Del Mar resident provides an insider’s view of professional cycling through new book

Tyler Farrar rides through cobble sector 27 in Inchy, France, during the 2011 Paris-Roubaix.
Tyler Farrar rides through cobble sector 27 in Inchy, France, during the 2011 Paris-Roubaix.

By Kathy Day

Del Mar resident Mark Johnson shares an insider’s view of professional cycling’s Team Garmin-Cervélo in his new book “Argyle Armada.”

And it’s not just a tiny peek — it’s 11 months worth of being on the road with some of the world’s best riders as they train and race from California and Colorado to the Tour de France.

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Mark Johnson at stage 9 of the Tour de France in Albepierre-Bredons on July 11, 2011.

“Being with athletes of this caliber for nearly a year … people so underestimate what they are capable of,” said Johnson, a graduate of UCSD who holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston. “They plumb the depths of their physical and psychological capacity.”

It’s that strength and the story behind the sport that drew him to writing the book, which gets its name from the classic argyle on the team’s jerseys. It’s a book written about the team, not for it, he emphasized.

When asked which came first, riding or writing, he said his interests in both developed about the same time while he was at UCSD.

Now 47, he has written about and photographed cycling since the 1980s. He’s also a cyclist himself, although never a professional rider like those in his book, and he’s spent time working with the management of the Garmin-Cervélo team, handling its internal and external communications. (For the 2012 season, the team has a new sponsor and name — Garmin-Barracuda — but the team will still ride Cervélo bikes.)

So when the team members asked if they could license some of his photos, he said he started talking to the team’s founder, Jonathan Vaughters — a former member of Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team — about the possibility of “embedding” with the team for its 2011 season.

Vaughters liked the idea enough to give Johnson unlimited access to the team, from meetings to the bus to hotel rooms. He was there for strategy and training sessions, there for post-race briefings, and there when the cyclists were eating and relaxing.

Because of that, he is able to tell stories of the individual challenges and triumphs, and the politics and business of world-class cycling.

He was also there to see them tackle such races as the Amstel Gold in Holland, which has 32 climbs over the equivalent of 162 miles.

“That’s like going up Torrey Pines 32 times at 20 mph,” he said, adding that for the cyclists it’s just another day at work.

“It’s like joining a monastery — it’s all that they do.”

While the term “embedded” normally connotes a reporter’s involvement with the military during war, Johnson said his agent used the word appropriately in this case.

“I was living and traveling with them. It’s just that the blood oozing from their bodies was from crashing, not weaponry.”

Vaughters quit riding after 2002 because of his “disgust with doping,” he said, and formed a development team to train younger cyclists to “compete at a high level without doping.”

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Mark Johnson

That grew into the team that won four stages of the 2011 Tour de France, wore the yellow jersey – signifying the day’s winning rider – for seven days, and won the overall team title.

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