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A conversation with Christian Vande Velde: ‘I’m always a realist’

Christian Vande Velde is holding nothing back this season as he sets his sights on the ultimate prize of the Tour de France.

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Bruised, battered and beaten from a devastating crash at the Giro, Vande Velde still managed to finish in the top-10 at the Tour. | AFP photo

Full of confidence and back in full health, the 33-year-old will be the top GC rider at Garmin-Transitions following the recent departure of the 2009 Tour’s fourth-place finisher, Bradley Wiggins.

Vande Velde begins his 2010 campaign this week at the Volta ao Algarve. VeloNews sat down with him last month at the team’s training camp in Calpe, Spain. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: After an up-and-down season in 2009, what are your sensations coming into this year?

Christian Vande Velde: Compared to last year, everything is better. My body is better, even after all the mayhem I put my body through last year. I changed up my winter a little bit. I went to Hawaii instead of staying in Chicago all winter, so that was nice. It was a lot of fun, too, for not just myself, but for my family. It was a long two weeks over the holidays in Chicago. It’s a great city if you’re Muddy Waters, not if you’re a bike racer.

VN: How’s your racing schedule shaping up?

VDV: Algarve, Paris-Nice, Catalunya, some classics – Fleche, Liege, maybe Amstel – Giro and Tour. It pains me to say that there’s no California. It was a hard decision. Even today, every person who asks me, I hate to say I am doing the Giro, because California is a great race. I’ve done every race and I’ve had a great time, no matter how bad the weather. We don’t see that many spectators in any race apart from the Tour.

VN: Why is the Giro better for you?

VDV: Just the way my body works. My family will be here. Travel; I’m done trying to make my life any more complicated than it already is.

First, just go with something that already works for me. Second, it takes the stress out of my life, not that the Giro isn’t stressful, it is a great race and it’s a big block of training that’s second to none.

VN: Will you have any goals for the Giro?

VDV: I am not going to call it training. I am going there to race. I am not the type of person to go to a race just to sit at the back. I would have been alright in last year’s Giro. If something’s there for the taking at Giro, I am going to take it. The Giro is a beautiful race and Italy is an awesome country, if there’s a chance to do something, I will take it.

After that, I won’t race before the Tour and I will go up to altitude and train.

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Vande Velde said he was unsure if he'd ever get up from this one. | Graham Watson

VN: Looking back at last year’s Tour, how challenging was it to get ready for July after your crash in the Giro?

VDV: The rib was nasty, and it was one of the worst ones to break. I broke my hip, too, and five vertebra. It was hard mentally to come back. When it’s all said and done, it was quite a victory to just finish the TT in Monaco and make it to the Champs Elysees. To finish eighth was great, people would have been freaking out. But having Brad (Wiggins) there in fourth, people were like, “OK, whatever.”

VN: You had no problem changing your role when Wiggins was riding well?

VDV: I’m always a realist. I am not the person who says that I am going to win today. Even when I have great form, I am one of the last to say that. That’s one of the last frontiers ─ or challenges ─ for me is my confidence. I was very realistic about my form, and after watching Brad on the climbs, I knew he would be good. I knew if I could be there on the climbs, I would just be getting there. That was pretty much exactly what happened. I surprised myself. I never thought in a million years I would be able to do what I did last year.

VN: Was it rewarding to be able to finish eighth under those conditions?

VDV: At the time, no, because you were fourth the year before and people think you’re going backwards. When one of your teammates was fourth place, then all the attention was on him. Looking back at it today, I am very happy I did what I did, and made the sacrifices I did. And that I have the confidence in myself that I could do something. I was thankful and lucky that I had Matt White in my corner, and all these other guys who were confident in me even when I wasn’t confident in myself. That was bigger than anything.

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Vande Velde attacks in the fourth stage of the 2009 edition of Paris-Nice. | Graham Watson

VN: So they really encouraged you to fight through the injuries to race the Tour?

VDV: They kept telling me, you’re still the team leader. I said, “You guys are high on crack.”

To the point that I pulled Whitey aside and asked, “are you serious?” He said, “yes, just relax, you’re going to be fine. If you’re there, you’re there. If you’re not, no problems.”

VN: Have confidence problems been a handicap for you in your career?

VDV: Cycling is a humbling sport. I’ve had a lot of setbacks, always just coming back from an injury and never quite knowing where you are.

Either, it’s too late or you realize that you’re better than you really were. There’s no rewind.

VN: So are you taking any Buddhist classes from Farrar to find that “Zen moment?”

VDV: No! I am from Chicago. I know I am not living there as much as I did, but I am still a Chicagoan at heart. The Buddhist thing is just not on my radar.

VN: Looking back at your ride in 2008 to finish fourth, what significance does that hold for you now?

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Victory in stage 4, Paris-Nice 2009. | Graham Watson

VDV: I definitely had a lot of could-of, should-of, would-of’s. Looking back at 2008, there were a lot of situations I was in and the way I viewed people, and how I thought of what I could and couldn’t do, I definitely short-changed myself sometimes. At the same time, I am extremely proud of what I did. There were some situations in the big mountains that I was being scared of losing minutes, not seconds.

VN: Now you have your confidence and your fitness back, what are you expectations for 2010?

VDV: 2010 is all about the process, from now until July 3. The process starts now in training camps. No one wants to be away from friends and family. You come here to work hard, to get to know your new teammates, the staff, to see what works. This is just part of the year. I always enjoy going to training camp, to see the new faces and the old faces you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s nice to get back to work. When you’re a cyclist and you’re at home, it’s kind of weird sometimes. You’re in limbo. You’re not used to being at home. All your friends are at work.

VN: How will the departure of Wiggins affect your role on the team? Will you have more pressure?

VDV: I will be sharing the pressure with Tyler (Farrar), so that will be a little bit different from the past now we’ll have more lead-out guys than in the past. We’re going to have a two-pronged attack, with “air and sea.” I am not putting too much pressure on myself. I know we’re going to have a strong team. I know at this time last year, no one would have said that Brad was going to be top-five in the Tour.

The pressure last year was the same for me because I was the team leader and it will be the same this year. Zabriskie could do the same thing that Brad did last year, or Dan Martin, or Tom Danielson, or Dave Millar, you never know.

VN: Have you set a goal for yourself in the Tour, or is it simply go with the best possible condition and lay it down?

VDV: I’m right there in the middle. Personally, I want to get there, feel good and race to the best of my abilities. I know if I can do that, I know I will have a great race. Whether that’s top-10, top-five5, top-three, or win, that’s to be seen. I just want to get there at the highest level I can be personally.

VN: Do you think you can arrive stronger than 2008?

VDV: I will be better prepared. Physically, if can be the same as I was in 2008, because then I will be better prepared mentally, because I will know what I should and shouldn’t be doing in all parts of the race. It was a tremendous learning experience (in 2008). Until you’re in that position at the front of the race, you can train all you want, but until you’re there, you don’t know how you’re going to react physically or mentally.

VN: What did you learn most?

VDV: It’s all about consistency, always being on your game. Not being too excited or too behind the ball, just being present at all times. Whether it’s a silly sprint, or a technical downhill, or in the rain, just always being “on” for 21 days, that’s what it’s all about.

VN: When you go into Tour, do you race against the top favorites or race against yourself?

VDV: I only race against myself, that’s all you can do. Because if you were racing against Cadel (Evans) last year, you’re going to be far back. Or Carlos, guys who are amazing athletes. It’s more about against myself.

VN: What’s it going to take to beat Contador?

VDV: You can make all the arguments you want, but numbers don’t lie. Jay-Z said it best, “women lie, men lie, numbers don’t.” They always put him in the cliché of being a skinny climber, but people forget he’s always been a good time trialist. His first pro victory was a time trial at Tour of Poland. It’s not a surprise, not for me at least.

VN: What do you expect from your ex-teammate Lance Armstrong?

VDV: Lance will do great. He hasn’t turned off since last year and Lance is ready. He’s having a great time training and racing, so there’s no reason why he won’t be as good as he was last year, if not better. Andy (Schleck) has matured 10-fold and Carlos and Cadel are not going to want to be left out again. It’s going to be an insane Tour. And people are not even talking about Levi and Klöden, two guys who are probably better than everyone else when it comes to consistency. The list goes on.

It’s going to be a well-balanced battle from many people. People will have bad days and their not-on-top-of-their games every day and it’s going to be critical on when you’re going to shine and not going to shine. Then there’s guys like Nibali and Kreuziger, who were in the top 10.

VN: People were used to racing with a dominant USPS/Discovery block under Armstrong, now it will be more open – how does that change the racing?

VDV: It’s hard to say. Sometimes it can make it into a negative racing.

When you do have such a strong team, that one person can go light it up and everyone else is fighting for scraps behind. We’ll see. Like in 2008, it was an extremely negative race. A lot of times we were not going even going close to maximum speed. We’d be sprinting, sitting up, sprinting, then sitting up. No one wanted to take the chance and risk everything, and then Carlos expedited that, he attacked one time and that’s all it took. People doubted him or didn’t expect it, and that was it.

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