Team Slipstream Cycling
My roommate, David Millar, was telling me how easy it had been to become one of the most famous ex-dopers in cycling. We were having a beer this past February in a crowded sushi bar in downtown Santa Clarita, and he had to speak loudly. Many of the patrons had watched the exciting finish of Stage 6 of the Tour of California that afternoon, and they were in a festive mood. Some recognized Millar—perhaps because he'd nearly won the stage and was in second place overall, or perhaps because he's one of the defining cyclists of the modern era, both for what he did in the past and what he's doing today. "I know I have a responsibility," Millar told me, taking a sip of his Kirin. "I have to tell my story."
A year and a half into his return from a two-year suspension for using the blood booster EPO, Millar is racing for what may be the cleanest team in cycling, U.S.-based Slipstream/Chipotle. As a new team, Slipstream holds only a second-tier Pro Continental racing license, yet the squad has earned worldwide praise—and an invitation to the Tour de France, starting July 5 in Brest—for its bullheaded determination to race without drugs.
"Cycling has lost a lot of credibility," Jonathan Vaughters, Slipstream's general manager and the architect of its revolutionary drug-testing program, told me between stages in California. "To rebuild, it needs to be 100 percent transparent." To that end, Vaughters had taken the dramatic step of inviting a journalist along for the Tour of California. Not just to ride in the team cars but to eat with the riders, sit in on meetings, watch the drug tests, and sleep in the same room as the team's captain. All he'd asked in return: Get a flu shot and don't snore. At my first dinner with the team, Chann McRae, a former pro and now Vaughters's second in command, had told me, "No one has done what you're doing. I mean no one."
So, every night, after Millar and his seven teammates raced against some of the world's best teams, after they got their massages and mounds of pasta, he and I would retire to the local Hyatt in towns like Solvang and San Luis Obispo. Sometimes we would watch TV, other times we would listen to music and talk. Millar, 31, is not a stereotypical jock. He's tall and lanky; Scottish by nationality and accent, though born in Malta and raised in Hong Kong; and he's as comfortable talking about the Sneaky Sound System (an Australian dance band) or his favorite Cormac McCarthy novel (Blood Meridian) as he is about cycling. His—our—door was always open, and other cyclists stopped by to chat or just hang out. It certainly wasn't like the old days, my roomie told me.
"You wouldn't know what your teammates were doing behind closed doors," he said, recalling his early years as a pro. "There were doctors going between rooms, bags of medical waste being taken out, soigneurs [team assistants] dropping off ice each night to put inside flasks and keep vials of EPO cold. Syringes were sitting out."
After dropping out of the 2001 Tour de France because of exhaustion, Millar—a gifted rider who had already won six races that year clean and had worn yellow in his first Tour—gave in and started taking synthetic EPO, a hormone that boosts the production of red blood cells. "I was too tired to fight it anymore," he told me. "It was time to dope. I thought, No one cares. I could get away with it, and it would guarantee results. Doping was easy."
Millar used EPO during three different periods between 2001 and 2004. He was conservative with his doses, always stopping them 12 days before any race, including the 2003 World Time Trial Championship (a title he won and was later stripped of). That was standard strategy for passing the screenings. There wasn't a practical test for EPO until 2006. So, back then, the best authorities could do was measure a rider's hematocrit level—the percentage of red cells in the blood—and it was easy enough to manipulate that by timing your injections carefully. Millar got caught only because French police, searching his apartment as part of a broader investigation into doping by members of his team, Cofidis, found two bloody, EPO-contaminated syringes. Millar was eventually cleared of any criminal charges in France, but his two-year racing ban was, at the time, the longest in cycling history.
"I spent the first six months drunk," he told me. "I didn't care if I came back. But then I started to realize that cycling was the only thing I was really good at. As a teen, I'd been so focused, ethical, driven. Now that was all destroyed. By losing it, I realized the thing I loved the most was cycling."
Millar started training again in 2005, determined to race clean, and signed with the Spanish team Saunier Duval. He resumed racing in the summer of 2006 and quickly became the go-to ex-doper for journalists. When he learned, during a press conference at last year's Tour de France, that pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov had tested positive for blood doping, he blurted, "Jesus Christ. There you go, that's my quote." Then he broke into tears.
He wasn't the only one. Both casual and diehard fans have been giving up on the sport after watching decades of scandals and fallen heroes. Last year, after Vinokourov and presumptive winner Michael Rasmussen were bounced from the Tour—the latter after it was suggested that he had misled cycling authorities about his whereabouts in the weeks leading up to the race—the French newspaper France Soir proclaimed, "The Tour is clinically dead."
Slipstream is trying to do its part to resuscitate it. "Doping has to stop, and everyone has to prove it's stopped, or we won't have races like this anymore," Vaughters told me as we followed the peloton during Stage 6. "The sport won't survive."
Now all he and his riders have to do is convince the rest of the cycling world.
VAUGHTERS HAD a good but not great pro cycling career for ten years, racing with Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team in 1998 and 1999 and competing in, but never finishing, four Tours de France (two crashes, one wasp sting, and one case of exhaustion). He retired from racing in 2003, at just 30. "I'd had enough of it," he said. "The doping, being away from my family. And I was tired of disappointing people. I was supposed to be in the top ten percent of riders, but with my physiology I couldn't recover well without doping."
Vaughters, whose slight build, angular glasses, and tapered sideburns make him look more like a lit professor than a former professional athlete, all but confesses to having used performance-enhancing drugs. But he refuses to be, well, 100 percent transparent.
"I can't do anything about what I did in the past, and I can't make a confession. That would draw so much attention away from the team," he said. "Anyone who knows me knows I'll be perfectly honest about it in private, one on one, but I don't want to talk publicly about things I did years ago."
So he's running a no-secrets anti-doping program, I pointed out, but he won't say whether he did or didn't? "With all I've told you," he responded, "if someone can't read between the lines ..."
A year after retiring, Vaughters dallied with real estate, then started a junior team, which became TIAA-CREF, the leading U.S. developmental squad. He wasn't an anti-doping crusader yet, but he didn't like the prospect of his riders encountering the pressures he'd seen in the pro ranks. "I'm very driven by protecting the young riders," he told me. "They've never been faced with the decision of whether to dope or not. And they shouldn't have to be."
His first hint at a solution came when he read a July 2005 article in Outside about Don Catlin, the former head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory and one of the world's top experts on testing. Catlin, now CEO of the nonprofit group Anti-Doping Research, suggested replacing the old model of looking for specific drugs with one that searched for their effects on certain biomarkers in the body, including red blood cells, growth hormones, and natural steroids. Every person has different naturally occurring levels of these, and Catlin's idea was to create a profile, or "biological passport," of each athlete's biomarkers, and then monitor them over time. Any suspicious changes—say, a sudden spike in the ratio of red cells or a steady ratio during a long race (when it should dip)—would be clear evidence that something shady was going on.
Vaughters liked the idea. He had been talking to Doug Ellis, a wealthy investor and cycling fan from New York who wanted to back a professional American team. Ellis agreed to fill in any financing gaps not covered by corporate sponsorships, and Slipstream was born. (Slipstream is Ellis's sports-management company, named for a cycling-themed screenplay he wrote.) In September 2006, they signed a contract to start working with the Agency for Cycling Ethics, a new, private Los Angeles company—one of its founders, Paul Scott, had worked for Catlin—that offers biomarker profiling.
In January 2007, ACE testers started making visits to the Slipstream training camp, drawing blood and taking urine. (In the red stuff they watch for the effects of EPO, transfusions, and growth hormones; in the yellow, steroids.) Most pros are tested about ten times a year, at races or by outside authorities like cycling's governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which has authority to test riders on American teams or at American races. By the end of Slipstream's first year, each of its riders had undergone as many as 40 additional tests—some scheduled, others random—at a cost of $350,000, about 10 percent of the team's total budget. The program's price tag will reach $500,000 this year.
Slipstream had modest success in 2007, including a team win at the inaugural Tour of Missouri. But while some of cycling's biggest names were being nailed for doping, not a single Slipstream rider failed a test.
The sport noticed. CSC and Astana instituted biological-passport systems through a program headquartered in Denmark, and T-Mobile (now Team High Road) signed with ACE. All three are in the ProTour, cycling's version of the major leagues. Eleven ProTour veterans—including Millar and American David Zabriskie, another former yellow-jersey wearer—signed with Vaughters for 2008, even though Pro Continental teams like Slipstream have a much tougher time getting invites to major races. Then, in October, the paradigm shift started to go global. The UCI announced that it was instituting a mandatory biological-profiling program across the ProTour in 2008, while still performing the usual in- and out-of-competition tests.
"The biggest thing we did was show that there were teams that would accept doing voluntary testing," Vaughters said as we followed Slipstream's riders up a long hill one afternoon. "A critical mass of teams said they'd do this in 2007. Before, the UCI believed no one would accept it." The first race conducted under the UCI's new policy was the Tour of California.
I asked Vaughters if he thought there were still guys in the peloton who were taking performance-enhancing drugs. "I don't know," he said. "If you had asked me several years ago, the answer would have been yes." He paused. "I think the possibility exists today that no one is."
MAYBE. CYCLING FANS are wishful thinkers. It doesn't matter how many scandals hit their sport or how many of their heroes fall—Basso, Pantani, Heras, Hamilton, Landis, Ullrich, Vinokourov, Rasmussen. The fans want to believe that that was then and this is now—that cycling is cleaning up. But after a particularly bad doping year in 2007, one could be forgiven for maintaining a certain amount of skepticism about the newest fix. Even Catlin, while praising Slipstream's efforts, sees room for improvement in any system in which only the UCI or the teams control who sees the test results and who gets sanctioned.
"What kind of tests are they using?" he said when I asked him to assess the biological-passport programs. "Some markers are better than others. Also, who is monitoring the data and making the decisions?"
Indeed, aside from ACE, Vaughters and team doctor Prentice Steffen are the only people who see the results and make decisions for Slipstream. To be fair, though, Steffen, the former team doctor for U.S. Postal, has been such an outspoken critic of cycling's doping culture that, for a period, he had difficulty finding work in the sport.
As for the UCI program, keep two things in mind: (1) This is the same organization that has already done a less than fabulous job of keeping the sport clean for the past century, and (2) the new program—involving more than 800 cyclists getting tested 16 times each in 2008, eight times before July alone—was only announced in October and launched in January. It would be understandable if a few bugs remained.
Still, by the end of April, the UCI claimed to have conducted 2,172 tests, of which 23 warranted further analysis. In early May, the UCI announced that one of those would likely lead to a suspension, the first rider to be snagged under the new program.
Catlin still has concerns. "The testing program looks at levels at random points in time," he said. "There are drugs that are here and gone in a few hours. Still, what Slipstream is doing is definitely an improvement. What I like about these programs is that they have the ability to help change the culture."
No system is foolproof, of course, especially in a world where the dopers are always a couple of steps ahead of the testers, and where the financial rewards of successful cheating are huge. Cycling's recent history doesn't inspire confidence in any system that asks fans to trust that team managers and the UCI are telling the truth.
But my time with Slipstream suggested that this team and its example may actually be changing a culture that has accepted and even encouraged doping. Of course, I had no prior knowledge of what professional cyclists act like during their off-hours—the Slipstream guys could have been donning robes and sacrificing rabbits when I wasn't around. But I can report that their hotel-room doors were open more often than not and that the only things the soigneurs delivered were laundered uniforms for the next day. The eight riders at the Tour of California (all Americans, except for Millar) look like an indie rock band after sound check—wool hats pulled over their ears, backward ball caps, long hair. They talk about girls, music, and notable bowel movements. They are typical young American men from places like Salt Lake City, Lemont, Illinois, and North Bend, Washington.
Vaughters has made community and connectedness a big part of his attempt to eliminate secrecy. At a November training camp in Boulder, Colorado, he brought in a corporate consultant who made riders split into groups and talk about effective communication techniques. They took psychological surveys, helped each other up and down the walls at a rock-climbing gym, and partied together in Boulder clubs. "We were a new team," Vaughters said, "so before we did the serious work, we needed to understand everyone, what their personalities were about, how to function as a group."
While cyclists on most teams live apart, training on their own or with the help of private doctors and advisers, most of the 25 Slipstream riders live and train in Girona, Spain, which makes it easier to coach and monitor them. They all have team-issued Blackberries, pre-loaded with race schedules and each teammate's and staffer's contact info. If riders fail to respond to messages about drug tests, they get a strike. Three strikes and they're suspended. "Even if they have a viable excuse," said Vaughters, "that's a strike."
"All you need," Millar told me, "is for team management to make the decision that the riders won't dope, and they won't. It's not an option anymore. If you put a system in place for athletes that makes them feel they're being monitored, they recognize it's wrong."
AN HOUR INTO STAGE 6 at the Tour of California, Slipstream's Steve Cozza and five riders from five other teams had attacked. The break, like an autonomous organism, crept away from the pack, getting six minutes ahead. But not long after the halfway point, the peloton began slowly gaining, and as we approached Santa Clarita, the gap went down to two minutes. Once they hit downtown, the riders had to make three 3.5-mile circuits, and the peloton caught up with the break halfway through the second loop. On the last lap, the race announcer reported that Millar and two riders had broken free. "Go, David Millar!" Vaughters yelled into the team radio. But the three were absorbed just before the finale. Millar remained in second overall, behind American Levi Leipheimer of Team Astana, with Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde in third.
The next morning, hours before the start of Sunday's final stage, the riders filed sleepily into a small conference room at the Hyatt. A nurse sat at one table holding syringes and rubber gloves, and a man sat at another, with little cups. A watercooler stood nearby. Vande Velde walked in, took a drink, and followed the man into a restroom. When he returned he sat down next to the woman, who drew his blood. After he was done, his teammate Tom Peterson entered. "All right, baby," the nurse said, "you want to have a seat?"
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It was time for the biweekly ACE testing. By this point, the Slipstream riders just shrugged and rolled up their sleeves. (This was Millar's second test this week and he reckoned that, if the needle and pee gods were lined up properly, he could get tested by four agencies in one day: ACE, UCI, USADA, and UK Sports, his national governing body.) The samples would go back to the lab, and if technicians saw something suspicious, ACE would call Steffen, who would take the issue to Vaughters. They would talk to the rider, see if he had a natural explanation (a lot of travel, chronic bronchitis, age), and get back with ACE. The rider would be taken out of any races and given more testing until they figured out what to do.
"There are three possible results," Steffen told me. "The rider continues racing with further testing, the rider is suspended with further testing, or the rider is terminated." So far Slipstream has had three alarms go off—two for higher-than-normal hematocrit levels, which Steffen attributed to natural causes, and the third a young rider who, Steffen believed, had still unpredictable hormones. No punitive actions were taken.
The riders are resigned to the needles and cups. "I'm used to it," Peterson said after his morning round of tests, still looking sleepy. "Last year was tough, though. I was tested probably 50 times." I suggested that this is the price you pay to be a pro cyclist in 2008. "Yeah," he said, "and it's the fairest way."
Peterson is only 21, young enough to claim that he's never even seen doping. "I'd heard about it, but the young guys were never in that mind-set where everyone expected us to dope. We didn't have the pressure."
Later on Sunday, as the race headed into Pasadena, Slipstream continued its aggressive cycling but couldn't catch Leipheimer in the overall standings. Still, Millar got second and Vande Velde third, and Slipstream won the team classification.
Vaughters was confident, even cocky. "It was what I expected," he said. "I'm happy to have lived up to expectations, but it isn't a surprise. It's what we set out to do. It's a risk to think this way, but I've always thought if we did everything right, we'd be one of the best."
In April, Slipstream's Martijn Maaskant earned a surprise fourth-place finish at Paris-Roubaix, the most important one-day race in cycling, and teammate Trent Lowe finished second overall at the Tour de Georgia. But the team got its biggest win yet without even climbing onto the bikes. On March 21, it received an invitation to the Tour de France, one of only three non-ProTour teams to get in. After two years of crippling drug scandals, cycling's marquee event needs a feel-good story.
"Slipstream/Chipotle's ethical philosophy appealed to us," Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said of the decision. "The sport of cycling has been entrenched in a fight against doping for the past several years, and the team's approach supports that struggle.... When certain young teams show ample sporting ability and a strong anti-doping commitment, we try to give them the chance to race."
Vaughters isn't done, though. He wants to continue opening up the sport and has gone so far as to suggest that each team be assigned two "compliance officers," independent monitors who would have access to the riders during their off hours—sort of like what I did in California, only on a permanent and more formal basis. "I don't know if that will ever happen," Vaughters told me, "but I'd rather prove my innocence and lose my privacy than always have a small bit of suspicion every time I won something."