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Crash Course

This was going to be his year. At last, Christian Vande Velde, the leader of Boulder's Garmin-Slipstream Pro Cycling Team, would break away at this month's Tour de France. And then it happened—again.

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In the background, there is the constant hum: the chains and freewheels and tires of so many bikes—197 bikes—all within inches of each other. He hears it, day in, day out, as he rides. And the men that ride those bikes, small but tough men, with weathered faces and bulging thighs, he hears them too, breathing and grunting and speaking in their varied tongues: Italian, French, Spanish, and, yes, English, too. The hum, the buzz, of the peloton—it is always there on the road.

Peloton. It is a French word meaning, literally, “ball,” but it has come to mean “platoon,” and specifically, in the sport of cycling, the main pack of riders in a road race. It is an unforgiving crucible. Riders that comprise the pack are at war—with each other, with their own bodies, with their own minds. The peloton either swallows you whole, shreds your resolve, and discards what’s left of you—or you emerge, more determined. Not dead, but stronger.

For years now, he has pedaled, pushed, lived in the peloton, fighting to break away from the pack, from his father’s considerable shadow, from unfulfilled expectations of greatness—everyone else’s expectations and his own expectations, too. There were times when the peloton would drive him mad, when it would send him crashing into a light post, or flip him over his handlebars, breaking his bones and fracturing his will. It would make him feel like quitting for good. But there was always that hum, the exhilarating siren song.

Like today, May 11, 2009, pedaling through northeastern Italy during the 100th anniversary of the Giro d’Italia, the Tour of Italy. In the pack, he hears the hum, he feels the buzz. As a new pro almost 10 years earlier, during an individual race against the clock, he had beaten The Man, his then-teammate Lance Armstrong, arguably the best bike racer of all time.

Now he is The Man, on The Team (Boulder’s Garmin-Slipstream), preparing to win The Race (the Tour de France). Today’s ride through the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, not far from Venice, is part of the Giro, the second most important bike race in the world, but it is little more than a prelude to what could be—dare he think, should be: That at last, at this month’s Tour de France, the most important bike race in the world, he will escape from the pack, and then all he will hear is his own breathing, his heartbeat, his chain, his tires on the road—and the rabid fans will call out his name: “Christian!” “Vande Velde!” He will leave the peloton, and everything in it, behind.

Then, in an instant, this day in Italy turns. The sound that punctuates the hum is sickening—metal on metal. Something bumps against his front wheel; spokes shred, and, with nothing to support the rim, his front wheel collapses upon itself. It’s almost silent now; time slows and at once stretches. This crash, The Crash, the one that will make international headlines, sends him over his handlebars, again, and hard onto the pavement, which is where he lies, propped on his elbows. The view from the helicopter above shows Vande Velde on the white line in the center of the road, squirming in anguish, watching the peloton indifferently make its way around him. Christian Vande Velde is now 10 or 15 yards away from his bike, a mangled heap down the road, and a seemingly immeasurable distance from where, just moments earlier, everyone—including himself—thought he would be.

Four years earlier, four a.m., and he was the only one awake in a house thousands of miles from his home in the States. The sun was about to rise over the city of Girona, Spain, but Christian Vande Velde was in the dark—and had given up hope of a new day. As far as the then 29-year-old was concerned, his once promising career was over. He picked up the phone and dialed the seemingly endless string of digits to make an international call. Eight time zones away in Denver, his friend picked up the phone. It was Jonathan Vaughters, Vande Velde’s buddy and former colleague.

“Hey man,” Vande Velde said. “We gotta talk.”

“OK, Christian,” Vaughters said. “What are we going to talk about?”

Vande Velde told Vaughters that he wanted to discuss a job. But, really, no one calls his friend across two continents and an ocean in the dark predawn hours to chat about something as mundane as a job, certainly not Christian Vande Velde—the consummate professional, the Midwestern guy who, on talent alone, should have never needed to ask someone for work. Vande Velde, you see, was a thoroughbred with a pedigree. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his father, John, had raced his bike in two Olympics, and as a teenager Vande Velde had been one of the most promising young cyclists in the United States, beating kids on the track that were older, stronger, and more mature than he was. He won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Argentina in 1995. When he finally signed a pro contract, in 1998, it was with the United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, a squad comprised of a bunch of guys who didn’t yet know how good they were, guys with names like George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu, Jonathan Vaughters, and Lance Armstrong.

No, this call wasn’t really about a job—although Vande Velde asked if he could be in charge of Vaughters’ young Colorado-based cycling team, and Vaughters said, Yeah, sure, if you really want it, you can have the gig. No, this call was about giving it all up. Not yet 30 years old, Vande Velde was a journeyman, a veteran of three professional teams, who had not lived up to his promise. He was racing against guys he knew he could beat—and he was losing. Even worse, he was hurting. Countless crashes had left him a twisted shell of himself, a rider whose banged-up body wouldn’t allow him to tap into his God-given talent. He was frustrated, pissed. He had a wife he loved, and he had his family back in the States, and it wasn’t worth all the sacrifice anymore—the 100 days of racing every year, the physical fatigue, the persistent illnesses, the flat-out suffering, the sport’s ongoing and high-profile doping scandals. No, this call wasn’t about a job. It was about saying good-bye to everything he had worked for.

Like so many athletes, Vande Velde ran hot and cold: One moment he saw himself as unbeatable and indestructible. The next, he looked in the mirror and saw a failure. Vaughters understood the psychology: He had learned Vande Velde’s idiosyncrasies when the two were teammates, but now, on the phone, he had to be more than a teammate. He had to pull his friend back from the edge. “Don’t make this decision in a moment of weakness,” Vaughters told him. “Don’t make this decision tonight—not at four o’clock in the morning, not halfway through the season. Because, if you leave, man, it’s for good.”

No one would have blamed him if he’d quit. But he didn’t—and so, here he is, on a cool, overcast February day in Sacramento, California, as journalists from all over the world are queuing up for the official press conference that kicks off the 2009 Amgen Tour of California, the most prestigious bicycling race in North America. The Tour, which starts in Sacramento and ends in Escondido, near San Diego, marks the beginning of Vande Velde’s season—but the reporters aren’t here for him. They’re here for one man, Lance Armstrong, who is making his return to professional bike racing after a three-year retirement.

On the dais at the front of the room, along with Vande Velde and Armstrong, sits a group of world-class cyclists: George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, and Ivan Basso. Dressed in civilian clothes, as the guys are today, most professional cyclists are exceptionally ordinary looking—except for the size of their waists and their emaciated arms. Vande Velde is on the tall side at 5 feet 11 inches, and weighs 150 pounds, his waist a smallish 29 inches. He has dark hair, short and fashionably mussed; hazel eyes; olive skin; and a bright, toothy smile. He tends to exude casualness. Whereas Armstrong, who is sitting one person removed from Vande Velde today, is tightly wound and intense, Christian is welcoming and easy-going. He doesn’t date Sheryl Crow or hang out with Ashley Olsen; he doesn’t live in Aspen; he doesn’t travel with an entourage. He answers his own phone and responds to e-mails from near strangers within hours. In other words, Vande Velde is the anti-Lance.

The press conference’s emcee lobs softballs to each of the riders, and Vande Velde’s question is about what kind of shape he’s in after spending the winter training in Illinois. Vande Velde dances around the answer and then notes that it was one of the coldest winters in Chicago since he’d been born. “I’m not going to lie—it was horrible,” he says. The comment could have sounded whiny or self-pitying, but it’s delivered with the deft timing of a comic, and the entire room, Armstrong included, breaks up in laughter. “Every time I turn on the computer, Lance is in Lanzarote [in Spain], Levi’s training here [in California]…and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’ And then I get back on my trainer. Yeah, it was bad.”

Settling in the Chicago suburb of Lemont last year, near his roots, was a calculated decision for Vande Velde and his wife, Leah, who had both grown up there. His parents, John and Joan, had encouraged Vande Velde to be a normal kid, which meant hitting golf balls and playing trombone in the school band. He played epic hockey games on the iced-over pond in the family’s backyard. Even then, despite his relaxed nature, he was competitive and meticulous when it came to sports. “He was like a human Zamboni, clearing off the pond ever so perfectly,” says Marisa, Christian’s sister, who as a junior cyclist was ranked fifth in the world in the individual time trial. “I would go out there to figure skate, and he would get so pissed. In my mind, I was going to be the next Dorothy Hamill, and Christian was like, ‘Get off the ice!’ ”

By his own admission, Vande Velde was an average student: He’d spend the first half of each term failing classes because he was bored, then he’d spend the second half of the term acing tests to end up with average marks. When he was 15 years old, Vande Velde got a job planting flowers at a private golf course. He would ride his bike to work early each summer morning, work until 4 p.m., pedal home, and then go out for a training ride—already on a self-prescribed fitness regimen. “Several times I said to him, ‘Do you know now why I want you to go to school and study hard?’ ” John Vande Velde says. “Christian said, ‘No. Now I know why I want to be a really good bike rider.’ I’ll never forget that retort. It was complete determination.”

Vande Velde met Leah in the third grade at Oakwood Elementary School in Lemont; not long after, the two took their first communion together. They were married in 2002, after years of an off-and-on relationship, in Lemont. The young couple made Boulder their home base in the States but split their time between Colorado and Spain. In 2005, the Vande Veldes decided to pick up and make their home exclusively in Spain for two years. “Living in Spain full-time was very difficult because you come home and you’re expected to see everyone from the family, so it’s not even a vacation,” says Joan Vande Velde, Christian’s mother. “I feel sorry for them. It’s still difficult to split time.” When their first daughter, Uma, was born in Girona, the couple had hard talks about where to set down their roots. The Upper Midwest is not an obvious place for one of the world’s top cyclists to train in the off-season—it’s cold, it’s windy, and it’s frustratingly flat. Reflecting on this past winter, Vande Velde told me, “It was stressful. I wasn’t myself. But I was thinking more of our family, and I made a commitment to be there, so I wanted to make it work.”

The home life of American professional cyclists is never easy or straightforward. “These guys aren’t regular husbands that just come home after a business trip,” Leah told me a few months ago. “It takes them a day or two to get back to normal and be alive again after a long race. They just can’t get out and do things like go for a walk on the beach or have a French dinner with a bottle of wine. It is especially hard for Christian because he wants to be alive and fun for me and the girls, but it is difficult sometimes because he is so tired from racing. Thank God we live in Chicago in the off-season. I know living there is a pain in the butt for him, but if I didn’t have my family here, it would be horrible.”

Just as Leah recognizes that the sacrifices Christian has made ensure some normality in the family’s life, Christian recognizes the hardships Leah has endured so that he can be a professional bike racer. This past March, Vande Velde broke away from a select group of riders during a stage of the famous one-week Paris-Nice race and soloed to victory, 15 seconds ahead of some of the best riders in the world. Crossing the finish line in Saint-Etienne, Vande Velde rocked his arms as if he were holding his infant daughter, Madeline, who’d been born one month earlier in Illinois. Then he raised his left hand to his mouth, kissed his wedding ring, and pointed to the sky.

Jonathan Vaughters is no dummy. The eyeglass-wearing, mutton chop– and argyle sweater–sporting Denver native and leader of the Garmin-Slipstream team has a knack for pushing his riders right to their limits. Once known as “the Professor,” a nickname earned because of his devotion to the science of physiology and technology, he also has a flair for the dramatic. He is a connoisseur of food and wine; he dons bespoke, and somewhat eclectic, clothes; and in addition to running his cycling team he writes for publications ranging from Men’s Journal to Wine Spectator.

He is also a master marketer, a guy who not only packages himself in a smart, memorable way, but also packages his team—with its English-speaking riders, open media strategy, and strong anti-doping stance—in a manner that has garnered a ton of publicity for a team with good, but not great, results. (5280 is a sponsor of the Garmin-Slipstream Pro Cycling Team.)

Four or five years ago, when the squad, then known as TIAA-CREF, was just a bunch of no-name kids riding small races around the States, Vaughters and Slipstream CEO Doug Ellis set in motion a plan that last year came to fruition when the team joined the ProTour—the rough equivalent of taking a Single A minor-league baseball affiliate to the major leagues. Vaughters and Ellis brought Vande Velde on board in 2008 to be the marquee player on the young team.

After his phone call to Vaughters in 2005, Vande Velde continued to race for the Denmark-based Team CSC and regained confidence at the Vuelta a España, or Tour of Spain, late that summer. Riding in support of Carlos Sastre, who finished third overall, Vande Velde thought: I can still do this. For the first time in years, he relaxed and just rode his bike.

The next year, 2006, the results started to come in: He won the Tour de Luxembourg and finished 24th in the Tour de France, which may sound like nothing to the uninitiated but is quite remarkable considering that he was supporting someone else on his team, not riding for himself. He was stuck, though; Vande Velde was riding better than ever, but he’d been pigeonholed as a domestique, French for “servant.” He was killing himself in races for other riders, setting the pace for them, ferrying water bottles to them, and generally protecting them. There had to be something more.

And, in Vaughters’ team, there was potential. In July 2007, Vaughters officially announced that Vande Velde and two other high-profile veterans, David Millar and David Zabriskie, would join the Boulder-based team, then known as Slipstream. The squad didn’t have a major corporate sponsor; it didn’t have automatic invitations to the biggest races of the year. For Vande Velde, it was a risk, but it was also a massive opportunity.

For Vaughters, there was really no downside. In the worst-case scenario, Vande Velde would be a top-shelf teacher, a “road captain,” a mentor to the younger, less-experienced members of the squad. It was a perfect role for Vande Velde, whom many believed was closing out his career. “You could almost say we built the entire team around Christian because it was, in effect, Christian’s basic persona that was going to be the mold for what we wanted our guys to be,” says Allen Lim, Garmin-Slipstream’s sports physiologist. “We needed to have a role model that we could use to clone up-and-coming American cyclists, and Christian was that role model. Not only from an athletic standpoint, but also from a behavioral standpoint, in that Christian is so good with media and fans and all the other intangible details of being a professional athlete.”

In the best-case scenario, Vaughters would have a bona fide Tour de France contender—and early in the 2008 season, it appeared as if that might be a real possibility. In February, Vande Velde took third overall in the Amgen Tour of California. Then, in May, Garmin won the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia, a team time trial in Palermo, and Vande Velde crossed the finish line first, meaning that he would wear the race leader’s maglia rosa, or pink jersey, the next day. He was the first American to wear the maglia rosa since Boulder’s Andy Hampsten had worn it 20 years earlier. Vande Velde lost the jersey the next day, but wearing it, if only briefly, had been transformative. “When I saw the guy [Franco Pellizotti] take the jersey, I realized what a big deal it really was,” he told me. “And then I wanted it back so bad, and that’s when I changed my outlook on how I race among the peloton.”

Two months later, at the Tour de France, with his image plastered on the side of the team bus, Vande Velde was not only hanging with the world’s top climbers on the mountaintop finishes, he was also attacking them. During one stage, a summit finish at Hautacam in which Vande Velde cemented his status as one of the strongest riders in the race, legendary Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett said during the telecast: “He’s been absolutely outstanding, Christian. I think deep down in our hearts we did not expect Vande Velde to survive the mountains today as he has done for nine days. And yet he’s not only survived them—he’s been absolutely superb.”

Vande Velde finished fourth in the general classification at the Tour, and, until he crashed—on a descent while trying to catch back up to the race leaders—and lost more than two minutes, he had a good chance of finishing in the top three, and even, perhaps, a shot at winning. Vande Velde’s performance, notwithstanding that one crash, was nothing short of a revelation for almost everyone in cycling—except for Vaughters, who’d believed all along that Vande Velde could finish in the top 10 of what many consider to be the world’s most difficult sporting event.

And Vande Velde was doing it clean. In April, two days before it was announced that pro racer and Boulder resident Tyler Hamilton had tested positive a second time for doping and would face a possible lifetime ban from cycling—I asked Vande Velde if it ever made him mad, or if it ever surprised him, that some of the guys he’d ridden for, supremely talented and successful cyclists like Ivan Basso and Roberto Heras, had been busted for doping. “Yes. Sometimes it’s ignorance because you’re around them a lot, and you have blind faith,” he said. “But, yeah, it always surprises you because you never want to believe your teammates would ever be doing something.” Then, I asked Vande Velde if, over the course of his career, he’d ever been tempted to dope. “I really try not to talk about that,” he said.

Really, he didn’t have to talk about it. Vande Velde has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and no one has done more over the past two years to prove that he’s racing clean. During last year’s Tour de France, Vande Velde released his blood work to Bicycling, which published an extensive analysis on the magazine’s website under the headline: “Vande Velde Is Clean.” The story was extraordinarily detailed, and it was a big deal: No individual rider had ever publicly released his blood-work data in such detail to the media. On top of that, in pro cycling, where many riders are suspected of being guilty, it is incumbent upon the rider himself to make the case that he is clean. Especially a rider like Vande Velde, who, all of a sudden, was riding with the very top cyclists in the world. Bicycling enlisted Dr. Michael Ashenden, a renowned doping expert, to interpret the data. “My honest appraisal,” Ashenden said, “would be to say that there is nothing striking in the data as shown that indicates blood manipulation.”

At a time when several high-profile riders—including the flamboyant Riccardo Ricco and Lance Armstrong’s former teammate Manuel Beltran—were testing positive for drugs, the release of the data was a stroke of marketing genius by Vaughters. His guys wouldn’t have to answer questions about doping, or whether they’d been tempted to dope. It was all out there, for everyone to see. Christian Vande Velde had nothing to hide.

In the background, there are horns and shouts and sirens. Christian Vande Velde is still down, still in the middle of the road, as the peloton snakes around him toward the finish of today’s Giro stage. One man stops and leans over to check on Vande Velde. It is David Zabriskie, one of Garmin-Slipstream’s other top riders, a brilliant time-trialist, a guy who rode with Vande Velde for eight years on Team CSC and the U.S. Postal team before they both jumped to Garmin-Slipstream last year.

Stopping seems only natural, but in professional cycling, where seconds really matter, riders almost never check on each other when they fall. And perhaps this is a most telling detail about who Christian Vande Velde is: You could say the entire team was built around Christian. You could also say that, in a way, Christian was the team, is the team. Yes, there are young, talented riders and specialists on the Garmin-Slipstream team, but there is no one with Vande Velde’s skill set. No one could be that mentor and role model and be an ambassador for the team and, oh, by the way, potentially win the Tour de France. Of course Zabriskie would stop to check on his team leader and friend. Of course. And yet, even there on the ground, Vande Velde was thinking not about himself, but about the team: Wincing in pain, he told Zabriskie, There’s nothing you can do to help me. Keep going.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This year’s Giro d’Italia was supposed to be one of the key components that would have Vande Velde ready for a run at a top-three finish in this month’s Tour de France. There was no pressure at the Giro: The team had no expectations for Vande Velde to win, or even to finish high in the final general classification. The goal was to get some good racing in his legs, to have fun—if racing 2,147 miles over three weeks could ever be considered fun—and then to make the final preparations for the Tour.

Instead, the Giro turned into a nightmare, and Vande Velde couldn’t escape what the X-rays and scans told him after The Crash: three fractured vertebrae, two fractured ribs, and a hairline fracture of the pelvis. The damage to his aspirations this season—and to his psyche—were more difficult to measure. One thing was certain: On the eve of the biggest race of his life, Vande Velde had hit the wall. Again.

Four days after the crash, I got an e-mail from Vande Velde, who was recuperating at his home in Spain. “I am doing OK,” he wrote. “Getting another test done right now and then we will see what the future has in store for me.” One interpretation of his message might have been that he and his doctors were simply taking a wait-and-see approach. Maybe he would ride the Tour de France and be a contender—a European online betting service in early June was listing his odds at winning as 40:1. Maybe he’d ride the Tour as someone who could help his team, even if he couldn’t win. Maybe he’d finish; maybe not. Another interpretation, though, might be that Vande Velde was using the word “future” in the big-picture, existential, rest-of-his-life sense, and that a seed of doubt had been planted in his mind about how long he could keep racing. Perhaps he was wondering about all the sacrifices and the frustrations, about how dangerous the sport was—just a few days after Vande Velde’s crash, pro cyclist Pedro Horrillo was put into an artificially induced coma after he went over a guardrail and fell 200 feet—and how he didn’t want to end up with more broken bones, or worse. Vande Velde had never been as scared as he had been that May day, lying on the asphalt, frightened to move his back or neck.

Maybe it wasn’t all about winning. Professional cycling races like the Tour de France are comprised of stages: Some are flat and easy, others are individual races against the clock, and still others crest brutally steep mountain passes. Each stage has its own drama, its own narrative. And so it goes. At each stage in his life, Vande Velde had done the right thing. He had married his childhood sweetheart; he had two beautiful daughters; he had a home near Chicago, near his parents and siblings and in-laws, and a second home in one of the most gorgeous parts of Spain; and he had a black Corvette in the garage of his Illinois house, some all-American horsepower with which he could tear up the flat roads of the Midwest when he didn’t have to worry about pedaling over them anymore. On a blog set up to detail his post-crash rehab, Vande Velde posted this on May 21: “I look around, as I sit on my couch, two daughters, wife, in-laws and all. I realize that tomorrow I will turn 33 and it will be one of the few times that I have been able to be home on my birthday since I was 16. Life isn’t so bad.” Maybe it was time, finally, to hang it up.

Or maybe not. Seven days after his crash, still bruised and beat up, still having trouble moving, Christian Vande Velde, with the blessing of his doctors, got up and got back on his stationary bike. By late May, he was completing two-hour rides on the road. “I didn’t get to race my bike as fast as I could today…and I probably won’t ride tomorrow either,” he wrote on his blog, “but I will ride fast again sometime soon, maybe on TV too.” He wanted to—he needed to—hear the hum, to feel the buzz, once again.

Geoff Van Dyke is deputy editor of 5280. He will be blogging about Christian Vande Velde’s return to racing and the Tour de France from July 4 to July 28 at 5280.com. E-mail him at [email protected]

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