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.
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.