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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.