Live a vicarious year with cyclists

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Velo Press

It is a mark of a well-done book when a reader opens the pages and, despite a lack of previous interest and knowledge, is drawn into the fascinating world of pro cycling.

Mark Johnson pulled this feat off through intimate, detailed photography and up-close and personal portrayals of the members of Team Garmin-Chervélo. Johnson devoted a year of his life to following the triumphs and tribulations of this singular team of athletes, their families, their leaders and their supporters.

Argyle Armada is structured with nine chapters that follow the 2011 season of Team Garmin-Chervélo. Johnson helpfully opens with a list of characters who make up this unique USA pro cycling team. There are a lot of players in this production, from team CEO Jonathan Vaughters, to chefs, massage therapists and bus drivers. In a year’s time, they all get a chance to provide insights and observations with the author.

Vaughters, who will be in town this weekend for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, is a man on a mission. He wants to uplift the world of professional cycling by having a team that is committed to a squeaky-clean, drug free existence. He is trying to achieve this feat with a budget that is only 30 percent of most other world-class teams. A significant part of his 26 percent non-salary budget goes for anti-doping testing. Medical and cooking ingredients undergo rigid testing to ensure his athletes don’t ingest harmful food, vitamins or medicine. Also unlike the other teams, Team Garmin-Chervélo members do not receive intravenous hydration. All hydration is taken orally.

The season opens with winter training in Girona, Spain. The logistics of feeding, lodging and training 29 world-class athletes is a daunting task. Mechanics are kept busy with new, unfamiliar equipment and its road testing. They also keep older equipment in perfect working order during training and during grueling races. Medical staff must treat crash injuries while also providing preventive health measures.

Tension is high as the tour season starts in Europe. The Cobbled Classics, the Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix test the young team. The team gets a thrill and great satisfaction when team member Johan Vansummeren wins the Paris-Roubaix. Spirits are high in July when they get to the Tour de France, the ultimate race for most pro cyclists. Vaughters, owner Doug Ellis and team president Matt Johnson (no relation to the author) and the team are overjoyed when Team Garmin-Chervélo takes the prize for the squad with fastest cumulative time. The season ends in September on the streets in Canada.

Johnson’s unfettered access to the team allows him to paint a vivid, intimate portrait of the business side of this sport during a period of transition, as well as the human drama of people pushing their bodies to the limit to achieve personal and team goals.

Johnson’s photography is liberally spread on almost every page, bringing the cycling world into sharp focus. The magnified images of equipment, sweaty faces and painful injuries contrast with the sweeping views of the scenery, races and peloton (the leading pack of riders in a race) add nicely to the impact of Johnson’s clear, descriptive prose.

Of special note is the inclusion of cyclist Tom Danielson, a former Fort Lewis College national champion, who might have had something to do with Durango being added as one of four new stops for this year’s Pro Challenge.

This book is much more than a coffee table book; this is an insightful, well-written portrayal of a dynamic sport and the intense people who are living life as world-class athletes during a time of change, growth and popularity.

Freelance reviewer Leslie Doran may be reached at