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Tour de France winner so far: A new type of American champion

A US cycling team that debuted five years ago with the lofty goal of transforming cycling’s doping culture is taking the 2011 Tour de France by storm.

Team Garmin-Cervélo won its first-ever stage victory on Sunday, repeated the feat Monday, and is currently No. 1 in the team standings while squad member Thor Hushovd is the overall individual winner so far.

There is little doubt that its riders are clean: the squad has pioneered a rigorous system of drug testing that goes far beyond the mandatory tests imposed by cycling officials. Since the team went pro in 2007, not a single rider has tested positive.

“I am confident that clean riders can win big races,” said team director Jonathan Vaughters after Garmin cyclist Tyler Farrar won Stage 3 on Monday. “The proof is in the pudding. We’ve showed [it’s possible.]”

Indeed, in the post-Lance Armstrong era, Garmin-Cervélo is emerging as a new sort of American champion – one that can win at cycling’s marquee event without the cloud of doping doubts that has hovered over everyone from seven-time Tour victor Armstrong to this year’s favorite, Spaniard Alberto Contador.

Garmin’s rigorous drug-testing program

Garmin’s success, particularly its unprecedented win on Sunday, is also a landmark moment for Vaughters, a former teammate of Armstrong and an outspoken opponent of doping.

His Garmin squad is one of the few teams in the professional peloton that’s openly committed to an “anti-doping” policy.

Throughout the season, Garmin riders are subjected to independent drug controls run by Dr. Don Catlin, a pioneer of anti-doping tests. (HTC-Highroad, a rival American squad, also uses Catlin’s lab.)

These tests are a supplement to the official controls administered by race officials and the UCI, professional cycling’s governing body.

In addition, the team has riders sign a contract that stipulates, among other things, that they won’t use needles or take infusions of any kind.

Originally, Vaughters’ team was focused on youth training. After retiring from a nine-year racing career in 2003, including a stint with Armstrong’s US Postal Squad, the Denver native took $50,000 of his own money and started Slipstream Sports, a venture aimed at cultivating young American riders.

Two years later, he was approached by Doug Ellis, a New York businessman who wanted to start an American ProTour team. By 2008, the squad had become Garmin-Chipotle, partnering with the GPS makers and the Mexican grill restaurant chain, and was racing in the Tour de France.

A Tour stage win proved to be elusive for the team, though it came close at times: Before Sunday’s win, the team had recorded 17 second or third place finishes in the Tour.

“We’ve got to get that monkey off our backs,” Vaughters said last week at the team’s pre-race press conference, referring to the lack of stage wins.

This year, the team includes US standouts Farrar, a Washington state native, Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie, and Tom Danielson. After picking up some riders during the off-season from the now defunct Cervélo Test Team, including Thor Hushovd, the wins have come in droves.

“These things take time though, you can’t go around and win overnight,” says veteran Julian Dean, a New Zealander who’s been with the team since its inception and rode with Vaughters on US Postal in the late ’90s as a youngster. “We’ve built a team over the years and now it’s successful.”

Brash doping talk ruffles feathers, particularly with Contador riding

Brash, outspoken, and often professorial (with tweedy blazers to match), Vaughters has always been eager to promote his team’s anti-doping efforts.

“I talk about [doping] because this team has taken a very public stance and we need to stand by that,” he said after Monday’s race. “To be quiet about it is not correct.”

Vaughters’ frank talk continues to ruffle some feathers in the peloton, though he is not an outcast; this fall, he was re-elected president of pro cycling’s team association, the AIGCP.

“There are two distinct schools – the ones who say let’s continue to discuss doping and the other is let’s race clean, but talk about bike racing,” says Ben Delaney, editor-in-chief of VeloNews, an American cycling magazine. “I think some of the latter group feel miffed that Vaughters has to point out that he’s won clean and think, ‘Is that insinuating that everyone else isn’t?’ “

His typically sharp statements have become especially pointed this year with Spain’s Alberto Contador, the three-time Tour winner and defending champion, riding in the race despite testing positive for the banned drug clenbuterol during the 2010 edition.

Indeed, Contador’s travails – along with the US federal investigation of Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping – continue to cast a dark shadow over pro cycling, despite Garmin-Cervélo’s success this week.

An article published Tuesday morning in the French newspaper Le Monde reminded fans that, in the last 15 years, just 12 of the 68 podium finishers in cycling’s three Grand Tours haven’t been involved in doping scandal.

‘A constant war’

Doping and bike riding have been constant companions for almost a century.

In the 1920s, riders fueled up with pot belge, a nasty mélange of heroin, cocaine, and other drugs. In the 1950s and 60s, amphetamines ruled – Italy’s Fausto Coppi, twice a Tour de France champion, famously said that he only took amphetamines when necessary, which he said was all the time.

Even Vaughters told Le Figaro that he was “part of the doped generation” of riders. When asked this week about whether he had ever doped, Vaughters mentioned “past mistakes” but declined to elaborate.

Instead, he preferred to look to the future – and his team’s continued fight against doping.

“It’s a constant war,” he said. “We have to keep on it.”

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