Understanding the Doping Mind

Most of the cycling world has been abuzz since yesterday when the first links appeared to Jonathan Vaughters’ op-ed piece for the New York Times. It’s rare that we direct readers to another site, but if you haven’t already read the piece by Garmin-Sharp’s director and you follow pro cycling, then this piece is required reading. You can read it here.

What’s notable about Vaughters’ piece isn’t that he openly admits that he doped. It’s simply an item on his resume, a resume that includes lifelong cyclist, former pro and lieutenant for the U.S. Postal Service Team. What is significant is that Vaughters uses those details to establish his bona fides as an authority on how to create an environment where an athlete isn’t forced to confront the choice he faced.

There’s a tendency to immediately sum up any rider found to have doped as a cheater. It’s an easy equivalent to draw. And because doping provokes such a passionate response in cycling fans—me included—it’s easy to reduce the offending rider to a black-hat-wearing villain. As it happens, it’s easier to condemn than it is to understand. Been there, done that, sent the postcard.

Vaughters weaves a deft journey through the many factors that contribute to an athlete’s choice and while there is ample opportunity to dodge responsibility, he acknowledges that it was a choice that he alone made. What his essay best illustrates is a point I’ve written about on multiple occasions, that most doping comes as the result of coercion, either explicit, such as from a coach (it’s worth noting that his callout to “the boss” was a shot across Armstrong’s bow), or implicit, as a result of the sense that one is being left behind by the competition.

Since its inception Slipstream Sports has run what is arguably the cleanest program in cycling. If for no other reason, Vaughters deserves our attention, has earned the right to make the case for how we can clean up cycling. Will the UCI listen? That’s the question.


Image courtesy Slipstream Sports



  1. Chromatic Dramatic

    The article is an interesting read.

    I’ve often thought that teams such as Garmin who are expressly trying to take the clean cycling path, that they need to come ‘clean’, as many of the people working on those teams have come from an era that did by and large dope (I’m not saying all did).

    As such, they needed to say, like JV now has, that yes they were involved, that from their own experience know it was wrong, and in doing that take ownership of their history and the moral high ground going forward.

    Strangely, it is almost easier if you have doped. It is those that didn’t that have the problem, because how do you wrestle with the view that everyone thinks you did. “I’ve never failed one doping test” doesn’t cut it.

  2. randomactsofcycling

    In response to your question Padraig, I fear for the future of ‘our’ sport under the direction of the UCI. No, I do not think they will listen.
    If and when there is a clean sweep-out of the management in Switzerland, then I will hold some hope. However it is becoming more clear (or is that more clouded?) that there are vested interests at the top of the UCI who fear being dragged into the cesspit that will be the media frenzy should further high-profile names be found…..’positive’.

  3. pete

    “Think of what you would do if there were no Internal Revenue Service.” Sorry Jon, my wife has shown me that there are people who are honest to the core, though I must admit that I am not there yet. I was buying your story until I got to this line. If you are the type of person that would not pay taxes because no one was watching, yet enjoy the smooth roads around Denver, then you need to look again your moral core. Someone has to pay for those smooth roads, someone has to come in last in a bike race.

  4. MattZ

    So I guess the USADA should ban JV for life and nullify all his results. Why does he and all the others get a pass but they are going after LA? That is my problem with the whole thing; racing should be fair and level for all involved as should the prosecution of those who dope. If JV hadn’t doped, he would have never made a name for himself and probably wouldn’t be a director now. All of them benefited from doping and we will not know who left cycling because they didn’t dope and who may have been successful riders in an all clean field. The past can not be changed and cycling needs to look forward and have directors and owners like JV, who promote clean cycling over winning. JV, LA, and all the others involved need to be part of the solution going forward and the USADA should either prosecute them all or none. USADA loses credibility when they pick and choose who to punish and who gets to slide.

  5. Todd

    Good points MattZ – who else has gotten banned for life for a first offense? Are we supposed to believe that the people who have been caught were caught the first time they doped? More likely that busted dopers were systematic cheats and made mistake that got them-self caught. I’ve always thought amnesty needs to be available – everyone come clean, explain how they did it and move on.

  6. Q

    I agree its unfair for the authorities to treat riders differently. The difference for Lance Armstrong in this case is that the USADA is supposedly trying to go after the orchestrators (team management) and enablers (doctors). Lance Armstrong had an ownership interest in his team, and clearly had a voice in management of the team, so he is part of the alleged conspiracy. If he was merely a rider who made bad choices in an era when many others also did, I’d be willing to allow for a statute of limitations that has let others escape severe punishment. But I’m troubled by two things: the fact that he may have been involved in the alleged conspiracy, and the allegation that he may have been involved in blood doping in the more recent past after his comeback.

  7. puck monkey

    I think anyone asking why is the USADA going after Lance when the witnesses that are rumored to have testified were also doped on the same stuff. You need to look at it differently. A good parallel is the Mafia. Everyone agrees that the mob bosses have more blood on their hands than the crew. The FBI knew this and went after the big fish. Take the boss out and the mob would fall apart.
    Lance was the Boss, recruiting dirty doctors and trainers. Enforcing the Omerta , payoffs to the UCL, selling bikes and equipment to fund drug programs (laundering money). All this happened. I know this was not the work of a lone man but this was all done so that one man could win a race and make millions.
    Go back and watch the blue train drop everyone in the mountains, then ask yourself what did the other riders have to do to stay with Postal? If you can’t beat them join them.

  8. Rod Diaz


    At this point it’s all speculation because we don’t know the identities of the witnesses. I do think Vaughters cooperated with USADA. But my point is that the “pass” these guys are supposedly getting (and we don’t know that yet) is because they got interviewed, collaborated, informed of the particulars of their doping, and as a result will/would get a reduced punishment.

    It is alleged that LA got this offer and rejected it. Fair enough. I do want to see what the witnesses admitted to, what the evidence is, and how the USADA/WADA treat this. But let’s remember that at this point nothing has been presented because the case has not even officially started against LA – his lawyers are claiming there is no case or appropriate jurisdiction! And heck, if we get doping facilitators out of the sport (Del Moral, Martí, Ferrari) so much the better, but this tends to get lost because they are not celebrities like Lance.

    Lets also remember there is precedent for reduced punishment. As much as I abhor that Papp facilitated doping. I do like that now we have proof to indict even amateur cyclists that have doped.

    I support the idea of truth and reconciliation via amnesty, but that doesn’t seem to have much traction.

  9. MattZ

    Mafia not a good parallel, LA is out of cycling, the mob henchman were punished too, all the riders benefited from any alleged doping program, not just LA and some continue to benefit from the name they built while doping, and they were all part of any alleged conspiracy. That is the nature of a conspiracy.

    We don’t know who will give testimony or gave statements to USADA, which is also unsettling. Basically, they can go after any rider or anyone in cycling without reveling their evidence. That is fundamentally wrong and not due process.

  10. puck monkey

    Is pretty clear what Floyd and Tyler testimony contained, is there reason to believe the unnamed others statements are any different? I used the mafia because often the henchmen trade testimony for freedom.

  11. Rod Diaz

    Just a note on “due process”

    We tend to equate that to a judge/jury trial. But it need not be the case. Many issues, especially professional aspects, are resolved through arbitration. Antidoping stipulates that as its process.

    There is, though, similarity to a judicial process. Lets set up a scenario where you run a red traffic light.

    You are detained by a policeman, who informs you that you’ve violated the traffic statutes and gives you a ticket. You are free to challenge this or not.

    If you pay the fine, it is considered an admission of guilt. You fulfill the punishment (fine) and the case ends. This analogy applies to Del Moral and Ferrari – they did not contest the charges against them, which is a tacit admission of guilt. Their “ticket” is a suspension.

    If you decide to contest the charges you are NOT immediately presented with the evidence against you. That is only presented when trial starts, in the appropriately mentioned “discovery” phase. Before this, you don’t know if the traffic policeman had a video camera, or if there are traffic camera photos of you running the light.

    In more serious cases, when you’re detained by the police and sent to jail you’re not presented with a dossier detailing all the evidence the prosecution has amassed. You are merely informed of the charges and left to prepare your defense to the best of your abilities. Citing one famous example, no one knew of OJ Simpson’s infamous glove before the trial started.

    Going back to this doping case, Bruyneel, Lance and the rest of the accused that haven’t accepted their punishment will have an opportunity to review the evidence once the arbitration process starts. What LA’s lawyers are trying to establish is that the USADA’s process is not legal (by different arguments)and should be thrown out.

    I don’t know if LA and the rest are guilty, but would like to hear the allegations, see the evidence, and then adjudicate the case accordingly. If USADA’s evidence is strong, punish accordingly. If it is flimsy, let this finally rest. But citing that a) USADA has no jurisdiction and/or b) I do not get to see the evidence at my convenience – well, those two statements seem disingenuous to me. But I’m not a lawyer, and Judge Spark’s opinion will hopefully be cast soon.

  12. LD

    Jonathan seems like a nice guy and all but part of the huge doping problem is that EVERYONE has been involved…… from the UCI to the team personal to the riders. When you have guys like Bruyneel, Vaughters, Riis running the teams you can never be sure the problem is gone…….. despite what they say. It means nothing to me when someone says ” I’m clean” or” I have been tested hundreds of times” or “I run a clean team”……… bullshit. I don’t believe anything anyone says thats involved in professional cycling. I love the sport but those dicks created the problem and if the whole thing collapses they can only blame themselves.

  13. Switters

    F JV and his relative morals. If coming clean was such a big deal then he should have done this when he quit cycling.

  14. Eto

    I believe that unless everyone (riders, doctors, managers and staff) is treated equally and with the heaviest of consequences (lifetime ban from the sport) if proven to have cheated, then the sport will continue to operate in doubt.

    Riis and any other manager, trainer or consultant who has served a sentence or admitted cheating should NOT be allowed to work within the sport. The Belgan sport authority did so with Johann Museeuw. It is the same logic that law enforcement use to limit convicted criminals from any likely future prey. They need to bevtaken out of th environment, period.

    Unless one’s long term “livelihood” is threatened, the short term risk may be worth the reward!

  15. Mat

    I tend to agree with the ‘kick em all out’ approach…there are far too many talented and capable riders, ex-riders, staff and professionals in cycling that never get the chance because of the hegemony of the doper culture. Purge the dopers and you get a new start..perhaps.

  16. Wsquared

    A few observations re: “Off with their heads!”

    1. Almost every day I am hearing mainstream ads for PEDs on the local radio and seeing them on TV. This has really blossomed over the past year. There are now locals “Low T Centers” where that is all they do. Although technically cast as “low testosterone therapy,” the benefits for athletic performance and recovery are repeated often and loud.

    2. One of the Denver Bronco football players has recently failed three drug tests, including substituting nonhuman urine and having a glass vial slip out of his pants during a test. For those violations, he is getting a six game suspension from the NFL.

    3. The drug testing and enforcement history of the NFL & MLB for the last 50 years.

  17. Alex TC

    Clean = no win (that’s me)

    Dope = maybe win and maybe (just maybe) some trouble

    Dope + win = more trouble

    Dope + win a LOT = expect a LOT of trouble (that’s the-one-we-do-not-name)

    Dope + admit = become DS

    Dope + M.D. = pariah
    Dope + lie = pack fodder

    Clean + true = retire / open a caffe in EU / write a bitter book about life and misery in the pro cycling ranks

  18. Jesus from Cancun

    I raced Elite in Italy in ’91, in a time when other racers laughed at you if you were not on some kind of emergency room medication. Talking about doping during a ride was as common as talking about Shimano vs. Campy vs. Gipiemme vs. Modolo. Nobody was shy about it.

    A friend and I trained and traveled very often with the Giacobazzi team. Peppo Bossi, the team manager, told us several times that with our high altitude physiology and his “chemistry” he could make each of us win at least 10 international races a year.

    That team had two doctors. One to keep the riders healthy, another one doing nothing but doping and masking. Bossi had his own “box of wishes” that he bragged about. It was spooky, there were hormones, amphetamines, adrenaline, and a lot of stuff I have no idea what they were good for, like morphine and nitroglycerin.

    Bossi said that all of his riders were on his stuff, and nobody ever gave a positive test. He said, “look at Pantani, I am making him a future Tour de France champion…” And Giacobazzi was not one of the teams that won the most or whose members bragged about doping the most.

    Well, we said no. We came back by the end of the season, never made a top 5 in Europe and never went back. I am not bitter nor have second thoughts. I did what I could in Europe, then I tried somewhere else.

    My friend and I chose to not dope, but I don’t criticize all of those who chose otherwise. Back there that was the way, almost like a cultural thing. Riders took doping as normally as we take breakfast. Vaughters, Riis, Armstrong, Pantani, Ulrich, Virenque, Vino, I don’t see them like the black hat villians, I don’t even point my finger and yell cheaters to them. I would have to treat Merckx, Anquetil, Fignon, Coppi, all the names that have made cycling, the same way.

    I don’t know what is the right way to deal with the past. Most of the different opinions I have read make sense one way or another. I don’t care, but I would rather not see cycling embarrassed even more by reshufling the results in the history records. So then, who won all those Tours? Should Anquetil and Fignon have their records erased since they confessed before their death? And Coppi, who said that all riders needed medication to race?

    I want to believe that the right steps are being taken and cycling is much cleaner now, and getting better each time.
    I think there is a better future for those getting into pro cycling now, and as Vaughters say, hopefully riders won’t have to make the choice anymore. I am glad that he said what we all already knew. And I’m glad that he seems to be honest and trying to make cycling change for good.

  19. Full Monte

    Dope + Win + Get Caught + Admit + Name Others + Get Stripped of Olympic Gold Medal = write bitter book about life and misery in the pro cycling ranks!

    (Good riff, Alex TC!)

    By the way, I heard Dick Pound on an interview on NPR recently. Drug Test = IQ Test.

    The cheater can be tested 500 times in his/her storied career and never be caught because if s/he is smart, has smart doctors, s/he can always stay one step ahead of the testers. Such is the current state of policing sports. So the athlete getting caught while doping is just plain dumb. Cheaters not caught are merely smarter than the test. But beware, testing methods catch up eventually, and the cheater’s frozen sample may well be his/her undoing years down the road.

  20. Full Monte


    I am amazed (and thankful) that riders aren’t dropping dead by the dozens! That’s a witches brew of pharmo-chemicals and scary stuff to have coursing through one’s veins.

    Thanks for your perspective and sharing your experience.

  21. wiloughby

    I don’t agree that all who are past dopers should be banned from working in cycling. Life isn’t so black and white. Take a guy like David Millar who admitted to doping and made a 180 degree turn and is now taking a stand against it. JV has now admitted and prior to this has taken a stand against it. I’m ok with these guys and others like them. But take a guys like Vino and Valverde who have never shown any remorse and who don’t take a stand against it, these guys should not be running teams or working as DS’s in the future.

  22. Captain H

    The issue of doping is as divisive as the current Presidential race. Let’s remove emotion for a moment. Everyone raise their right hand and repeat after me…”I acknowledge that the majority of the peloton doped for a period of time in the past”. There, I said it.

    Rather than death by a thousand paper cuts, (or outing former USPS team members one at a time), let’s do whatever it takes to have the necessary catharsis and then MOVE ON! Otherwise, it’s time to throw everyone out who rode a bike professionally between the late 80’s to pretty recently. When Cat 3 and 4 riders are popping positive following a local race, then “Houston, we have a problem”.

    For everyone who says “no second chances”, remember that but for the grace of God go we. I have a hard time accepting that everyone demanding that people be thrown out of the sport are not themselves guilty of something they would like kept in the dark. Acknowledging that we had a problem a long time ago and then allowing people to say “I screwed up and won’t do it again” is part of the human condition. David Millar comes to mind. For those, however, who enter the sport and profession now, we can no longer operate with our collective heads in the sand. And for those who repeated their mistakes (Mr. Hamilton)….off with their heads.

    Please let’s stop with the big headlines every time we discover that one of our “cycling heroes” turns out to have been a doper. Enough already. Drink the Kool Aid. Let’s move on.

    1. Author

      Thanks everyone for your impassioned comments. That said, I’m dismayed at how many among us are ready to draw and quarter Vaughters for his confession. I respect that many think his timing was lousy. I hope everyone will consider the alternative: that he might never have spoken up. Worse, every time we condemn an athlete following a voluntary confession, the fallout is that other riders who might consider confessing their past may choose to keep quiet, which leaves us worse off. Confessions are a critical part of cleaning up cycling. We need to applaud each rider who comes forward, no matter how distasteful the story they tell.

  23. Alex TC

    Padraig, I understand your point but let´s make an exercise here. Consider for a moment the damage that doping in itself inflicts to the sport. In all and every level. Now, many professions won´t admit such level of damage by its professionals without even more severe punishment. Most get banned for life at first offense, intended or not.

    IMHO JV spoke out to lighten his own load, to clear his conscience, to drop his burden. It´s clear to me, maybe I´m wrong but that´s what I draw from his text. Sure he wants to come clean, to save cycling, to educate or contribute in any way to the sport he lives from. But I honestly fail to see a huge difference in his and every other´s confessions, past and present. Though his perspective about it all is lucid and makes sense, I admit. I believe he wishes a clean cycling too.

    He said it´s a personal choice and so it is, but we know how the system works and all the pressure that goes with it. He said it right there. But how many never sold (or sell) their souls to live their dreams, still making it? We´ll never know for sure exactly because of those who did. That´s another huge blow and price.

  24. Wsquared

    We don’t have public executions any more. Sometimes I think that has left an unfulfilled yearning in our society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *