Portraits by Richard Baybutt
Racing pics by Graham Watson
Not many people really think Christian Vande Velde has much chance of winning the Tour de France. And that suits him just fine.
Vande Velde’s Garmin team manager Jonathan Vaughters tells us that the more people write him off, the more the rider enjoys proving them wrong. After the 2008 Tour, where Vande Velde was fourth, Vaughters and his rider were in the process of renegotiating his contract.
“Christian told me that one of his goals [in 2008] was to be the rider who most outperformed the value on his contract. He wants to be better than everyone thinks he can be.
“And what he likes most of all is to quietly prove everybody wrong.”
In a way, Vande Velde’s fourth place in the 2008 Tour, was not just proving cycling fans, or people within the sport, wrong. It was proving himself wrong — for an entire career, he’d lacked the confidence and physical durability to do justice to a phenomenal talent.
A year later, a bad crash early in the Giro d’Italia left the American with broken ribs, a wrecked back and weeks off the bike. Expectations coming into the Tour, on everybody’s part, were low. Once again, Vande Velde proved a lot of people wrong by supporting Bradley Wiggins in the mountains and coming eighth.
Now we’re approaching the 2010 Tour, and once again, the talk centres around Alberto Contador, the Schlecks, Menchov, Sastre. Evans, Basso, Armstrong — everyone you’d expect. Vande Velde is looking forward to proving people wrong for the third year in succession.
“I think nine out of 10 people would think the same way,” Vande Velde tells Cycle Sport.
“Cycling is such an individual sport — you spend so many hours by yourself, thinking, thinking, thinking. Proving people wrong, showing them that you can do it, it’s a pretty fulfilling thing. And I’m good at that.”
Confidence is everything with Christian Vande Velde. It is something he refers back to whatever he is talking or thinking about. Being in good shape gives him confidence. Training gives him confidence. Managing his physical frailty gives him confidence. Racing, proving people wrong, getting results, seeing progression, working with team mates — they are all deposits in a bank account for the Garmin rider.
And there’s something else about Christian Vande Velde. Don’t be fooled by the friendly smile, engaging manner and the demeanour that sometimes might suggest that he’s merely happy just to be up there. He’s a hard-ass. He’s tough, ambitious, strict with his team-mates, assertive, and he quietly feeds off other people’s negative opinions of him.
On borrowed time
Time is running out for Christian Vande Velde to win the Tour de France. 2008 was a big opportunity, but he just lacked the confidence and experience to know how to do it. He was aggressive early in the race at Super Besse, but he was too conservative at Hautacam, then allowed a foolish mistake on the descent of the Col de la Bonette to cost him a couple of minutes. By the time he realised he was the physical equal of anybody in the race, they’d realised it too. 2009 was a case of managing scant resources as well as he could, although eighth place with a huge hole in his training (and confidence) was arguably a better achievement.
And 2010? Vande Velde’s first aim is to arrive in Rotterdam in good shape. “The plan is to get there in one piece. That’s my biggest objective — just to get there healthy. I know that if I do that, I’ll have a good race,” he says.
“I was far from healthy last year — I was fresh and determined, and did well. But that gives me confidence that if I get there healthy and fit, who knows what I could do?”
Win the Tour? “I’m just trying to get myself into working order. I need to work on myself first and foremost.”
And once that has happened, the following things have to be dealt with: Alberto Contador. The others. But while Vande Velde acknowledges that Contador and Andy Schleck are logical favourites, he won’t let that affect his confidence.
“A lot of people want to win — it doesn’t stop with those two. Me, Cadel, the Italians, the Czechs… I was pretty damn wrong last year —I knew what the top tier would be, but I never thought Cadel, Menchov and Sastre would ride how they did.”
But Cycle Sport assumes Vande Velde does think that he can beat them all… There is a long pause.
“If I’m in one piece, I have a very good chance.” Another pause.
“Can I? Yes. Do I want to? I’d love to win the Tour de France. I’d love to wear the yellow jersey. I’d love to be on the podium. I’d like to win a stage. I’m not going to come along and say I’ll win the Tour because that’s a recipe for failure. Anyone who comes along and says, ‘I’m going to win the Tour de France’? They’re not going to win the Tour de France.”
But let’s go back to 2009, and Vande Velde’s eighth place in the Tour. He’d missed so much training after his Giro crash that there was no chance of him being in good enough shape to win. He was surprised with how well he rode at Andorra, although apart from Contador’s late attack, the final climb was ridden into a headwind, and marked by a lack of aggression from the other favourites. At Verbier, attempting to ride near the front, he overreached himself and found himself going backwards. “We all had a good laugh at my expense on the team bus afterwards about that,” he recalls.
But Vande Velde’s Tour was marked especially by two days when he played a key part in defending then team-mate Bradley Wiggins’s overall position and in doing so, surprised even himself.
“That team time trial. I’ve never gone so fast. Maybe I never will again,” he says.
The Garmin team time trial at the Tour last year was a breathtaking ride. They were beaten by Astana on the day, but that doesn’t take into account that Garmin dropped four riders very early, and the remaining five — Vande Velde, David Millar, Dave Zabriskie, Bradley Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal — were up against nine very strong Astana riders.
“It was a special day. If we’d asked if we were capable of that before the race? No way. But we did it.”
And on the Col de la Romme and Colombière, during the crucial stage to Le Grand Bornand, Vande Velde paced Wiggins after Contador and the Schlecks had flown.
“I shouldn’t even have been there,” he says. “I was out of my body, digging, digging, digging. I was pulling Lance and Wiggo, who were way above me physically, and Wiggo was even telling me to slow down at some points.
“Considering I didn’t even think I’d be at the Tour, and I made the top 10, I’m pretty happy with that. I barely finished the Tour de Suisse, and early on, I was just good enough each day to think about getting past the next day. It was like starting a calculus class halfway through the year.
“And no matter what everybody says, last year was a hard Tour. Some things have been written about how it wasn’t so hard, but it was still pretty nasty. Stressful. There were no days to relax and enjoy yourself. Nobody wants to ride up Mont Ventoux on the second last day of the Tour — it was horrible.”
What the 2009 Tour reveals about Christian Vande Velde is far more than his physical ability. To hurt yourself that badly on a daily basis takes confidence, but also a mean streak. Vande Velde, socially, is a popular, nice guy — good company. But that’s off the bike. On it, he’s hard-edged, even though he hides it well.
“You have to be pretty f***ing mean to get on your bike when you’ve got a broken back,” he says.
And there it is — evidence that Christian Vande Velde is more than a nice guy who will follow wheels around France to fourth place in the Tour. He’s not just hard on himself, he’s hard on his team-mates. He’s not a natural authoritarian, but he’s learned to lead by example, and make it clear that if he’s beating himself up to give himself the best possible chance to win the Tour, everybody else on the team had better beat themselves up to help him do so.
“When it comes to racing, I’m not here to f*** around. I’m here to win. I’m here to achieve a goal,” he says.
“Quite truthfully, it’s very hard. My kids are growing. I’m living like a monk for three months. I put every piece of the puzzle into place. I’m here to race my bike as well as I can and I’ve only got a couple more years. So if somebody isn’t giving it 100 per cent, I come down on them hard.”
“It doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m comfortable with it. If something’s flaring up, or somebody’s grumpy or upset, you’ve got to nip it in the bud, immediately. It’s time-consuming, stressful, and I don’t want to have to do it, but if I see it, I’ll take a guy away from the situation.
“But I won’t smash him in front of the whole team. Little things like that go a long way, and keeping people happy is important. Garmin is not one of those strong, dysfunctional teams, and that goes a long way.”
Young Vande Velde
At one point in our interview, Vande Velde looks at me and says, starkly, “Nothing comes easy for me in cycling.”
As a young man, his class and talent were evident. He remembers battling equally with Cadel Evans as a 21-year-old, and he was winning World Cup pursuits, national track championships and on the road. But ambition and overexuberant training warped his body, giving him chronic back injuries which only ever quite go away enough to remind him that they could come back tomorrow, if they wanted.
Then he spent a large part of his career competing against men who’d supercharged their physiology with oxygen vector drugs and blood doping. The result was an inferiority complex which almost stole his whole career. The turnaround finally came with an epiphany at the 2008 Giro d’Italia.
“I used to have a fear of failure. But after that Giro, I said, ‘I don’t care any more. I don’t care what people think of me,’” he explains.
But the next bit was more important. “I started not to care about what I thought of myself. And with that, the fear went away.”
Vande Velde spent almost an entire cycling career protecting himself from his own early promise and his physical abilities by settling into a role as a domestique. But by liberating himself from the psychological constraints he’d actually put on himself, he also liberated his physical potential.
“I have the capacity to withstand beating myself up a lot, really bad — I can sustain a really high workload for a long, long time. I produce a lot of lactate, but my body is really good at eating it all up. I have a bigger engine than almost everybody in the whole peloton. It’s just that my chassis is all screwed up,” he says.
“I constantly work at it, getting massage, check-ups, exercises all the time. That’s another thing that makes me hard — I can never fully relax. I feel good today, but all I have to do tomorrow is trip over a step and it could all go wrong.
“It’s stressful and it sucks. I get a bit better when I’ve got good form, which gives me a bit of a buffer, but it’s always there. That’s why I don’t relax — if I relax, I slip.
“I hardly trained for seven years, my body was so bad,” he continues.
“Well, I trained, but it was never specific, and there was always this injury or that. I’d get better through a Grand Tour just because I’d actually been riding the bike consistently. Look at Chris Horner — he’s had some of the most amazing form the last couple of years, but never had the chance to show it — he’s always got something broken. This year, he managed to go three months without breaking something, and he won Pays Basque. How the hell did he do that? Simple — he actually got to ride his bike for three consecutive months.”
If everything goes to plan, Christian Vande Velde will ride through the Giro with good form that he promises will be excellent by the time he arrives at the Tour de France.
“My biggest win is me feeling great on the bike, not feeling jinky, riding with the leaders and knowing that I can go deep and push myself hard. That makes me cross the finish line euphoric.”
As for whether he can win the Tour, not many people think he can. But Christian Vande Velde, you suspect, will be perfectly happy with that.