A Face You Can Trust

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"Our team is a long-term proposition, so in terms of what happens next year, and where people's attention is, in some ways I think Lance coming back is good. Now a guy like Christian Vande Velde has the chance to actually beat, mano a mano, a sports legend, and that could elevate him, and our team, to a place in the public eye we never could have been elevated to if this hadn't happened. It gives us an opportunity to prove how good Christian Vande Velde and the team actually are. It's going to force us to up our game. If we can rise to the occasion it's a good opportunity for us." Jonathan Vaughters on Velonews.com

Lance is back!  I'm almost hesitant to say this, but he (allegedly) headlines an Astana squad that contains the likes of two time Grand Tour champion Alberto Contador, perennial powerhouse Andreas Kloden, and the best American rider until this week, Levi Leipheimer.  This is the team that has won eight out of the last ten Tours de France, and is well on its way to owning three out of the last six Grand Tours if things continue the way they are going in the Vuelta a Espana.  If the whole Armstrong deal goes through, and assuming that Astana is the place he is going to, Astana will be a team that no one else can match...Or will it be?

I wasn't sure when I read the quote above, whether it was the smartest thing to call out the man who has won the most Tours.  And all of them in a row, if that means anything.  It seems crazier when you are the head of a Continental Tour team, a full level below Astana's stomping grounds.  But for Jonathan Vaughters, this was just another perfectly executed break away in the world that goes on while the bikes sleep.

In the spring of 2007, you would be hard pressed to find someone who had heard of the Slipstream-Chipoltle team save for the die hard fans of the sport.  I myself only heard of it from a small blip in Bicycling Magazine.  Then came a well placed attack in the U.S. Open of Cycling (Where did it go?) that led to a second place finish in the only nationally televised bike race of the year.  While the Tour was having fiascos with Vino and Chicken, Vaughters was quietly signing stars like David Millar, David Zabriskie, and Christian Vande Velde.  It is also hard to forget that Slipstream was not even considered a top level team at the beginning of this year, having to fight their way into France with gutsy riding in the Tour of California and Paris-Nice that sometimes worked against them.  Now they are a force with staying power, something very rare in cycling.

But for all of their exploits on the road, it is the lab that has given Slipstream its permanence.  Vaughters is really the champion of internal testing for doping, not instituting it out of shame for the past, like CSC and T-Mobile did, but just for the simple pride to be able to say that his riders were the first that could be certifiably clean.  It is this kind of feeling that cycling fans are looking for.  They bring all of the excitement of a Ricco or Basso attack while removing the doubt and suspension of disbelief.  It is okay to trust cyclists again.

This is not the first time I have looked at a Vaughters quote and ghasped at his brash, cocky style of delivery.  I'm a Tom Danielson fan, but when he said that Tom was putting out the power to ride with anyone in Europe, I was more than a little skeptical.  It takes me a second to realize that this is what I like so much about him.  He has this air of apathy, that he is going to attack, that he might not have the best riders to do so, or attack in the best spot, but he does not care one way or the other.  Maybe it is from the fact that he has nothing to hide that he attacks so much; there will not be the doubt that some other teams would face riding the way that Slipstream does.  It does not matter, because Jonathan Vaughters has engineered a team that is here to stay from its days of anonimity as TIAA-CREF.  And he refuses to use the hackneyed mantras of game time decisions and "We'll see about his performance".  No, if you have a slight shot, Vaughters will talk about you like Eddie Merckx.

You might be asking me why I keep saying that Slipstream is here to stay.  Well its because they have done something nobody has done in the sport of late, and are no longer Slipstream.  In June, just before the tour and much to my annoyance, Slipstream-Chipoltle became Garmin-Chipoltle, losing their stylish pink and orange, argyle jerseys.  The fashionistas' loss is cycling's gain when you consider some of the other names that are no longer in the sport.  Phonak fell in after Landis' demise (I still say that the French framed him).  Lance Armstrong's own Discovery Channel Team folded months after winning their eighth tour in nine years (I still say that they gave up too soon, but that is material for another entry).  Just in the last two months three teams have crashed due to lack of sponsorship: Credit Agricole, Barloworld, and Gerolsteiner, and maybe a fourth if you can figure out what is going on with Saunier-Duval Prodir Scott American Beef.  Slipstream's story is unique because it is one of the few teams in the last few years to bring a new sponsor into the sport, not cling to the old one for years like Rabobank and not fold after a few when in limbo for a few months like the traitorous Tailwind Sports squad (I will not hide my bitterness about how American cycling was screwed over that day).

There's an ample amount of information out there to make me trust in what Vaughters says, even if it does make me cringe.  The question is when he talks about Vande Velde beating Armstrong head to head, dare we believe him?

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