Last September, Garmin-Sharp bike racing team member Tom Danielson was facing the beginning of a six-month suspension for admitting to doping while he was part of Lance Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team prior to 2007.
He and fellow Garmin-Sharp teammates Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie — also former Armstrong teammates — were among a number of riders who gave statements in the now infamous U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) report on Lance Armstrong. Vande Velde and Zabriskie were also suspended.
It was what the riders hope will be the last chapter in pro cycling’s troubled past.
But for Danielson, that book was closed in 2008 when he joined Jonathan Vaughters’ Boulder-based Slipstream — now Garmin-Sharp — team. Vaughters, a former pro and an Armstong teammate who admitted to doping, started Slipstream with team chairman Doug Ellis with the intention of fixing pro cycling.
“They pioneered the movement to clean up the sport,” Neal Rogers, editor and longtime cycling reporter for Velonews told the Summit Daily.
“Jonathan is a visionary,” Danielson said.
The team led the way by implementing self-imposed weekly anti-doping testing, and programs that have since been adopted by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale).
Danielson jumped at the opportunity to race clean, and be at the forefront of promoting clean cycling.
He called Vaughters’ team a “safe house” for riders in a sport where doping had become the norm.
“It was a different game and a different atmosphere,” he said of the years prior to joining what is now Garmin-Sharp. “It (doping) was just an accepted part of the culture.”
Vaughters echoed the sentiment. “When I was racing, doping was the de facto practice, that was accepted in the culture.”
Danielson spoke candidly about the troubles that he went through personally and the pressure to dope.
“I felt that that’s what I needed to do to perform. It was everywhere.”
It was a choice that he acknowledged as a “horrible decision,” and one he suffered for.
“I resented my sport. I resented myself. Everything changes.”
He said it got to a point where he suffered so much anxiety about it, the risks and the possibility of being caught, that it negatively affected his performance and his health.
“When Garmin gave me the opportunity to not do that, it was the best thing that ever happened in my career,” he said.
Now he welcomes the opportunity to educate a younger generation of cyclists, and promote what’s great about cycling.
“I’m thankful to be a part of changing the sport,” he said.
“As a person I feel a lot more satisfied with myself. Now everything’s out there, people know the mistakes I’ve made.”
He went on to say, “I really wish I hadn’t made the mistakes I made.”
But those mistakes have also given him the voice of experience. “It means something more. You can talk about the problems you had and how it made you miserable. People take it to heart.”
While the cloud of cycling’s past still looms, Danielson and Vaughters, along with a number of others in the cycling world, said they believe their beloved sport is on the upswing.
“Culturally, it’s 180 degrees from when I was racing,” Vaughters said. “If you look at it today, the people that make the decision (to dope) are quickly ostracized. It’s not accepted. It’s not what the cool kids do anymore ”
He also spoke to how far testing has come.
For the Pro Challenge, for example, each day the stage winner, the G.C. leader and at least two riders are tested immediately after the finish of the day’s stage. UCI also now tests more between races.
Vaughters and his team were at the forefront of implementing what is now referred to as the biological passport program, which regularly tests cyclists’ blood and compares results to a previous baseline test looking for inconsistencies or changes.
As to the new culture of cycling, “I’ve definitely had my best results on this side of the fence,” Danielson said. Those results include an eighth-place finish in the Tour de France a few years ago, and a G.C. win in this year’s Tour of Utah.
He and others say cycling now has more of a focus on “marginal gains” that improve speed incrementally, like using more aerodynamic equipment.
Also, “people are paying a lot more attention to diet and nutrition,” he said. “That’s where people are getting the edge now.” He pointed out that some teams have chefs who cook with ingredients that act as natural anti-inflammatory agents to help riders recover more quickly.
“The sport has evolved so much,” he said. “I think cycling is better than ever.”