What's Cool In Road Cycling

Interview: Jonathan Vaughters PEZ-Clusive!

Just before the Redlands race, we met with long-time US Euro-pro Jonathan Vaughters. Today, as part of management for Team TIAA-CREF, he mentors their select group of young racers and future stars. We talked about his role in developmental cycling, his career, and how he’s contributing to the future of the sport as part of this “team with a difference.”

Pez: The Team TIAA-CREF brochure describes a nice marriage of marketing philosophies between the cycling team and the cooperate sponsor. Tell us how you and Colby Pearce are developing this team and how that philosophy relates to the corporate goals of TIAA-CREF?

Jonathan: The first thing you have to understand is that the model we use for the team and their marketing structure is totally different than almost any team out there. They (TIAA-CREF) are a company that focuses on doing financial services for universities, hospitals, and non-profits – they’re really into non-profit medical research community. There are quite a few teams where the goal is to win so that they get the front page of the newspaper and therefore derive publicity, but this is more of a philanthropic venture and they want it to be viewed as a philanthropic venture on their part. This is helping out future athletes, future professionals, and people who one day way down the road may ride the Tour de France. Some pro teams may bring in one or two young riders. We have eighteen young riders. Their marketing culture is one based on doing things for the greater good.

Some grapes, some cheese – JV cleary knows how to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

Pez: In recent years we’ve seen a growing void in development for under 23 racing, especially since pros have been allowed into the Olympics. Do you see this as an opportunity to work at filling that void?

Jonathan: Yeah there really is a big void. I will say that over the past year and a half I have realized that how well instructed, how well supported and how developed the people of my generation were. By the time I was seventeen/eighteen we were, as far a mentality goes, 95% on the way to becoming professional riders. We were focused, we were disciplined, and we knew the ins and outs of the sport. We had been to Europe a couple of times. It was different.

Now, I am teaching a lot of the guys that are 21/22 years old what I was learning at 16. So there is potential to bring these guys as far as Kevin and I got. But it is not going to happen unless someone focuses on it. If you look at a race like Redlands, for instance, you won’t find a US U23 rider anywhere in the top 20. The US racing scene has become increasingly older, sort of almost like the AAA baseball of cycling in that it is guys who for one reason or another came back from Europe or from South America and could not quite make it in Europe, so they came to the US.

It’s not like Europe, where the young riders do the second tier races and they are very tough. Here, the scene is very much 30 and up. And the thing is that a team like Health Net – why would they take on one of my guys that is 21 years old and pull someone who is 30 years out when the reality of it is that the 21 year old is not going to produce the same results.

So you have to find a sponsor that is willing to accept that but is willing to look at the long term future of helping these kids out and that you are going to generate a sense of good will in the cycling community as a whole. TIAA-CREF has seen a large hole and this is going to have to change if America is going to continue to have good international riders. So it is pretty cool for them to step forward.

Pez: I wanted to ask you about your career. You spoke about having some intellectual and analytical capabilities that improved your career, and that you have studied anatomy, biochemistry, and endocrinology. How has that helped your career?

Jonathan: Whenever you get in a situation where things are not going your way or you hit a plateau – if you have good analytical skills you can step back and look for mistakes-areas for improvement. There are any number of ways to get to the next level and start experimenting and applying your theories in your training.

That is what allowed me to succeed in professional cycling. Had I gone by the book, the European standards, I would not have been able to do anything in the professional ranks because I was a bit of a frail physiology, I broke down fairly easily. 9 times out of 10 guys like that will not go anywhere in cycling and basically I just adjusted a number of things that made it work for me.

What I bring to the table with these young guys too is that the National team program, is sort of founded on the premise that we are going to give you a shot, we are going to give you a couple of years and pound the living crap out of you and if you come out of the other end of it you will be alright and if you don’t, you won’t. Although in some regards, you have to be that way, because cycling is a very tough sport. There has to be a certain weeding out.

TIAA-CREF’s Ian MacGregor is the current U23 National Champ.

I try to (while doing that at the same time) say “all right this is not working you, let’s try something else”. What people do not realize is that the cultural difference between most US bike racers and most European bike racers is huge. And it is not because America and Europe are so different. The people who get into bike racing in the US tend to be sort of like these social misfits in high school; they are kind of brainy. They are kind of nerdy. And they happen to ride a bike fast. In Europe they tend to be sort of like the farmer’s sons, they are the real tough kids. Kids from the wrong side of the tracks.

In Europe you can use that real tough mentality, some get spit out, and some make it. Our current U23 national champion, Ian Macgregor the kid is going to the Colorado School of Mines for chemical engineering on a full scholarship has 160 IQ. He is the embodiment of a geek. But he is an incredibly talented bike racer. The program has to adapt to some frailties and some differences for people of that mentality as apposed to the people who say I eat nails for breakfast, so now I am going to race my bike and be tough.

Pez: Your philosophy of education being so important, and that you are willing to work around and support these kids getting their college education, I think is admirable…

Jonathan: Yeah, you don’t want them to get stuck in a position where they’ve given up everything for bike racing, because the reality is that of the eighteen kids that I have right now, if two of them make it to the pro tour level, I will consider the program a success. So you have to consider that sixteen are not going to make it. And that is about as successful as I anticipate it being.

It’s the same with the Rabobank development team, they have sixteen guys and usually they get about two or three of them into the pro ranks every year and that is about the way it is. Well what happens to the rest of them, well hopefully they have gone to school. I think that TIAA CREF adds a lot of skills to what they will use in the work place whether they are a cyclist or not, including teamwork and hard work and being able to live with other people and adapt to different personalities and different cultures.

The TIAA-CREF boys mix it up at Redlands.

Pez: This is your first year participating in UCI races. If you could look forward 5 years, what would be some of the goals you would have liked to accomplish with this team?

Jonathan: There are a number of different ways that it can go. A number of people have asked me, do you want to slowly build this into a pro tour level team – and what about the development team? And literally the answer is both. I certainly would like to continue to move forward and have another pro team in the United States. I think that I have the correct skill sets to make that happen to find the funding sources. But on the same token I would never want to watch the development program go by the way side as a result of that. No matter what there will be a development team. And the development team will hopefully have a more European base. Obviously still do a lot in the U.S. we will just slowly but surely take the concept and keep tweaking it until we really get it down as to how to take a first or second year 20 or 21 year old guy and move them up to the point were by the time they are 23/ 24 we can, they can be as good as they will get.

Pez: You spent some time with the team racing in Europe; tell us about your schedule and what the goals of that group are?

Jonathan: The older group of riders (and I use that term loosely) have gone over to the Tour of Normandy, and they will be the same riders doing the Tour of Georgia. They will also do the baby Giro d’ Italia, and the Tour of L’Avenir. Most of the European experience will be one of survival. We have a couple of guys Dan Bowman and Will Frischkorn who are beyond that. They can race in Europe. They can contend for the win. They don’t have any problem doing 7 or 8 day stage races and recovering from them.

The other 4 guys will rotate in and out on the basis of how well they are coming along. At the European races our goal is not to win, but try to get at least four guys to the finish out of 6. And that we participate in the race. That we are in some of the breakaways. Normandy we had Will high up in GC until the last few days, which was a pity because we really had the team working for him but in the end it was still a great experience. They knew what it was to have the responsibility of a rider who was top 5 in the GC and protect him. That is was we are after. These races are really over these guys’ heads but that is the only way they are going to have long term improvement.

We all went through, and when I say we, I mean Bobby Julich and Kevin Livingston and myself. I can remember many a time when we were thirty-five minutes off the back with Bobby Julich just limping our way to the finish line. People don’t even realize that happened because it was ten years ago. So when I see these guys just struggling, and struggling I realize that this may be today but you will never know which one of these kids is going to adapt to that struggle and the hardships and make it to the next level. So you have to be very patient. And so it goes back to the sponsor, who is willing to be very patient as far as that goes and hopefully all of our fans out there will be too.

This news just in as we go live:
May, 4th, Colorado, USA

Team TIAA-CREF is ecstatic to announce that it will be participating in the 2005 Route du Sud. After solid results in both the Tour of Normandie and the Tour de Georgia, the organization of the Route du Sud decided to invite The American based Continental team to the race who’s former winners include Laurent Jalabert and Levi Leipheimer.

This will be the major summer objective for Team TIAA-CREF, and will hopefully give a few of it’s riders the opportunity to perform in front of ProTour teams looking for young talent.

Former Route du Sud winner, and Team TIAA-CREF director Jonathan Vaughters has high hopes for the French race ” Route du Sud will be a good entry point into high level racing for a team like ours. The top riders tend to be reserved at Route du Sud as they are preparing for the Tour de France, so it allows a young team like ours to perform. With Mike Lange and Craig Lewis, I think we have some climbers capable of top 20 finishes in the Pyrenean stages, but whatever happens, it is a big honor to get to do a race of this level in France.”

Check out the Team TIAA-CREF Website

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