American Christian Vande Velde pondered the 2011 Tour de France route for the first time not at the official unveiling in Paris, but online, over a cup of coffee, from his new home near Chicago, Illinois.
After a season that saw Vande Velde’s first two grand tour attempts both truncated by crashes and broken bones, the American veteran has been enjoying the peace of mind a “true off-season” brings, having completed the Vuelta a España and returned to form in September in time for the world road championships.
The Garmin-Transitions rider said he’s been riding occasionally, and has put together a home gym in a converted barn on his new property, where he’s been training like Rocky Balboa — jumping rope, hitting the heavy bag and stretching.
“I’m having fun doing something different, and also doing what I can to help my upper body and get some bone density back,” he said.
It’s been over two years since Vande Velde’s breakthrough Tour de France, when he finished fourth behind winner Carlos Sastre. Since then, he’s been hampered with injuries in July, and watched teammates Brad Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal garner career-changing GC performances of their own.
Through it all, however, Vande Velde and Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters have been quietly confident about Vande Velde’s ability to contend for the Tour podium, and Tuesday’s route announcement did nothing to change that.
“I’m feeling pretty confident with (the 2011 route)” Vande Velde said. “I think the Pyrenees will be a sleeper just because everyone is looking at the epic Alps stages. But Luz-Ardiden (stage 12) is nasty, and Plateau de Beille is also really hard. Plus the first time the race hits the climbs is always a little different than later in the race.”
One major component of the 2011 route that Vande Velde finds preferable is the eight flat stages over the first 11 days of racing. The 2010 route saw the peloton tackling spring classics roads early on, including rain-slicked roads in the Ardennes on stage 2 that ended Vande Velde’s Tour, and the Paris-Roubaix cobblestones on stage 3 that ended the race for pre-race favorite Frank Schleck. That should not be the case next year, Vande Velde said.
“I like this route better than last year,” he said. “I think it takes some of the spectacle out of the race without the cobblestones and the hills in the Wallone region. But we’re replacing it with the coast in Vendée region, which will very likely be windy, rainy and nervous. That adds to the overall fatigue right off the bat. When you add wind and rain to the equation it makes for a long and terrifying first week. I think it’s a strongman course, but with not as much craziness as the last few years.”
Vande Velde added that even if the route is tamer than it was in 2010, time has proven that riders and weather are plenty capable of dictating how the race develops.
“Last year was really hard on the climbs, very demanding, and I think (2011) will be a little different,” he said. “This year everyone was expending so much energy, it was just dead man walking by the end. And it seems more and more the weather plays a role, like at the Vuelta this year, where it was over 100 degrees for the first week. This year’s Tour was hot, too, and the rain in the first week saw 75 guys crashing and nursing injuries throughout the race. And that’s what is making the Tour more fun to watch — to a certain degree, it doesn’t matter where the stages are held, the spectacle is made by the riders and the weather.”
Given his time wearing the maglia rosa at the 2008 Giro d’Italia after his Chipotle-Slipstream Sports team won the team time trial, it’s no secret that Vande Velde and his Garmin teammates are keen on the 2011 Tour’s 23km stage 2 TTT.
“We have a great TTT squad, especially with Thor Hushovd and Brett Lancaster coming over (from Cervélo), and maybe Heinrich Haussler, if he races the Tour, so that’s a feather in our cap,” Vande Velde said. “That will be nice, and we have got Dave Zabriskie and Dave Millar, who is clearly back to his old time trial ways. (Millar) is a force to be reckoned with, and he’ll bring a lot of confidence into next year. That’s great for us and great for me.
“I would have loved to have more individual time trial kilometers, but apart from that I still like the course. There are no death-defying descents to finish, other than stage 17 from Gap, which drops down the Côte de Pramartino to Pinerolo, Italy. That definitely suits (Vincenzo) Nibali, and I know he’s excited about that.”
When Vande Velde returns to the Tour in 2011, he’ll likely be riding as a protected GC rider alongside Hesjedal, whose seventh-place overall finish in 2010 has elevated his status within the team. And just as Vande Velde said following Wiggins’ surprising fourth-place finish at the 2009 Tour, he’s happy to share the responsibility.
“The more the better,” he said. “The more of our guys at the front of race the better we’ll be. Ryder did an amazing race this year, he was a protagonist of the whole race, start to finish, and after a ride like that, he’s not going to be let up the road — not next year, or ever again. It will be nice to have a wingman, and if Dan Martin steps up next year, we could have three guys riding for GC. It wouldn’t be Garmin without a standout performance at the Tour. Hopefully that means one of us stepping on to the podium.”
One thing is certain, Vande Velde said — he won’t be returning to the Giro to prepare for the Tour. After his first Giro started by wearing the maglia rosa and finished with a fifth-place ride in the final time trial in Milan, Vande Velde has left the last two Giros in an ambulance. Instead, he’ll return to the U.S. in May and race in the Amgen Tour of California, where he finished third overall in 2008.
“It was so hard to watch everyone racing home in California,” Vande Velde said. “I don’t want to miss that again. I really enjoy racing in the U.S. and I realized that this year. I’m very comfortable in the U.S. There’s only one home, and that’s the good old USA. I’ve been realizing that more and more. And the Giro and I just don’t see eye to eye any more. Things started off great, and I’ve been trying to come back to that, but that race just wouldn’t have me back.”