Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
The gravest threat to sports as we know them? No, smartass, the answer is not Scott Boras.
The correct response: performance-enhancing drugs. So it follows that the person who did most to slow that scourge in '07 should be called out for his heroism. So take a bow, Jonathan Vaughters: you're my Sportsman of the Year. Just don't turn sideways while taking it, lest we lose sight of you.
Vaughters, 34, is a wispy former pro cyclist whose trademark sideburns are as formidable as his intellect. Talented a rider though he was, this one-time teammate of Lance Armstrong has had his most profound and positive influence on this deeply troubled sport since he retired from it five years ago.
In 2003, with $50,000 of his own money, Vaughters founded a development squad of promising U.S. riders. Four years later, Team Slipstream-Chipotle features an expanded roster dotted with grand tour stage winners. Barring catastrophe, the men in the funky argyle kit will be the sole American-based team in next year's Tour de France. And that may be the least interesting thing about them.
Directed by Vaughters and bankrolled by financier Doug Ellis, Slipstream rides under the figurative banner of clean sport. Earlier this year, the team partnered with Agency for Sporting Ethics, an independent body that does its best to make these men the most punctured, pricked athletes in the world. Slipstream riders voluntarily submit to roughly 20 times the number of blood and urine tests that their peers in the pro peloton are subjected to. The tests are used to determine baseline biological "markers" which, once established, make it immediately apparent when someone has doped.
The partnership with ASE was announced five months before this year's Tour de France, which degenerated into a cascade of doping-related scandals. With each fresh revelation and ejection, Vaughters looked smarter and more visionary.
After the race, he announced the signing of a slew of name riders: David Millar, Dave Zabriskie, MagnusBackstedt, Christian VandeVelde, Julian Dean and Tom Danielson, among others. The latest Argylenauts were officially introduced at a rocking, raucous party in Boulder on the night of November 14. The evening featured the sight of one of the greatest American riders ever, Davis Phinney, at the dais with his 17-year-old son Taylor, who stands 6-foot-4 and is the reigning Junior World Time Trial champion. (Taylor rides for the VMG-Felt-Slipstream under-23 development team.) "That's how tall I used to be," deadpanned Davis, who goes 5-10 or so, and suffers from Parkinson's. His foundation (davisphinneyfoundation.com) was the sole beneficiary of that night's auction.
The most powerful moments of the night came courtesy of Vaughters, who delivered a forceful, emotional declaration of Slipstream's mission. "We will succeed," he vowed, "not by out-horse-powering" our foes, "not by crushing the competition with 6.7 watts per/kilogram at threshold" -- that's a really big number, apparently. They would succeed as they have in the past, he promised, with "panache"; by "attacking when no one else would"; through luck, grit, and by training harder .. and suffering more that anyone else."
When Slipstream has won, he went on, "it has never been a crushing blow dealt by an individual" -- think Armstrong riding the peloton off his wheel -- but rather "the strength of the bonds created between the riders on this team."
These guys won't win the '08 Tour. But they could win a stage or two. And they'll animate it every single day.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Vaughters was paid a grand compliment last October, when cycling's governing body announced that "biological passports" -- a record of each rider's biological markers -- will be mandatory, starting next season.
"If this works," said Patrice Clerc, president of ASO, which puts on the Tour de France, "we'll be showing the other sports a new way forward."
That movement will have been led, to a large extent, by a spindly director who had the vision to match his sideburns.
Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.