Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life by Mark Johnson is a beautiful book. Its nearly 200 pages contain a succession of the author’s captivating, intimate and insightful pictures taken during the 2011 season as he followed the (then) Garmin-Cervйlo team throughout the year. Presented by VeloPress in a large format, it is the perfect coffee table cycling book.
Yet it is also a serious book about cycling. “Single file over the top, they [team riders out on a training ride] sibilate down the climb like a blue and black snake beneath a canopy of oak leaves.” That’s some great writing, and the sentence appears on just page 11, announcing to the reader that the author intends to make this book not only a visual feast but also a pleasure to read. So when I spoke to Johnson about the book, one of my first questions was about his intentions.
“That’s one of my fears,” he said, “is that people will pick up the book and look at the pictures and not read it. I like the craft of writing as much as photography and I probably spent as much time writing the book as editing the photos – that sentence that you read, I probably re-wrote it six times before I got it right. The narrative is as important; photographs just skim the surface and can’t begin to convey what [team boss Jonathan] Vaughters is doing. You don’t often get the riders’ perspective on what they’re doing.”
Johnson is certainly well positioned to produce such work. Extensively published in cycling periodicals, he also has a PhD in English literature and is a Cat.2 racer. His involvement with the team started in 2007 when they contacted him to licence some photos, but then found out he was also a writer and an editor. He helped out with writing pitches to potential sponsors. “As I came to understand the painful business processes that they have to deal with, this is an interesting story,” Johnson said. “Then there’s Vaughters trying to change the entire structure of the sport.” Vaughters was supportive of the project, but the book only got publisher support for the 2011 season. “I was originally thinking 2009 and 2010 and luckily it didn’t come together until last year. Even being at Paris-Roubaix this year with Vansummeren getting ninth, it just wouldn’t have been the same book.”
As well as the excitement of capturing the behind-the-scenes action of winning races, Argyle Armada also covers the business and the politics of cycling. I was interested to know whether there were any issues in getting the riders to open up to a journalist about this aspect of their sport.
“I was in Girona with them for a month at the start of the year,” Johnson explained. “Then I met them again in Belgium, and that developed their confidence. They’re used to being interviewed by online journalists like Daniel Benson from Cycling News and their quotes going online in a couple of hours. I explained to them what I was doing with the book and I don’t remember a single time where they said ‘you can’t be here’ – except at the Tour of California,” which was when the Tyler Hamilton story on 60 Minutes broke. The riders were warming up for the TT and the team’s media person was trying to create some space for them away from the reporters looking for quotes about Hamilton, an incident recounted in the book.
PEZ writers know all about the challenge of getting rider interviews. And the Internet has made reporting much more direct and immediate. News is published very quickly and, as well, the riders can now get their own views out to their followers via Twitter. I wondered what Johnson’s views were on the changing nature of cycling journalism.
“One of the joys of doing this book was that my deadline wasn’t for months after these events took place, so my objective was to take a more methodical approach in terms of how I presented the events and to give the riders time to process the information,” he explained. “Vaughters loves Twitter and it drives his PR person [Marya Pongrace] insane, because her job is to control the message and he’s always tweeting things. But that’s part of his appeal that he’s constantly going off the reservation. For the riders, Tyler Farrar doesn’t have a Twitter account and the others give him a hard time about joining the 21st Century but he values his privacy. It becomes a big distraction as well, although they have a lot down time in their hotel rooms so they have a lot time to burn. But as far as how it has affected journalism, it has allowed some journalists to be lazy. But if you’re serious about the craft you can do some stuff that really distinguishes you.”
What distinguishes Argyle Armada is that Johnson has taken the opportunity for a methodical approach to carefully consider some of the wider issues facing pro cycling, particularly on the business and politics side. I wondered if, in Johnson’s view, cycling was at a crossroads and that it was important to look into this side of the sport.
“Yes, I did,” he explained. “And the reason for that is Vaughters has this long-term project to make the sport more stable for the riders, the team owners and for the race organizers – studiously leaving out the UCI. Stability always comes back to economics and the sport is fundamentally unstable because it never matured like other sports like baseball or Formula One because, among other reasons, there’s no steady year-to-year revenue sharing from television. Because that never happened, teams come and go, they disappear, and it becomes harder to follow for fans, and it becomes harder to justify investing in the sport as a marketing vehicle because you can’t be sure that a team is going to the Tour de France. Garmin can invest through 2013 but unless they have someone like Doug Ellis to fill in the gap, the team could disappear.”
Plus зa change…, perhaps, given cycling’s history of sponsorship. What better evidence than the numerous name changes that Vaughters’ team has gone through. Are we likely to see anything actually change? “I think that all the pieces are there for it to happen,” Johnson suggested. “But what cycling lacks is a leader to come in and make it happen. Right now the de facto leader is the ASO and it’s in their interest for nothing to happen because they collect all the revenue and don’t have to share it. They put on exquisite events, they deliver – they do a great job. But until someone comes in like a Marvin Miller in baseball or Bernie Ecclestone in Formula One I just don’t see it happening. Vaughters is the nominal leader of the teams but I don’t see how one person would have the bandwidth to revolutionize the sport and run a team, keeping a team afloat.”
Johnson covers this issue in some detail in the book, talking to riders about their views and to race organizers about the challenges they face, and even recounts a choice moment at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge where Vaughters invited UCI president Pat McQuaid, a frequent sparing partner over the future of the sport, along for a ride in the team car on one of the stages. Given how well supported the Challenge was, along with other races in North America, and the apparent burgeoning popularity of the sport, I asked Johnson if the New World held the promise of giving the sport the renewed boost that it needs.
“I think it already has,” was his reply. “In the United States you can now watch on television the Tour of Romandie or the Tour of the Basque Country, races that are relatively obscure, as well as the big Pro Tour races, shows that it already has changed. At some point, someone will realize that potentially a lot of money is being left on the table, and that’s where the outsider will come in. It has to be someone who understands the history of the sport and respects the culture. I mention this in the book; if you try to turn cycling into something like Formula One, something packaged and antiseptic product, it would lose a lot of its charm. No one I spoke to suggested that that should happen. Vaughters or David Millar or Pat McQuaid, they all want to keep cycling’s historic ways, at the same time that the sport becomes better managed. Focusing on the business of cycling made the book a lot more interesting for me as a writer. Just writing about who won each stage, who attacked, who bridged up – you can already read that news elsewhere.”
We as readers can be grateful that Johnson does give us much to consider in the book about the future of the sport. But at the level of the racing, which gets plenty of coverage as well – particularly the less glamorous side – I was interested if Johnson felt his ‘fair and balanced’ approach slipping at anytime and he found himself actually rooting for the Garmin-Cervйlo riders.
“Yeah, for instance at Paris-Roubaix, it was hard not to fall into the emotion of the moment when Vansummeren won,” Johnson responded. “Because he’s a domestique, his job is not to win; his job is to keep Tyler Farrar out of the wind for 200 kilometres and then move out of the way. The fact that he won, and that he’s such a humble guy, was very emotional. I was really rooting for him when he got away with 10 kilometres to go, I couldn’t help but hope that he would pull it off.“
Johan Vansummeren en route to Roubaix glory.
“It was partly selfish, too,” he joked. “I knew if he won Paris-Roubaix it would make for a quite a chapter, and generate more interest in the team and lead to more people buying the book. Also, in terms of rooting for the guys, they were just decent people. It wasn’t like they were a bunch of dickheads. It makes it easier to root for someone if they’re a good person and I certainly found that across the board with all the riders. On race day, a lot of them wouldn’t give me the time of day and I would just blend in with all the other journalists. I understood that completely; their job is to focus. But once the racing was done, they afforded me more time and attention than I could have ever imagined.”
When PEZ caught up with Johnson, he was back in Del Mar, just north of San Diego in California, having been out promoting Argyle Armada, and was shortly heading off for reporting duties at the Tour of California. With this book completed, I asked what was next in terms of big projects. “I had a publisher contact me about potentially doing a similar type of book following a pro triathlete,” he said. “I would certainly consider doing a similar book on another cycling team. The team that comes to mind is GreenEDGE because of their association with a country, which is something that cycling doesn’t have. In baseball, the Montreal Expos represent Montreal; the team can suck, but they don’t go away every year. That’s something that cycling teams have never had – a connection to a population or a geographic space. That could be worth studying: is that going to give them more longevity?”
When we spoke, GreenEDGE had yet to announce its new title sponsor and there were rumours that it would be a Chinese company, perhaps diluting the Australian identity of GreenEDGE. As it turned out, it was the Australian mining-services company Orica that has added its name to the banner. This suggests that a book on the team, including its business model and politics, would be worthwhile indeed. GreenEDGE has Svein Tuft and Christian Meier, two local lads from the PEZ HQ area in Vancouver, on its roster and Giro team no less, which certainly adds a Canadian flavour to the mix and a potential dilemma for local fans more used to cheering on Ryder Hesjedal on the (now) Garmin-Barracuda squad. Little did I know how this would change at the Giro.
Ultimately, spending some time reading Argyle Armada will make you think more about the business model of pro cycling and what the future might hold. Many thanks to Mark Johnson for spending some of his time talking to PEZ about how it all came together and the future projects we should be looking out for.
Argyle Armada is available at all online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, your local bike shop, or you can order a signed copy from Mark’s web site, Ironstring.com.
Ryder Hesjedal’s victory in the Giro seemed to validate everything about Vaughters’ approach to organizing and managing a racing team, as well as their first Grand Tour victory being a major milestone. PEZ went back to Johnson just after the Giro win and asked him to put it in perspective.
“One of the things that struck me about the team’s medical staff is how interested they were in holistic approach to medicine,” Johnson said. “The doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists were personally and professionally vested in looking at the riders as interconnected mind-body organisms, rather than machines that demonstrated various symptoms.
“For me, Hesjedal’s Giro win is a testament to how that holistic approach to human performance also informs the way Vaughters has built his team. Rather than hiring a single superstar rider and dictating to the team that they are at his service in the defense of a Giro win, Vaughters and Allan Peiper put together a raft of riders whose collective efforts allowed Hesjedal to reach a level of success that was latent, but as yet not totally realized. The Giro win is a tremendous validation of Vaughters’ approach to winning races: hire a collection of strong, honest, like-minded riders then get out of the way and let them perform to the best of their capacity. I also think that the win shows what a smart move it was to bring Peiper on board. He is one of the most experienced, and, in the general public’s eyes, perhaps under-appreciated directors in the sport. His quiet guidance of Hesjedal to a Grand Tour win may change that perception for good.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how this Giro win affects the team’s collective sense of confidence at the Tour de France this year. I also think the win can’t but help give Vaughters more stature as he continues to try to improve the business side of the sport. With every big win like this, it becomes more and more difficult for the old guard to dismiss him and his vision.”
For more info – head over to www.ArgyleArmadaBook.com!