ALEX BLUMBERG: From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both.
One of the greatest stories in the history of American sports could also be seen as one of the most unlikely - because it’s not about one of the big three American sports, football, basketball, or baseball… no. For a time in the late 90s and early 2000s, the United States was transfixed by the sport of cycling. Lance Armstrong, a rider from Texas, had come back from cancer to win the Tour de France - cycling’s crowning achievement, an epic, three-week race. And then he did it a record-breaking six more times.
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: The yellow jersey is owned by only one man, as it has been, and the winner of the Tour de France, is indeed Lance Armstrong...
ALEX BLUMBERG: It was a mind-blowing, dramatic, inspiring achievement… And then, we learned it was all a lie.
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: Some breaking news now on Lance Armstrong, the global governing body of cycling, has just announced moments ago it will ban armstrong for life…
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: Armstrong cheated his way to the top through the most sophisticated doping program ever seen...
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: A damning report reveals the full extent of the deception played out by Armstrong.
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: Featuring sworn testimony from 11 of Armstrong’s former teammates.
ALEX BLUMBERG: My guest on the show today, is not just one of those former teammates, but a key player in breaking the mafia-esque wall of silence around doping in professional cycling... and helping ultimately to clean up the sport.
My guest’s name is Jonathan Vaughters. He rode with Lance Armstrong on the United States Postal Service team in 1999, when Armstrong won his first Tour de France. And, like most of the whistleblowers in the Lance Armstrong case, Jonathan also doped.
In our conversation, Jonathan told me about the rise and fall of the myth surrounding Lance Armstrong’s success. And he also told me about his own relationship with doping - how his cycling dreams warped into something much darker as money, drugs, and deception entered the picture. And just a quick warning before we get started, there is some swearing in this episode.
Jonathan told me that, when he was a kid, he would have been more surprised than anyone to learn that he would play a major role in a big athletic drama. For one simple reason:
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: I showed no predisposition to being athletically talented at anything at 12 years old, um... You know the kid who, like, hates sports when they're going through elementary school and middle school. And, you know, it's like the kid that shows up to gym class, that's like, "Oh God, what are we doing today? Like, dodgeball? Great. I'll be the first one that gets hit and thrown out. Or you know, football. I can't even catch the damn thing. Or baseball." Or whatever -- whatever ball was involved. And so I was horrible at that stuff.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But there was one thing he was good at: going fast. He had this go kart that he would ride all around town. Until one day, when Jonathan was at a friends house, and saw his friend’s dad’s racing bike. It was so sleek, so beautiful, so captivating... that Jonathan sold his go-kart and bought himself an Italian racing bike instead. And very quickly, he realized that the thrill of riding the bike wasn’t just going fast, it was going faster than someone else.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Every once in awhile you see somebody else out on the road on a racing bike. And, you know, you try to pass them, and then they try to pass you back. And all of a sudden you're basically racing. And I thought that was kind of fun. Um, and so I had a friend who had signed up for a bike race, and my -- my buddy said, "Well, there's this race, the Red Zinger Mini-Classic, you should sign up for it." And so I did. I signed up for the race. Um, the funny thing was is I had no idea that people trained to do these races. I just thought, you know, you just like, "Oh yeah, I'm gonna race my buddy." So you just show up and you race your buddy. But I didn't realize that there was this whole, like -- that you're supposed to get in shape, and that you were supposed to have, you know, prepare for these events. I had no idea of any of that. I didn't -- I didn't know that was part of it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So you thought -- you were just like, "Okay, I have a bike and I want to be in the race. I'll just show up." How long was the race?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: It was -- it was 10 days long. Um. But the -- each stage was, you know, around like 15 to 20 miles.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay. So -- so you show up at this race, what happens?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah, I get killed. I mean, just like blown out of the water. So the first race I ever did, I was dead last.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What did you — did you have a realization at that moment?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Well, my realization at that moment, it wasn't -- you know, I wish it would have been more inspirational or whatever, but -- but what I was thinking of that moment was, "Oh, man. Okay, it's another sport." You know, I thought it was racing. I didn't think it was a sport. And so I was -- I was like, "Oh, no. Another one of these sports. These stupid sports." And um...
ALEX BLUMBERG: And, and what was telling you — that it was a sport?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: That I was breathing hard and that, these hills we were trying to go up were quite difficult to get up, and that everyone else was going up quite a bit faster than I was.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. So you're just, like, huffing and puffing and everybody's just, like, sort of like -- yeah. Your lungs are burning, and ...
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. And all of a sudden that felt like a sport. That felt like, "Oh, this is like running the mile in gym class."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: No fun.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay. So not a very auspicious beginning. This is a very strange beginning to -- to your life story. Because, like, I would've thought, like, this is the moment where I was like, "Something about it I just loved," but instead you were just like, "Oh, God. This is one of these sports that I've been trying to avoid my whole life."
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So, okay. So…[laughs]
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: And so -- so we do the first day and then it's like, okay, then we're supposed to do the second day of the race. And I just tell my parents, "Guys, this is -- this -- this is one of these sports that I hate, and I'd really rather just go home and not keep doing this. And I really apologize that you spent $200 for the entry fee to this thing. And, um -- but, you know, I just don't think this is for me." And, you know, my dad, who -- he's not one of those fathers who ever really forced me to do anything. He wasn't one of those parents that was like, "You're gonna be a member of Debate Club, come hell or high water," or whatever. He just wasn't one of those pushy, whatever we call them, like Little League dads. And so I totally thought when I said, "Mom, Dad, I want to go home." That it was just gonna be a foregone conclusion that we went home. And for the first time ever, and actually the only time ever in my entire life, my dad put his foot down and said, "Nope. You're gonna race today." And I said, "Dad, I don't want to race. I'm not any good at this. This is just silly. I don't want to get last place again. It's embarrassing. Can we just --" he said, "Nope. I paid for this. You signed up for it. You committed to do the full 10 days, you're doing the full 10 days." He just, you know, "Nope, you're not gonna quit." And so I didn't.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So you finished the next nine days of the race, right?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. Yup, Yup. Yup.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And -- and how are you feeling, like, day seven?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah, I mean, tired but, you know, interestingly, because -- probably because I was so out of shape to begin the race with, as the race progressed I was actually getting better and better relative to the other kids. I was kind of catching up to them cause I -- I think I was -- like, basically the race was my training. Yeah, the last two or three days I was actually, like, starting to be competitive. Not to win but, you know, sort of kicking around in the front of the race as opposed to just dragging at the absolute back.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm. And how are you feeling at that point?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Really invigorated and really excited and totally in love with the sport. And, you know, couldn't get enough of it and wanted the race to go on for another 10 days.
ALEX BLUMBERG: That's crazy. That's a pretty abrupt turnaround over the course of 10 days.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What, what was going on, do you think?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: I don't know, you know? I just -- even though that first day went so poorly, I slowly was becoming, like, addicted to -- and I really do mean that, like going around corners fast and, like, cutting guys off and, you know -- and um, avoiding crashes and then flying downhill and, you know, hammering up a hill and um, passing guys, you know? And it just became a rush.
ALEX BLUMBERG: After that race, Jonathan tried to get his hands on any books about cycling training that he could find. He’d go on long rides after school and on weekends, and became best friends with his local bike shop owner. And as he was training, he was also learning more and more about the professional cycling races in Europe.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: I started noticing professional cycling. You know, I started following it. Um... which was at that point in time very difficult, because this was -- you know, it wasn't televised in the United States and there was very minimal media coverage of cycling in the United States. And so you could just get little glimpses of what was going on in the race. Which in some ways actually probably made it even better for me because it -- it became like this mysterious land across the ocean. And -- and it became this career, you know, this -- that people were professional bike racers, like people in the United States are professional football players, but it was magical. You know, they were in the Swiss Alps, in the French Alps, and they were riding on these roads that had been there since the Roman times. And, there weren't that many images to really see what was going on. So you'd get one image and you would come up with the whole story of what was going on in the race on your own because you had limited information. And so, it became like, you know, like Lord Of The Rings or something, that it was like you -- you went over to Europe and then you conquered the races.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Do you remember an image like that that you sort of latched onto?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Sure. You know, the -- when Andy Hampsten won the Giro d'Italia in 1988, the image of him going over the Passo di Gavia in a blizzard, snowstorm. And he's still -- he doesn't even put on long, you know, legwarmers. He's just got his shorts on and a short-sleeve jersey. And the only thing he has on, like, to protect himself from the cold and the snow is a pair of ski gloves. And, like, that's it. And I'm just thinking, "Wow, you know, like, this guy is in freezing weather in the middle of a blizzard." And they haven't -- by the way, like, I'm used to sports where it rains a little bit and they call the game off. And I'm like, "Wow, this sport, like, they don't care. There's like a -- you know, there's eight inches of snow on the ground and this guy's on a bike with a one-inch wide tire going through the eight inches of snow in a blizzard with icicles hanging off his eyebrows, and he's still wearing shorts." And, like -- and he goes on to win. You know, so to me that was -- okay, this is, like -- this sport is -- it's not even a sport. This is like an adventure. This is something to see what you're made of in life.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Throughout his teenage years, Jonathan rose through the ranks of amateur cycling — winning the Colorado state championship, and medaling at the national championship. And as many of his friends went off to college in the early 90s, Jonathan kept riding in the amateur circuit, hoping to break through. And then he got hired by a professional team in Spain. It was the adventure he’d been dreaming of for years, and he couldn’t wait to learn the ropes. But he quickly discovered that pro racing in Europe...it was very different than the amateur scene he was used to at home.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What's life like as a professional cyclist in Spain?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Uh, well, it depends how good you are. [laughs]. Um I guess the way you'd put -- like, in cycling in the United States, and this was true in the '80s and it still is true today, cycling in the United States is this sort of healthy, carbon neutral, organic tofu, kind of, you know, let's keep ourselves fit and save the planet kind of sport, right? It's a very happy, friendly, family, good feeling, good for you sport.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: And that was what I had kind of grown up with. Um. In Spain, it was this is a way to make money. And it is a way out for a lot of really underprivileged kids. And if you can succeed at being a professional cyclist, you're gonna get paid enough that you're going to be able to elevate yourself, you know, in your life and actually buy a house and, um, support a family, etcetera, etcetera, which is -- it's a real working class, I'd rather do this than dig ditches kind of sport. And that's what it was in Spain. Um, it was professional, and it was hard, and there was no quarter given for anyone, and it was cutthroat and there was -- there was no organic anything. It was just, you know, it was all about going fast. And, you know, if you died when you were 33 years old because you burned the engine a little too hot, well, you know, at least you got to be on the cover of a newspaper at some point in your life. You know, that was -- it was a very live hard, die young, harsh, hard, competitive, cutthroat sport.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Are you -- when you say die young, do you mean literally die young?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Well, sure. I mean, in professional cycling you usually have, you know, I don't know, an average of one or two guys every year that -- that, um, you know, that -- that get killed in some way, form, uh, in the sport. So yeah, I do literally mean that.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. Like, just from crashing, going down the mountains or whatever.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's usually that. But it’s also you know, it's a tough, tough, it's a tough lifestyle. And there's a big difference -- the mindset of a professional cyclist, what I would say is it's half marathon runner and it's half Formula One car driver. And so in a bike race you go up the hill, which is pure athleticism. Then you get to the top and you have to go down that mountain. And going down that mountain, I -- you will not -- finding someone who can keep up with a good professional cyclist on a very steep alpine descent in a car, you won't find very many people that can because you have to be able to -- to keep up with the top level of professional cyclists, you have to be able to go down that mountain incredibly fast. And there's no protection. You have a little tiny piece of foam on your head that, we'll call it a helmet. And, you know, the rest of your body is -- it's a millimeter of spandex. Um. And it doesn't matter whether it's raining, it doesn't matter whether there's oil on the road, it doesn't matter whether there's ice on the road, you're going down that hill at 50, 60, 70 miles an hour. Um… that's a different experience from — from, you know, triathlon, swimming, marathon running. You know, where you don't— don't have people, like, screaming in the ditch with multiple broken bones and -- you know, that's -- that's where pro cycling becomes its own little thing.
ALEX BLUMBERG: It's very weird. Yeah, it's true. It's like you don't get that many sports that combine, like, pure daredevil with pure endurance. I think it's pretty -- it's pretty ...
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: It's super unique.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. Yeah. Um, so, all right, talk about your — your first race.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: In Europe?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: So my first race in Europe went about as well as my first race back in Colorado. You know, I -- I had very high hopes going in thinking, you know, I was this super talented amateur rider and junior rider, and so why wouldn't I be one of the best professional riders? Um. And it was just so fast. I mean, it was -- I was out of depth immediately. And, um, either they went around the corners faster, they went up the hills a lot faster, they went down the hills a lot faster. The -- there was never a moment where I felt comfortable. Um...this race was on the Mediterranean coastline of Spain. And we stayed along the coastline for quite a while, the race, and then it turned up into a coastal mountain range. And when we made that turn up, I was the first guy to get spit out the back. Um, I couldn't even see the guy who was gonna win the race, you know? He was so far up the road, he was a different county. I mean, I was just doing everything I could to hang onto the guy in front of me, and you know -- and not succeeding at that.
ALEX BLUMBERG: How did that feel? Like, in your body?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: It — ah, I mean, in your body it's, no matter how much burning I could tolerate in my legs or how much burning I could tolerate in my lungs, like, there was just a point where — where the muscles were no longer going to contract anymore. And so it just, it just felt — I guess it just felt like you're falling apart. That's the best way to put it. And, and you're trying to sort of pull yourself back together, but it just feels like pieces of your body are, like, falling off on the road because you no longer can, can — you can't force it to happen anymore. You know, it was straight back to where I'd started in that I thought, "Okay. Like, I'm — I'm just not good enough."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Coming up, Jonathan finds out that he is in fact good enough, there’s just another reason he’s been coming in dead last. That’s after the break.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with former pro cyclist Jonathan Vaughters.
After dreaming of becoming a pro cyclist while growing up in Colorado, Jonathan landed a spot on a professional team in Spain in the mid-1990s. Jonathan came in dead last in his very first race, and the races that followed weren’t that different. No matter how hard he trained, he continued to turn in mediocre performances. But when he would go home to visit his family in the States, a funny thing would happen. He’d sign up for pro races in the U.S. to stay in shape. And those races...they were much easier for him...
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: I could go back, you know, to the U.S. and I'd be a race winner and then I go to Europe and be the worst guy in the race. And, you know, I couldn't figure it out. No one could figure it out. You know, there were eventually a couple of sort of older riders and this guy, Thomas Frischknecht who is world mountain bike champion who kind of said, “maybe that's not a problem with you. Maybe that's a problem with what's going on in Europe."
ALEX BLUMBERG: And did you know what he meant by that?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. Yeah, I did. Um... so right as I was entering the professional ranks is right as this drug called EPO, erythropoietin, had started entering into the world of endurance sports. Um. And, this drug, which basically triggers the body to produce more red blood cells than it normally would, um, was immensely effective at increasing performance. And it didn't take me very long that year to understand, you know, I was learning Spanish, and so, you know, I would get, you know, some of the conversations, but as I got better, I understood more and more of the conversations that were going on. You know, the guys were openly talking about it. constantly, at the dinner table, during the races, you know... anywhere. And it had -- it had hit a real critical mass where so many people were taking this particular drug, and it was making such a large impact on their physiological abilities that the whole races were changing. The -- the races were all of a sudden much faster than they'd ever been before, and especially the critical moments of the race were exponentially faster than they'd ever been in the history of cycling.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And -- and that, during that first race, you -- you weren't aware of it, but -- but presumably a lot of -- a lot of those cyclists that you were riding against that were, like, crushing you going up the hill, they were using EPO.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah, I mean, and -- and it was -- like, there was, I did need to actually improve some naturally before -- you know, before the, the doping really came into play. But over the period of a year, year and a half, you realize, you know -- I started realizing, wow, I've -- I've made some really big improvements. Like, my times are so much faster and my endurance is so much better and my skills on the bike are so much better and I still suck.
ALEX BLUMBERG: How did that feel?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Well, demoralizing. I mean, because then all of a sudden, you know, unlike sort of me getting last in my first race and then -- and then that winter realizing, oh my gosh, people train, so I need to learn how to train, and going and reading books, you know, that felt really empowered, right? Like, I'm gonna do something about this. I'm gonna figure out how to win these races. That's an empowering moment. But when you realize, oh, you know, there's this drug that, you know, gives an eight percent advantage or whatever it is, and the -- at the elite level of sport, eight percent is, you know, from here to the moon.
ALEX BLUMBERG: That's huge, right?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. You just sort of -- it's totally demoralizing, because you think, well, I'm never gonna be able to make up that difference.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. What -- when did you start using it, and what was that decision like?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: I started using it in 1996, um, and the decision was a foregone conclusion. Um. You know, I had gone through two years of being a professional, you know, without any sort of doping, and basically, you know, the logic was simply this. It was, okay, you know, you're gonna need to do this, or you're going to need to give up this childhood dream. And there wasn't really an in-between in that decision. So, you know, at 23 years old I was not willing to give up my dream. And by the way, there are many people telling you like, "No, you're getting paid to do this. You're getting paid to race. You're getting paid to try to win. You're getting paid -- you know, you need to be taking these drugs," which we didn't even refer to it as drugs or doping it was -- you know, it was sports medicine, or all kinds of euphemisms. Um. You need to be doing this in order to do your job, you know? If you aren't, you're -- you're taking money from your sponsors and not producing what they need. That's unethical. And so by the time I get around to making this decision, it's like -- it's not -- you know, people think it's like some sort of like creepy doctor comes into the room and says like, "We are going to have to do this and, you know, take your pants off," or whatever. No. I mean, I was begging the doctor. I was like, can we -- could we please get busy with this doping stuff? Because, um, I kind of -- you know, I feel irresponsible not doing this.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. When -- when you -- when you were on it -- tell me about the difference.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah, I mean, with EPO, it's -- it's very subtle. It's not -- I think a lot of people think, you know, you take a shot and then all of a sudden, like, your skin turns orange and you know, you just go and ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: You're like the Hulk or something.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah, exactly. Rip people's -- no, it's -- so first you don't feel anything, you know? It takes weeks to finally have an effect. And the effect is simply -- like, the suffering doesn't go away. The burning in your legs doesn't go away. The, the pain of the effort, none of that goes away. The only difference is, is when you're suffering and you're sweating and your legs are burning and you're at that point where you feel like your body's falling apart that I described, you're just going one mile an hour faster.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Right. And that's a huge difference.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: And that's a huge difference, yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: When Jonathan started taking EPO, his career started to take off. He performed well in a few key races, got the attention of a new upstart team sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service. Jonathan signed with that team for the 1998 season, the same year that they signed one of the biggest stars of American cycling: Lance Armstrong.
At this time, Armstrong was two years removed from a testicular cancer diagnosis — one that many expected would end his cycling career. Armstrong’s return to the sport was kind of story that fans were eager to rally behind. And so all eyes were on the USPS team going into that 1998 season.
But there was another huge story happening that year as well. That year at the Tour de France, a team was caught smuggling EPO and other doping products into France. The tour that year was rocked by police raids, protests, suspensions…
But as Jonathan and Lance and the rest of Team USPS prepared for the next season, the scandal … it didn’t deter them.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What was the team's approach to the medicine? To -- to EPO?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: By the time I'm on Postal Service, it's like it's clear that the team dopes, but the doctor waits for the riders to come to him as opposed to coming to the riders, and -- or it's almost like a mutual conversation. Like, it's not -- nobody's gonna -- like, this is like a real professional team. Like, I would say my Spanish team that I was on was almost like a beginner's professional team. Like, these guys were doing the Tour de France, you know, they were like, hardened mercenaries that were -- you know, that knew what to do and -- and how to do it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did you, you see anybody else using it, though? And did you -- did you talk to other people on the ...?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Oh, yeah. I mean, I saw -- I saw people. Sure. Of course. I mean, I saw Lance doping.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Tell me -- tell me about that. Tell me about Lance and how do -- how does that happen? How do you see it? What's the -- what are the -- what's the setting? Where -- where are you? Yeah.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: [laughs] With Lance, I borrowed his laptop one night because I didn't own one and so I was in his room using his laptop and he's brushing his teeth and, like, while he's brushing his teeth, he gives himself a shot of EPO, like, right in front of me. And again, like, that cavalier attitude, that -- like, that had more to do with him saying implicitly, you know, like, "Hey, we're all doing this. Like, this is okay. Like, I don't want to feel bad about it from my conscience standpoint and you shouldn't feel bad about it from your conscious standpoint." And actually at that moment, like, I implicitly agreed with him. That, you know, he was just sort of -- it was almost like him saying like, "Hey, you're my brother now, you know? Like, this -- you get to see this, and I'm not gonna hide it from you."
ALEX BLUMBERG: With EPO fueling their training regimen, Team USPS started winning a few smaller races around Europe as they got ready for the 1999 Tour de France.
But the Tour organizers and the anti-doping authorities, they were also getting ready for the tour, trying to recover from the 1998 scandal.
As the 1999 tour approached, an international summit was called to discuss anti-doping measures, and in France, new anti-doping laws were passed with penalties of up to seven years in prison.
Enforcement at that time relied on blood tests to check for EPO, tests that measured what’s called a rider’s hematocrit level, essentially, the percentage of red blood cells in a rider’s blood stream. EPO increases your red blood cell count, which increases oxygen delivery to your muscles, and oxygen.. that’s the thing which gives your muscles energy. If a rider failed a random drug test, with too high a hematocrit level, they could get suspended and possibly thrown in jail.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did that change the way that it was working on the -- on the team? Did, like, you guys have to, like -- were there stories where you had to evade notice?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. I mean, well, the -- the biggest thing was is -- so the one way you can quote unquote "hide" a high hematocrit is to just introduce more water into your bloodstream, okay? So imagine a tester shows up at 7:00 AM, they'd knock on your door and they'd -- when somebody wakes you up first thing in the morning, you know, they don't necessarily expect you to just be — jump out of bed and throw out your arm for a blood test. So you'd get a knock on the door and you'd have 15 minutes to go downstairs in the lobby of the hotel to get your blood test.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Well, in those 15 minutes, like I said, the one way you can reduce hematocrit is by increasing the amount of water in your bloodstream. So we would oftentimes have, like, a 500-milliliter or one-liter bag of intravenous saline, saltwater sitting underneath our bed. And if we would get the knock that we had to be tested in 15 minutes, um, the doctor would come running into the room and, you know, plug you into this saline bag and -- and, you know, you'd have 500-milliliters or a liter of salt water infused in your blood, which would just dilute your blood out. So it would bring you below the 50 percent limit.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh my God. That's so crazy!
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. And -- and let me tell you, like, it's -- you know, sometimes it's hard to get that much fluid in -- in in 15 minutes. So I've -- you know, I've seen doctors squeezing the bags, twisting the bags, stepping on the bags with their shoes, trying to, like, smash it in as fast as possible.
ALEX BLUMBERG: How does that feel?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Cold. It feels like your arm is very cold because there's a ton of fluid going in there all at once.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh my God. Oh, that's so crazy!
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. I mean this is -- you know, we were, you know, a bunch of gun-slinging cowboys.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And so, those gun slinging cowboys took their talents, and their extra red blood cells, to the 1999 Tour de France.
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: Well what a big difference a year has made, last year we regularly brought reports of police raids on the event, and riders being involved in drug scandals. Well of course we hope the next three weeks will see an end to all of that...
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: And so right before the 1999 tour to France, you know, all the teams, everyone got tested in the race. And our whole team was within just a small fraction of -- of testing over that. And I -- I think I was the one who was closest to testing. I was, like, 0.00001, you know, within -- of going over the -- going over the limit.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But Jonathan says, they all made it in just under the line, and Team USPS began riding in the Tour. The Tour de France takes place in stages, over the course of a few weeks, through different types of terrain. Teams often ride in support of their star rider, taking turns to help the leader get through the different stages by riding in front to cut wind resistance, or fending off challenges from other teams.
Jonathan was out of the race early, after crashing on a road called the Passage du Gois. But his team rallied around their leader, Lance Armstrong, and helped him build his lead.
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: The man making great times out on the course, Phil, is Lance Armstrong, wearing 181. He’s got the fastest time at half-distance...
ALEX BLUMBERG: At the end of each stage of the 3-week race, reporters would ask him about his huge and growing lead. Just one year after the big doping scandal, it was raising some eyebrows.
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: Well there’s no doubt that some sections of the press, mainly French, simply cannot accept that Lance Armstrong is winning this Tour de France by such a great margin.
ARCHIVAL LANCE ARMSTRONG: I can emphatically say that I’m not on drugs. It’s unfortunate that the yellow jersey of the Tour de France always has to defend drugs or say something about drugs but...c’est la vie.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And Armstrong in fact, went on to win the race, his first ever Tour de France.
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: But to the man who has won the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong, only the second American cyclist ever. And the greatest story you would ever wish. He wins the tour by a massive margin, 7 minutes and 37 seconds...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Throughout the 1999 season, Jonathan says EPO use on the team started to become more and more open — now, doping regimens were planned out on spreadsheets. Jonathan says the rules were simple: “Do as you’re told, and don’t ask questions.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did you guys talk about like, keeping the secrets or like not telling people from outside? Like...
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: I think that was just understood. You know, in a way, like, well, nobody understands what we go through. You know, the public isn't ready for this sort of information, you know ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: You can't handle the truth.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: You can't handle the truth. Exactly. No, but that's -- that is -- yeah, that's exactly what it's like. It's -- you know, because -- and -- and -- and there's some truth to that. And that, like, all these people who had helped me when I was a kid come up through the racing ranks, who'd coached me and mentored me and fixed my bike and, you know, and cheered for me. Like, I was their hero, this... You know, and it was like -- you know, when I won this Colorado state championships, I was their hero, and when I went to national championships and got medals, I was their hero, and world champs. And now all of a sudden I was a professional riding the Tour de France. So to them I was like a mythical creature. And you don't want to let those people down. And they're looking at you going, "I would do anything to have your life. Like, it's just what you have is incredible. And -- and every time I see you, I just want to talk about how do you think the Tour de France is gonna go this year and are you ready?" And so on and so forth. And you're thinking in the back of your head like, "Yeah, you can't handle the truth." And -- and it's like you don't want to let them down, and you don't want to let your teammates down, and you don't want to let your sponsors down. And you don't want to let all these people who have supported you down. But yet what you have to do to prevent letting all these people down, to -- to make sure you don't let them down is cheating. And that's a hard thing to live with, because you just basically sit there going, "Well, you know, who do I lie to? Do I lie to myself? Do I lie to my friends? Or, you know, am I honest? And if I'm honest to everyone, do I just let them all down?"
ALEX BLUMBERG: Jonathan struggled with this question of who to lie to for years. He eventually left team USPS, and started riding with a French team to try and stop using EPO. Since you know, you went to jail in France if you were caught doping. And that worked for a while, Jonathan says he stayed clean.
But Lance Armstrong, he continued to be the cyclist to beat, winning the Tour de France again in 2000 and 2001. And Jonathan knew that Team USPS was still doping. When bigger races rolled around, Jonathan knew he'd need to use EPO if he had any chance of competing. Like in the 2002 Tour de France...
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER 1: Hello and welcome to the 89th edition of the Tour de France which next year will celebrate it’s centenary. This year, of course, it’s the american Lance armstrong, and he’s a hotter favorite than ever, Paul.
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER 2: Well before the start, Armstrong is the number one favorite. I don’t see anyone else challenging him...
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: And, you know, so in the build-up to the 2002 Tour de France, I was, you know, kind of like, okay, you know, what are my options here? Well, you know, I don't want to take any doping into France and...So I'm like, "Okay. Well, I have to stop taking it four or five days before the Tour de France." And so then I came up with this whole strategy of, like, well, if I build up my hematocrit to like, you know, 56 percent, you know, a week out from the Tour de France, then stop taking the EPO and then infuse, you know, this -- these saline drips and actually this protein called albumin that, you know, pulls more liquid into your bloodstream, right? And so it was -- it was a very complex strategy. And by the way, you know, since my team was anti-doping, I didn't have a team doctor to go to anymore. So I'm like, "You know, this is like internet research that I'm trying to figure out how to do all this to myself." And so I'm sort of building up and doing it and all the -- you know, I just -- I read the label on the back of this bottle of albumin where it says, you know, "Although unlikely, you know, there's a slight possibility of catching hepatitis C and etcetera." Because this is -- this is made out of, like, human blood, right? And I just remember reading that label and I was like, "Whoa! Okay." Just all of a sudden hit me, like, this has gone too far. This is -- I just -- it just kinda blew my head. I said, "I am -- I am nuts. I'm turning my blood into maple syrup, and now I'm putting this other protein element into my bloodstream that might give me hepatitis C. I've just -- whoa, like, this is just crazy. Like, this has got to stop. And, you know, it was just sort of like the -- you know, the moment where you see the addict just kind of throw everything in the garbage and walk away. And that is basically what happened. Um...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Jeez!
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: You know, and I just -- I didn't finish the Tour de France that year. I went home. And I -- yeah, and I told my team director I'm -- I'm done with racing, and -- and yeah. And that was -- that was it. Like, I just -- I just -- the problem wasn't -- it wasn't that anyone was forcing me to do this or that. It was that I myself was taking it too far, and -- and I didn't see a way around that other than to just walk away from the sport as a whole.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Jonathan retired from cycling basically on the spot at the 2002 Tour de France. He didn’t finish the race. But his former teammate Lance Armstrong? He did finish…
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: And Armstrong races to the line to the victory! There’s no argument who the champion is of the Tour de France, for the fourth year in succession
ALEX BLUMBERG: And then, Armstrong went on to win again in 2003...
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: He’s won the tour de france, with 54 19.66
ALEX BLUMBERG: And 2004...
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: Is there any stopping Lance Armstrong in this tour de france???
ALEX BLUMBERG: And again in 2005...
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: Armstrong wins the time trial, and wins the Tour de France…
ALEX BLUMBERG: A historic 7 victories. More victories than anyone in Tour de France history.
But the whole time the questions about Armstrong’s doping didn’t go away. In 2004, two cycling journalists published a book containing allegations that Armstrong had been doping during his historic Tour De France wins. Armstrong, in return, filed lawsuits, claiming libel. On the podium to accept his seventh straight Tour de France victory in 2005, Armstrong had some words for his doubters.
ARCHIVAL ARMSTRONG: And finally, the last thing I’ll say for the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics...I’m sorry for you, I’m sorry you can’t dream big, and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. this is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe. This is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it so...um… vive le tour. Forever. Thank you...
ALEX BLUMBERG: But Jonathan knew it wasn’t just a miracle. Or, maybe it was a miracle, just a scientific miracle...Anyway, he wanted to do something about it. What he did? That’s coming up, after the break.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Jonathan Vaughters.
After the 2002 Tour de France, Jonathan retired from professional cycling. He knew it was the only way he'd finally give up doping.
But he stayed close to the cycling world. In fact, he started his own team. And the conflict that Jonathan felt as a rider — do I lie to everyone about EPO, or do I give up EPO and lose races? — it led him to adopt an anti-doping stance on his team. He worked to train young cyclists without EPO, even if it meant their results weren’t as good.
Lance Armstrong, after his seventh Tour de France win in 2005, he retired from cycling too. And as he and the rest of the cycling community took stock of his record-setting run of victories, investigators and reporters continued to ask questions about whether doping was behind it all. And Armstrong continued to deny any wrongdoing.
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: Can you unequivocally say you have never used an illegal substance ever?
ARCHIVAL ARMSTRONG: Listen, I’ve said it for seven years, I’ve said it for longer than seven years, I have never doped. I can say it again, but I’ve said it for seven years it doesn’t help. But the fact of the matter is I haven’t, and if you consider my situation, a guy who comes back from, arguably a death sentence. Why would I then enter into a sport and dope myself up and risk my life again, that’s crazy I would never do that! ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: I remember seeing that and feeling convinced -- yeah. What did you -- what did you -- what did you think when you saw that?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Well, I mean, I knew it was absolute bullshit when I saw it. So it's -- you know, and I remember looking at his face and understanding, you know, having been around him for a lot of my life. Like, oh yeah, you know, like he -- this is how -- and even the way he phrases things, you know, he's kind of trying to divert the attention and saying it doesn't matter if I say it again. And it's like, well, okay. But actually it does. And even the, like, why would I risk my life again? Like, you know, there's no research that shows that EPO, you know, has anything to do with testicular cancer. So to him -- and by the way, high-risk personality. I mean, it's more likely to crash and kill yourself by hitting your head on a -- you know, the pavement than it is to somehow induce testicular cancer through using EPO. Um...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did -- but did you have any sympathy? Because you were also publicly -- still publicly denying it.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. I mean I was becoming more and more conflicted at this point in time, but it was like, I felt like I had to toe the public line. And, you know, if you rat them out for lack of a better phrase, like, their lives are gonna be profoundly impacted by that. Um. And, you know, these are guys who you respect, and at a certain point in your life you kind of loved them like a brother. And, you know, why would you want to ruin their existence?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Even as he worked to keep his cycling team clean, Jonathan kept toeing the party line in public, keeping USPS doping a secret. But in 2005, a former USPS rider Tyler Hamilton received a two-year ban from cycling for a positive drug test result in the 2004 Olympics. Hamilton denied the results of the test, and attacked the US Anti-Doping Agency, USADA, calling their test, quote, “a tragedy for all athletes.” The doublespeak was beginning to wear on Jonathan.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: So when this 2004 Tyler Hamilton positive came out and USADA's just getting murdered in the media, I thought, "I gotta go tell these USADA guys that they just need to keep it up. Like, someone needs to give them a pat on the back." And so I went into USADA, and they didn't know what to make of it. Like, okay, you're an ex-professional cyclist, you're coming in out of nowhere to tell us good job and to give us a few, like, little helpful hints on how to catch more people. I mean, they were totally blown -- they were like, "Okay. All right." You know, and ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: You actually went into the office?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did you make an appointment or did you just show up one day?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah. No, no. I called the CEO of USADA, and -- and he's like, "You want to talk about what?" And I told him and he said, "Okay." And I came in. And we sat down, and point by point went through a lot of stuff.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did -- did at that point, like, you know, we'd talked about the morally complicated situation here of, like, would you feel like a rat? Did you feel like a rat?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Oh, yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You did.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Oh, yeah. Without a doubt. Sure. I didn't name any names that first time in USADA. I just said, "Maybe you guys should try, you know, knocking on the door a little earlier and not allowing there to be 15 minutes." Or maybe you guys should try this and how about trying that, or whatever. I was giving them, like -- you know, I was basically outlining to them how a lot of the cheating worked to give them a clue as to how to better, you know, enforce the rules. But I wasn't naming names at that point in time. I was -- I was giving them an insight into what the culture was broadly, but I was -- I was still playing it one step back. Because you're right, I didn't want to rat anyone out. Not -- not yet, anyway.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did you talk to anybody before you did that?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Oh, yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What were people counseling you?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Well, you know, different counsel from different people. Because, you know, we were doing this upstart team at that point in time. And -- and so, you know, my boss who very much sympathized with the situation and very much wanted the truth to come out, he said, "When the truth comes out, it needs to come out with a group of people." It can't -- because Lance was enormously successful at, if one person came out, of basically just decapitating that one person, ruining their image, sort of ruining their life, and saying that they're a liar and an alcoholic and an idiot or whatever it was. And then that person would just be sort of a dead body on the side of the road. And, you know, it was gonna always take a group of people saying, "Okay, this is what happened."
ALEX BLUMBERG: So Jonathan decided to stay quiet in public, but behind the scenes, he went to work. He says he tried to convince former USPS teammates to come forward and talk with the US Anti Doping Agency, and he acted as a confidential source for investigative pieces on doping in The New York Times.
And in 2012, the US Anti-Doping Agency conducted an investigation, and took sworn affidavits, confirming the doping rumors, from a number of Armstrong’s former USPS teammates. Jonathan was one of them.
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR: Lance Armstrong...and today the final chapter of his epic fall from grace. Once an American hero, now officially stripped of his seven Tour de France titles...
ALEX BLUMBERG: And around this time, Jonathan also wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, in which he admitted to doping. Jonathan had finally gone public.
ALEX BLUMBERG: After you did finally come fully clean to the public and everything, after you put your name and your -- your -- you're in public saying, "I did this, and other people did too." And you're part of an affidavit, and you write -- and your writing an editorial. How -- how did that feel?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Well, you know, I'd been wanting to do it for years and years and so it felt like a relief. You know? It was -- it was a group of us coming forward. It was a group of us taking that leap. It was a group of us saying, you know, we can help prevent this going forward. You know, it was a group of us acknowledging what we'd done in the past. And it, you know, it had a meaningful impact. And, you know, that -- that felt good. You know, the thousands of comments on social media that were very negative regarding me, that felt less good.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What were those comments?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: I mean, I don't -- you know, any -- it's amazing the things people will say on social media. Like, it's something that, like, in a million years, that you would never say those things to someone who you were, like, trying to kill, you know? But people will say it on social media as just like a throwaway statement. It's ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Well, yeah. I mean, as somebody who had, like, wasn't following cycling, but like so many people around that time got interested in it because sort of of Lan -- Lance Armstrong. And the story, like, the recovering from cancer and then winning all those Tour de Frances and, like, the Live Strong bracelets. And you're saying that whole story that so many of us believed, and that fed us and that inspired us, that story was a lie.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Hmm. Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And so it's not surprising that people were mad at you for that.
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: If you had known that that's how people were gonna take it, would you have done it?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: I mean, I knew -- I knew it wasn't gonna be flowers when you come out with something that, you know, big. Lance had very loyal fans that just thought of him as, you know, as a deity, as a true icon. And -- you know, and you're the asshole that -- that is -- that is poking a hole in that. You know, that was never gonna go down well with a -- with a lot of people.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So -- so -- so was it worth it then?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: I think it was. I think that the sport needed a shock so severe to -- to get it to kick out of this sort of little secret bros club culture that had developed over so many years.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Is cycling free of doping now?
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: Well, it's impossible for me to say, you know, if it's 100 percent free of doping or not. Who knows? But can clean riders win the biggest races in the world nowadays? The answer to that in 1996 is no, absolutely not. Like, don't even ask me the question. It's laughable. The answer to that in 2019 is absolutely yes. And I've also gotten to watch, you know, like a guy like Alex Howes, who he's U.S. national champion rider, U.S. professional national cycling champion. He's been with me since 2004. So the guy started racing for me when he was, like, 13 years old. He's a lifelong employee. And he's never even encountered doping. Nobody's ever come to him with a decision, nobody's ever pressured him. Nobody's ever had this talk about the moral -- well, maybe it's this and maybe, you know, you should really think of it as medicine. He's never seen a needle. It's never -- it's never been a part of his life at all. And he's going to enjoy a 15-year professional career in cycling where he's earned, you know, great money and has a wonderful house and a wonderful life and -- you know, and has been able to provide for a family. And he will have done it without ever having to have been in that rock and a hard place decision of who do I disappoint, who do I lie to, who do I let down? He never had to hit that at all. And to me, that's the point of anti-doping. Like, if that happens, then all of this crap that I went through and my generation went through has been absolutely worth it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Jonathan Vaughters continues to manage his cycling team, which recently placed fourth in the 2019 Tour de France. Jonathan’s also written a new book, a memoir about his experiences with doping called “One-Way Ticket: Nine Lives on Two Wheels.”
Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick, Rob Szypko and Heba Elorbany. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.
Mixing by Kegan Zema and music by Bobby Lord.
If you like Without Fail, please follow us! You can get every episode for free through Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.