Interview: Mark Johnson Author of Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life

We had the special opportunity to have author/photographer Mark Johnson come to the shop recently to give a presentation on his experiences while he was embedded with the Garmin-Cervelo Pro Tour team in 2011. The result of that experience was his book Argyle Armada. Mark was with them every step of the way from preseason training in Girona, Italy to all of the grand tours. His insights into what it is like to work as a pro cyclist were fascinating and offered a glimpse into a world that is rarely documented or understood outside of its cloistered inner circle. We wanted to dive a little deeper into this experience so we asked Mark a few questions about what he saw and experienced while working with the most successful cycling team of 2011.

Author/Photographer Mark Johnson

Art’s: What is your background in Cycling? Have you published any other books?

Mark: I’ve been a writer and photographer since the late ‘80’s and contributed to VeloNews in the early nineties but this is my first book on cycling. The other books I have written were ghost written books but they were all non-cycling related stuff. [editor’s note: Mark is very modest. He has a PhD in English Literature from Boston University and is an accomplished photographer.]

Art’s: Besides a “look behind the scenes of the peloton” was there any other motivation for the book?

Mark: I was particularly fascinated by what Jonathan Vaughters is doing with this team. It’s more than just a book about racing. Vaughters is trying to completely transform a culture. Writing a book just about who attacked, who bridged up, who won and who crashed didn’t have that long interest that I needed to keep it going for a year. So, that is what fascinated me about this particular team. Here is this ex-Lance Armstrong teammate that is leaving this bad portion of his life behind to begin this new portion of his life with a young development team in 2003 and then make it all the way to the Tour de France. I wanted to know, ‘Are they really doing this? Are they really clean?’ and after spending a year with them I think they really are. I think they are doing it without cheating.

Mark giving his slideshow presentation focused primarily on the 2011 Tour de France.

Art’s: You briefly touched on the Wouter Weylandt incident at the Giro. Do the cyclists that you have spent time with generally believe the Grand Tour organizers are making cycling too dangerous, or do they see it as part of the sport?

Mark: They see it as part of the sport. If you talk to them right after a crash they will be pissed off and angry. But with time… it is just part of the sport. Considering the risks they take, they are not compensated very well. The average pro cyclists salary is 250,000 Euros, which is a pretty good chunk of change, but compared to the dangers they face and the dangers faced by a basketball player or golfer, it isn’t much.

Art’s: We all know what Vaughters’ opinion about race radios is. Is there a general consensus on this issue within the peloton that you’re aware of?

An apparently rare photo of Dan Martin with his radio earpiece in use.

Mark: It really depends on the rider. As I touch on in the book, Irishman Dan Martin, he says that half the time he pulls out his radio [earpiece], so it doesn’t matter. Half the time they don’t work so I didn’t see a strong opinion either way. I think the radio argument is more of a proxy about who runs the sport. It could be… back in ’97 it was, “Do we really have to wear helmets?” and now it is race radios so I don’t know that getting rid of the race radios would make that much difference in the racing either. If a guy is bonking you can yell at him all you want on the race radio and he isn’t going to go.

Art’s: Who’s the “Big Man on Campus” on the Garmin team?

David Millar - The Big Man on Campus of the Garmin team.

Mark: Definitely David Millar. He commands the most respect because he is one of the older guys. He is very experienced. He doped, he made mistakes, he came clean… I think that is why Vaughters brought him onto the team because he is sort of a positive, and an anti-role model. Beyond that there is Andreas Klier who is a German that is 35 years old and who is very knowledgeable. That is one of the things Vaughters told me about that is in the book, is that although [Andreas] is getting older he may not be able to deliver after a 160 mile race, but what he does deliver is knowledge that he can impart to the younger riders like Tyler [Ferrar] and Heinrick Haussler. So, those are the names that really come to the fore, those two guys.

Art’s: Did Vaughters ever explain how the argyle came about?

Why the argyle motif? Just because.

Mark: Yeah, when he started the team back in 2002 when they actually started brainstorming it, there was three of them and they just said that they liked argyle so they incorporated it into the team uniform, and it kind of goes with his quirky style of dress. It is really nothing more than that, and it just kind of stuck.

Art’s: The overall picture you paint of the GarminSharp (then Cervelo) team behind the scenes is one of a calm, good-natured, easygoing attitude. Based on what you saw are other teams the same?

Mark: You know, because I didn’t spend that much time inside other teams it is hard to say universally but within the peloton itself there is definitely a lot of camaraderie. That’s because first of all these guys change teams all the time and that guy on the opposing team may have been your teammate for the last 5 years so that friendship is still there. So, there is that commonality because they are all facing the same challenges together. If there are any differences they are only cultural.

Art’s: What’s the most popular smart phone app for the Garmin team?

Mark: Twitter. Although, some of them don’t use Twitter, Tyler doesn’t, but I would have to say Twitter is the most popular because they have so much downtime, so they are always looking at other people’s feeds and tweeting themselves.

Time trial performance is critical to Garmin's strategy.

Art’s: The team put together a great Tour de France performance last year taking the team win. How much did they train for the team time trial?

Mark: A lot. They focused on the team time trial from the day the Tour de France course was announced in October of 2010. Robbie Ketchell, their aerodynamics and sports science guru, that was his mission. So, they had it down to who was going to take the first turn when they came down the ramp, to who was going to burn off first, they just practice it endlessly. They try to eliminate as much uncertainty as humanly possible.

Art’s: Of the companies that sponsor GarminCervelo (now Garmin-Sharp), which worked the closest with the team and what was the extent of that relationship?

Castelli developed this ground breaking kit for the Garmin-Cervelo team that paved the way for the aero kit that is now widely available.

Mark: Of course Garmin worked closely with them, Castelli always seemed to have somebody there getting feedback from the riders about how the kits fit, the technology, whether it was effectively cooling them down or keeping them warm. Mavic was also there doing little things like during the team time trial where they were putting little rubber wedges between the rim and the tubular so that it eliminated that tiny groove… down to that tiny detail. So, those three companies come to mind. There is definitely a lot of feedback. So, for the product that you buy from Art’s in the store or online, there is definitely feedback that came from the top-level pros that is incorporated into it. From what I saw it isn’t just marketing speak, they really are using these guys for input. They use that stuff so hard and just put so much more brutal force into it than regular guys. If the pros are breaking it, or if it survives their use, then the manufacturers, I think, have a lot of confidence that it is going to work for everybody else.

Art’s: Thanks for the interview.

Mark: Cool! It was fun!