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MBA student on his way to Tour de France

EMBA student Jonathan Vaughters is founder and general manager of the Garmin-Sharp cycling team. Photo: Associated Press

As he has nearly every summer since the late 1990s, Jonathan Vaughters is traveling to Europe this week for the Tour de France. This year, however, the former pro cyclist and current team manager will have to return to Denver halfway through the race — to deliver a class project as part of his studies in the Executive MBA program at the University of Denver Daniels College of Business. The specialized program is for established professionals looking to enhance their business education.

“I felt that inside my own organization, I was elevated into my role because I founded it and because of my proficiency in the industry-specific knowledge,” says Vaughters, founder and general manager of the Garmin-Sharp cycling team. “But as far as overall managerial skills and running a company the most efficient way possible, I don’t know that any better than the guy down the street. I have no training whatsoever other than seat of the pants: ‘well, that didn’t work.’ I figured refining those skills and getting some new perspectives from the business world could be very useful.”

Vaughters, 40, returns with the Garmin-Sharp team to the 2013 Tour de France, running June 29–July 21. As general manager, he’ll communicate with riders, meet with sponsors and entertain VIPs. It’s quite a change from his first experiences in the famed race, which came in the late 1990s when Vaughters was a professional cyclist. A Denver native, he started competing in local races at age 12. He was state champion at 14 and national champion a few years later. At 19, he moved to Europe to ride full time. At the pinnacle of his cycling career, he rode on the U.S. Postal Service team alongside Lance Armstrong. There he saw firsthand the doping problem that would come to national attention years later and that would ultimately result in Armstrong losing his seven Tour de France titles.

“It was Lance, but it was also all of his competition,” Vaughters says. “I don’t mean to dismiss it; it was just very much part of the routine at that point in time. There weren’t tests. There was no enforcement of that regulation. It wasn’t like the athletes were sneaking around — it was the team doctor, who was in the official position of taking care of the health of the riders, he was the one saying, ‘OK, you’re going to need to take this and this.’ It was very in the open.”

Increasingly troubled by the amount of doping going on, Vaughters retired from cycling in 2003 and returned to Denver, where he dabbled in real estate and financial consulting before getting sucked back into the world of professional cycling. A small team of young riders he had started as part of his real estate business began winning races and getting noticed. Eventually an investor came on board with the idea of taking the team all the way to the Tour de France.

Vaughters agreed, but he wanted to take a new approach.

“I said, ‘We have to change the way the sport is, and first we’re going to change it with this team,’” Vaughter says. “I told him, ‘You may pour millions and millions of dollars into this, and it may be a big flop, because I can’t say that we’re going to be able to get the sport to turn the corner.’ But we did, and it was actually amazing how we did it.”

In its initial year as a first-division team, the squad was very public in its antidoping stance, inviting reporters from ESPN, Outside magazine and the London Times to live with the riders and witness their clean living firsthand. Once the buzz began, sponsors wanted to be part of it. And once sponsors were interested, other teams started doing away with doping in hopes of similar attention.

“When they did that, their speeds came down a little bit, and we started winning more races,” Vaughters says. “Fast-forward to 2012, we won the Giro d’Italia, which is the second biggest race in the world after the Tour de France. We’ve won team classification in the Tour de France — we started winning all kinds of stuff once we led by example and got the sport to turn a corner.”

Now that he’s back in the world of professional cycling, Vaughters wants to do all he can to help the sport.  He recently ended two consecutive terms as president of the International Association of Professional Cycling Groups, which advocates on behalf of pro cyclists, and he hopes his EMBA degree will open even more doors.

“I think addressing the education gap in myself and then trying to bring some of that forward into the sport might also be a fun project,” he says. “Who knows, going forward from all that. I’m more focused on just finishing my accounting homework first.”






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