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.

July 2009

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.