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.
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.