By Kathy Day
Local resident Mark Johnson shares an insider’s view of professional cycling’s Team Garmin-Cervélo in his new book “Argyle Armada.”
And it’s not just a tiny peek – it’s 11 months worth of being on the road with some of the world’s best riders as they train and race from California and Colorado to the Tour de France.
“Being with athletes of this caliber for nearly a year … people so underestimate what they are capable of,” said Johnson, a graduate of UCSD who holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston. “They plumb the depths of their physical and psychological capacity.”
It’s that strength and the story behind the sport that drew him to writing the book, which gets its name from the classic argyle on the team’s jerseys. It’s a book written about the team, not for it, he emphasized.
When asked which came first, riding or writing, he said his interests in both developed about the same time while he was at UCSD.
Now 47, he has written about and photographed cycling since the 1980s. He’s also a cyclist himself, although never a professional rider like those in his book, and he’s spent time working with the management of the Garmin-Cervélo team, handling its internal and external communications. (For the 2012 season, the team has a new sponsor and name – Garmin-Barracuda – but the team will still ride Cervélo bikes.)
So when the team members asked if they could license some of his photos, he said he started talking to the team’s founder, Jonathan Vaughters – a former member of Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team – about the possibility of “embedding” with the team for its 2011 season.
Vaughters liked the idea enough to give Johnson unlimited access to the team, from meetings to the bus to hotel rooms. He was there for strategy and training sessions, there for post-race briefings, and there when the cyclists were eating and relaxing.
Because of that, he is able to tell stories of the individual challenges and triumphs, and the politics and business of world-class cycling.
He was also there to see them tackle such races as the Amstel Gold in Holland, which has 32 climbs over the equivalent of 162 miles.
“That’s like going up Torrey Pines 32 times at 20 mph,” he said, adding that for the cyclists it’s just another day at work.
“It’s like joining a monastery – it’s all that they do.”
While the term “embedded” normally connotes a reporter’s involvement with the military during war, Johnson said his agent used the word appropriately in this case.
“I was living and traveling with them. It’s just that the blood oozing from their bodies was from crashing, not weaponry.”
Vaughters quit riding after 2002 because of his “disgust with doping,” he said, and formed a development team to train younger cyclists to “compete at a high level without doping.”
That grew into the team that won four stages of the 2011 Tour de France, wore the yellow jersey – signifying the day’s winning rider – for seven days, and won the overall team title.
“France validated Vaughter’s belief that they could win without cheating,” Johnson said. That the time for one of the toughest mountain stages was three minutes slower than the year before was an indication that there was less doping going on, he added.
But while the race across the mountains and valleys of France is the world’s premier race, for Johnson, a few of the other events along the way were more exciting or more scenic for a variety of reasons.
Among his favorite racing moments was when Garmin- Cervélo’s Johan Vansummeren won the spring classic, Paris Roubaix, one of cycling’s oldest races first held in 1896.
A domestique – a rider who works for the others on the team — he won because he was able to attack and because teammate Thor Hushovd sacrificed his chance of winning for Vansummeren, Johnson said.
“It was a team effort, a poignant moment … a bit melancholy,” he added.
The emotions of that victory are just a small piece of what Johnson was able to capture in words and photos because he was aboard the team bus when Vansummeren came in after the race.
The unique access Johnson was given is something that couldn’t have happened 10 years ago, he said.
Back then a lot of teams were using illegal means to their advantage, but Vaughters had nothing to hide, he added.
For him the 224-page book is a “story about more than the dream. It’s more about the changing culture of cycling.”
It’s also about an economic shift in the sport and the fact that cycling has done more than other sports to eliminate doping.
“The fans would like to know they are truly honest heroes,” Johnson said.
Keeping track of his work while on the road with the team was a challenge. At the end of each day — at whatever hour that was – he wrote on his notebooks a few identifying details and downloaded and tagged his photos. His background in English literature was helpful with his writing and his ability to follow through on the narrative and the overall project.
For a brief time, his wife Melinda — also a cyclist — and sons Nico and Sammy joined him in Spain, staying for a couple of weeks to take Spanish lessons. After that they joined him for a stage of the Tour de France.
He spent most of December and January writing the final draft; the book was published in early March.
When he got down to meeting with his editor in November, he had 100,000 photos that they culled to 250. “They were critical because they affected the narrative,” he said, as he showed how the copy flows with the imagery on each page.
Because the coffee table-style book is laden with such a wealth of photos, Johns said he fears that people may not read it.
But the story is as important as the pictures, he said.
Johnson didn’t just pick up a pen and start writing. He’s a student of sport, who counts among his reading list Christopher Thompson’s “Tour de France: A Cultural History” and Marvin Miller’s “A Whole Different Ball Game,” which tells the story of how baseball changed when players unionized.
He’s also read Terry Lovell’s “Bernie Ecclestone: King of Sport” to learn about “how Formula 1 became a $2 billion dollar business.” And sitting on his nightstand is Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls,” which is about the rise and fall of the American Basketball Association, which he plans to read “for insight on how not to run a sports league.”
Johnson says he has “become fascinated by how other major sports have evolved as businesses, because in many respects pro cycling never did.”
Professional cyclists do not share in television revenues as other athletes do, he added. “They survive by going to sponsors.”
It’s not an inexpensive sport, he said, detailing some of the expenses: Each team has about 30 riders, who have three or four bikes each. It costs about $250,000 per team in wheels alone, although the gear comes from equipment sponsors. Add in the flights and hotels and staff of, on average, two per rider.
Vaughters, he said, “has figured out a way to introduce change into the way the sport is managed.”
But until the riders organize or until “someone recognizes a lot of money is being left on the table,” he doesn’t see the economics of cycling changing.
“There are as many cyclists as there are tennis players, golfers and snow skiers combined,” he said to make his point about the popularity of the sport. “The market is there, but there’s limited exposure because cycling is organized by different people in different countries.”
Today, Johnson is busy traveling to market the book. He spent recent days along the route of the Tour de California, holding book signings and talking about the project. He’s entertaining thoughts about another book, perhaps about professional triathletes, and continues to work for the Garmin-Barracuda team and write for a broad range of cycling publications.