Christian Vande Velde interview: bouncing back in the Vuelta a España
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Monday, August 30, 2010

Christian Vande Velde interview: bouncing back in the Vuelta a España

by Shane Stokes at 6:03 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews, Vuelta a España
Garmin-Transitions rider fights back from Giro and Tour injuries

Christian Vande VeldeForget the Mallot Jaune or, in the Vuelta, the new Maillot Rojo. If there were jerseys for fighting back from adversity, Christian Vande Velde would surely be the honorary wearer by now. Since he finished fourth in the 2008 Tour de France, the Garmin Transitions rider has had a scarcely-believable run of misfortune. He crashed in the 2009 Giro, suffering three fractured vertebrae, two cracked ribs and a fractured pelvis, bounced back to take eighth in the Tour de France, fell in the 2010 Giro and broke his collarbone and cracked more ribs, then hit the deck again in the Tour.

The latter crash saw him fracture two more ribs, ending his race and almost putting paid to his career. You can be one of the toughest guys in cycling, but at some point enough is enough.

Fortunately Vande Velde has decided to give it another shot. He is here in the Vuelta a España, starting his third Grand Tour of the year and hoping that this one finally hands him some better luck. He’s not quite sure what to expect – not surprising, as he’s been on the ropes so long that he needs to work out what shape he’s in – but said in weeks leading up to the race that he intended playing things by ear and doing what he could.

“I think I will have a better idea of where I am a week into it,” he told VeloNation. “It is one of those things where you don’t want to set the bar too high, but you don’t want to eliminate yourself either. You never know what you are going to end up being like. I might be great, I might be very mediocre. Who knows?”

Garmin-Transitions physiologist Iñigo San Millan feels that results are not the important thing right now, but rather getting back on the bike and clocking up some important racing kilometres. “For Christian, just to be here at the start of Vuelta is a huge thing, and you can tell that he is so excited just for this,” he explained on Saturday. “He is in good spirits and feels fine, although he is aware that he is not at his best.. He needs to race this race or as much of it as possible to get things back on track, especially from the psychological standpoint. The result or performance is not important…just to race and have as much fun as possible.”

Team CEO Jonathan Vaughters is in complete agreement with that. He’s not putting any pressure on the Chicagoan to chase stages, win jerseys or do anything specific; his biggest priority is that Vande Velde has the chance to get through a Grand Tour without more trips to the hospital. The important thing is to clock up important racing kilometres that will stand to him next year.

“Now he needs to do the Vuelta, he needs to finish the Vuelta - I don’t care where he finishes, he just needs to finish the race, and start that as a slow and steady and consistent building process towards next year,” he explained to VeloNation.

“If he can do that, then he can get into the spring races next year and let off the brakes a little bit. He can start taking a few risks, start being a bit more daring and feel comfortable with that in the peloton. If he can work on that progression, then he certainly can come back to the highest level in the sport. But he needs to really want it now. It is harder to come back when you are older than when you are younger, that is for sure.”

Christian Vande VeldeThe fact that he is here is a good sign in itself. After Vande Velde crashed out of the Tour, Vaughters felt that he needed to take some time to himself, weigh everything up and decided what he wanted to do next. There was no pressure, and statements after that crash even hinted that he would have understood had the rider decided to retire.

Of course, it’s not that Vaughters wanted to see his team captain leave the sport. Rather, he knew that he needed some space, and not to be put under any pressure by the team. If he returned, then it would be for the correct reasons.

“His was a case where he psychologically almost had to let it go all the way to be bottom. It wasn’t really worth trying to rebound, so you sort of let it drift all the way down to the bottom. Sometimes that’s the way it is in life, you have to let it go all the way,” Vaughters explained.

“Now he has chosen to come back to cycling. It was his choice, it wasn’t that anyone forced him. He chose because he wanted to return. Because of that, I think he has realised that he missed the sport. That he enjoys being a racer and a competitor. Hopefully that will be what gets him back to the highest level. He’s not doing it out of obligation, he is doing it out of passion.”

Slow burner comes good:

Vande Velde was, for many years, something of an undiscovered talent. The son of former pro John Vande Velde, he turned professional with the US Postal service team in 1998 and rode there for six seasons. He did his first Tour in 1999, holding the white jersey for almost a week but then dedicating himself to protecting the yellow jersey of Lance Armstrong in the mountains.

He slotted into a support role, but some performances that year hinted at his ability. He won the Redlands Classic, took a round of the UCI World Cup in the individual pursuit and netted third overall plus best young rider in the Four Days of Dunkirk. There was also another indication, too, but we’ll return to that soon.

After 1999, several quieter seasons followed. Then a move to Team CSC saw things begin to pick up again. He spent much of his time riding as a domestique for the team leaders there, yet still won the mountains classification in the 2005 Eneco Tour, took the Tour of Luxembourg in 2006 (also netting third on a stage of the Tour), and was then second overall in the 2007 Tour de Georgia as well as sixth in the Tour of California.

Vaughters snapped him up at the end of that season and set about trying to convince him that he had the potential to lead a team. At first, Vande Velde didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in the notion that he could target races like the Tour. However after netting third in the Tour of California, second overall in the Circuit de la Sarthe and leading the Giro d’Italia, something changed. Self belief growing, he went into that year’s Tour determined to give it a shot, and had a superb race in taking fourth.

Around that time, a story emerged that put a very different light on his career. Irish journalist Paul Kimmage spent that year’s Tour embedded in the Garmin team and wrote a very interesting piece on Vande Velde. One of the most eyebrow-raising points came right at the start, when he revealed that the-then 22 year old had beaten every rider on the team in a pre-season uphill time trial back in 1999. Even the undisputed team leader.

He was fastest to the top of a mountain near the US Postal team’s training camp in Solvang, California, yet the team changed his result so that Lance Armstrong – and not Vande Velde – was named as being quickest.

Kimmage’s point was had Vande Velde been allowed that small success, that validation of his talent, perhaps he would have had greater faith in his own abilities and gone on to a very different career.

Vande Velde finally caught up with his natural level nine years later, finishing close to the podium, and left that Tour realising that he had undersold himself. Not only in the years since that Solvang test, but also in the 2008 race itself. Had he gambled more, he realised, had he ridden a little more aggressively, he would have been in the top three in Paris. That increased his determination for the following year.

Christian vande VeldeWe know now that his hopes of building on that fourth place weren’t realised. The terrible injuries he suffered in the Giro put paid to those ambitions, yet fighting back to take eighth overall just a couple of months after fracturing his back and pelvis was a staggering feat. Let’s not forget that he rode for Bradley Wiggins in that race too; it was an incredibly courageous performance.

That’s why in a fair world, he would have returned to the race this year and showed what he could do. The Giro crashed messed that up, though, and then his big fall on stage two took him right out of the race.

“It happened on the Stockeau, where so many others had problems,” he told VeloNation. “Some of my closest friends went down. There was oil on the road, but I had made it all the way through. That was the worst part of it, afterwards, the fact that I had gone by pretty much everybody and then someone crashed right in front of me towards the bottom. That was it – lights out.”

Lights out, and Tour over.

Rebuilding, yet again:

The next few days were emotional ones. Initially, he was relieved in some strange way. “I was so beat up by that point that I had had enough. From that aspect, it wasn’t hard to just go home and say, ‘I’ve had enough at this point in time.’

“It wasn’t heart-breaking. It was like a sick joke that someone had been playing on me for a while. I was over it. At first I was relieved, I said ‘okay, I am out of here, I am going home, I am going to see my family. The pain is over, I don’t have to suffer any more for a while. I am still healthy, I am not too beat up. It could have been much worse.’

“Then after a couple of days, reality started sinking in more. You realise that you are not going to get the 2010 Tour back. I realised how much work I did do this year, and how fit I was, and how I was ready to do battle. When you revolve the whole year around it, when you do the training camps, when you do the altitude camps…everything revolves around those three weeks, and it hurts for that to be taken away from you.”

Fortunately he had a couple of distractions and those allowed him to switch off. He went back to the US, didn’t follow the Tour on the internet or on TV, but instead concentrated on moving into his new house. Lifting boxes didn’t help his ribs much, and lying on his back at night was very painful for a while, but he was able to get his mind off cycling and push the reset button.

“It was the biggest break that I have ever taken during the season,” he said. “Then when I got back on my bike, I actually felt great…I was pretty astounded how much my body probably needed the break, both physically and mentally.”

Vande Velde continued building, having moments where he questioned his decision to come back, but gradually moved on and got to the point that he is racing again. His initial goal of helping the team to win the team time trial on Saturday didn’t work out [the Garmin Transitions team was sixth, hampered by injuries suffered by Julian Dean], but he’ll keep pushing on. Supporting Tyler Farrar on the flat stages and Tom Danielson in the mountains are two motivations, and so too the possibility that he’ll click into form near the end of the race.

If he does that, a stage win would be a slice of good karma after what he has been through.

Either way, Vaughters still believes that the 34 year old has good performances left in him. “His opportunities are fewer as he is older now,” he said. “But when I look at our team, does he still hold a place where he can go to the Tour next year and be an integral part of the team time trial squad, and then hopefully dispute the GC? Absolutely. He has got the opportunity to do that. There is no questioning that.”

One thing is certain. If he does pull off a big performance in the 2011 Tour, there will be many who feel it is completely deserved. Virtual jerseys for coming back from adversity don’t exist in the sport, but when he next clocks up a big result, it will be warmly applauded.


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