit, I wouldn’t have much margin for improvement. Guys with a 40 percent hematocrit could take much higher doses of EPO, and thus improve their performance a lot. I hadn’t really thought about a naturally high hematocrit as a disadvantage until that moment, but it was clear by the look on Pedro’s face that this was a problem.
Capturing a life moment
As I stopped at a red light, just a few blocks from my house, the flip-flops I was wearing slipped on the greasy wet road, and I fell off my bike at the intersection. As I fell, the backpack popped open and syringes and vials of EPO went rolling all over the crossing. I scrambled to my feet and frantically started picking up all my gear. As it turns out, EPO vials really can roll quite some distance on wet asphalt, but luckily a kind old lady walking home from the supermarket stopped and helped me pick up all my drugs off the street. I thanked her profusely and rode off. It was a banner moment in my life, no doubt.
🤡 Cycling as a puppet show because drugs.
Yet when I stepped up on the top step of that podium, I didn’t feel joy. Yes, I felt relief—relief that Johan and Lance might be less upset with me now—and I felt some pride in the efforts I’d made that day, in the execution of the ride, but there was another almost overwhelming emotion that hit me out of nowhere. This is a joke, I thought, as I waved and smiled while clutching the winner’s bouquet. I’d spent fifteen years of my life, fifteen years of sweat and sacrifice, singularly focused on getting to that moment, and now all I could think was that it was a joke. I now knew, with absolute certainty, that even if you had the talent and were willing to work hard, you still had to take enough drugs to make it all work. It was like seeing the strings in a puppet show for the first time. The magic was gone.
Training passages. Who doesn't love a training montage?
Reverse periodization, lactate threshold, lipid mobilization—we used all of these terms and they were integral to our training efforts. Van Diemen was very focused on five-minute power outputs, so I threw myself into these flat-out, lung-screaming, painful intervals. All the traditionalists in Colorado thought I’d be burned out by Christmas. Van Diemen assured me otherwise. The other big point van Diemen drove home was high pedaling frequency. This was exactly contrary to what all of the European pros I’d trained with were doing. They would push a slightly oversized gear all day long at around seventy-five revolutions per minute. The idea was that turning over the big gear would build up your leg strength. Van Diemen thought this was ridiculous, and said we needed to optimize oxygen uptake and venous oxygen delivery by constantly practicing high pedaling frequency. This was some five years before Lance Armstrong started using this very method with Michele Ferrari. It’s no exaggeration to say that van Diemen was way ahead of his time in all aspects of training.
The next passage spoke to me a lot on how much harder real life is than college was. 🤣
And compared to cycling, school was easy. So easy. No, I wasn’t suddenly smarter than before, but I’d been given a brutal lesson in what it felt like to do something really hard. I’d gone from doing the minimum needed to pass a class, to feeling guilty if I got anything less than an A+. Now I knew what hard work really meant.
When Wiggins was focusing on the track, his primary interest was his ability to produce power for the four minutes of a pursuit, and intensely, for the first twenty seconds of getting up to speed. This effort required a massive ability to produce torque, which meant more muscle was going to be an advantage, and since the track is flat, gravity plays no part and extra weight is not a penalty. But on the road, extra muscle—and when climbing, extra bulk—is a huge penalty, and since the efforts on the road are so much longer, the torque needed is much lower. The key to producing power for twenty seconds is muscle mass—the more the better—but the key to producing power for twenty minutes has very little to do with muscle mass but instead relies on how well a rider’s body can supply muscles with oxygen. You can be skinny as a starving rat and produce tons of power for twenty minutes, as long as you have a heart big enough to pump the blood to the muscles.
💵 The Business of Cycling. 🍌
We made a bet that the world, cycling fans, sponsors, would prefer the little brown organic banana over the big beautiful yellow (but chemically enhanced) one. We were going to become “team little brown banana.”
💰 Cycling as a broadway show because of how goofy the funding is.
Cycling was the equivalent of a Broadway show where the actors didn’t get paid, and where only the theater collected money from the audience. So the actors hijacked the show by wearing shirts that had advertisers’ names on them, and got paid that way. Everyone was pissed off at each other all the time, the stage costumes looked really dumb, and little by little other forms of entertainment became more popular.
A bit of a rough Personal Life for JV, and cyclists in general.
Cyclists do live monastic lives—without actually having agreed to being monks and without the celibacy. When someone of the opposite sex comes along that takes an interest, it has a big impact. A steady partner or a spouse doesn’t require you to socialize or go to college parties. Spouses are there for you, even when you go to bed at nine every night and are too exhausted to brush your teeth. Riders, I think, get married early in their lives because it provides an emotional foundation for trying to take on the immense goal of actually succeeding in this brutal, ruthless, and grueling sport. The tricky part, though, is staying married. I’ve had two divorces, both very painful.
I took our son to Disneyland for a week while she moved out of the house.
Emotionally, I felt like a simmering volcano, as the outlet I once had put so much energy into was now gone. Once I was living back at home in the U.S., Alisa tiptoed around me wondering what had happened to the calm—read: sedated by excessive exercise—man she had once known.
Gave me pleasure to read "sedated by exercise" for whatever reason. Exercise is a drug too no? An addiction?