Vande Velde ready for the ride of his life

Three weeks ago, Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde left his European home in Girona, Spain, for the Tour de France with the goal of his first-ever top 10 finish. However as the Tour’s second rest day came to a close Monday, the 32-year-old American sits fifth overall, just 39 seconds behind race leader Frank Schleck, and is poised to capitalize on his strengths during stage 20’s time trial to fight for the Tour podium.

Vande relaxes with VeloNews’ Neal Rogers on the Tour rest day.

By Neal Rogers

Three weeks ago, Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde left his European home in Girona, Spain, for the Tour de France with the goal of his first-ever top 10 finish.

However as the Tour’s second rest day came to a close Monday, the 32-year-old American sits fifth overall, just 39 seconds behind race leader Frank Schleck, and is poised to capitalize on his strengths during stage 20’s time trial to fight for the Tour podium.

Two difficult Alpine stages await, including Tuesday’s hors catégorie climb over the Cime de la Bonette with a fast 25km descent into Jausiers, and Wednesday’s queen stage, with ascents of the Galibier, Croix de Fer and a summit finish atop l’Alpe d’Huez.

On the rest day in Cuneo, Italy, a relaxed and refreshed Vande Velde sat with VeloNews following a two-hour nap and discussed his rivals, the Tour’s most critical upcoming stages and how his underdog team is faring heading into the third and most difficult week of the race.

Sporting a chain ring scar on the inside of his left wrist, Vande Velde said the team’s pileup Sunday was “a scare,” but that he emerged from the crash “unscathed.”

“I had an adrenaline rush after that happened, and everything went into focus,” he said. “It was almost a good shock to my system.”

Asked to rate his own performance through the first 15 stages, Vande Velde gave himself a “nine out of 10.”

“I’m way above and beyond where I had my mind three weeks ago,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d be in this position. I didn’t think I’d have the confidence going into the Alps. Everything has gone great at this Tour.”

Vande Velde said he has had several key confidence-building moments during this Tour, including the stage 4 time trial, his attack on Super-Bresse on stage 6 and when he easily rode with the top GC favorites on stage 10 to the summit of the Hautacam.

“Hautacam changed nearly my whole perspective of cycling for myself,” he said. “At the same time, there was that angst that I didn’t do more to take advantage of the whole situation. But it is a three-week race. If I had taken the [yellow] jersey, it might have killed our team. Everything is going great. Being in fifth place, at 39 seconds, is amazing.”

Assessing his rivals, Vande Velde said Schleck’s yellow jersey was no doubt a dream come true for the CSC rider, but predicted that Schleck would likely struggle in a 53km time trial. Vande Velde said Gerolsteiner’s Bernard Kohl has been the revelation of the Tour, but may soon need to decide if he’s going to pursue a podium placing or the King of the Mountains jersey.

On former race leader and last year’s runner-up Cadel Evans, Vande Velde said, “Cadel is definitely suffering right now. But Cadel knows what he can and can’t do. That said, he did lose some time yesterday.”

Rounding out the top six on GC, who are all separated by only 49 seconds, Vande Velde said, “[Denis] Menchov is awesome in the climbs right now, and he can do a great time trial. He’s a big favorite right now, he’s a better time trialist than everyone but Cadel, and he’s climbing better than Cadel. Then you have Carlos [Sastre], who is the best climber out of everyone. Especially the more demanding the day, like Wednesday’s day up Alpe d’Huez. This race is really going to come down to seconds.”

Vande Velde agreed that Thursday’s stage into Saint-Etienne, which might otherwise be a day for a breakaway, could see the race’s GC favorites battling for time before Saturday’s pivotal 53km time trial. The stage features three categorized climbs including a category 4 climb just 8.5km from the finish line and comes the day after the race’s hardest mountain stage.

“At any other race that would be a very hard stage,” Vande Velde said. “If that stage was at Paris-Nice or the Amgen Tour of California, it would be a really hard, nasty stage. Because it’s the Tour it doesn’t seem so bad, but it’s bad. If you want to cause mayhem, it could be ugly.”

And even if he can stay within reach of the race’s best climbers, Vande Velde knows he’ll need to have the ride of his life on Saturday’s time trial to win this Tour.

“I haven’t seen the course, but I’ve studied the book well,” Vande Velde said. “It’s a lumpy course, and it’s not technical. On paper it’s a good course for me. I will need to have the ride of my life, but I’m more in my element there. I’ve put myself under pressure many more times in the time trial. I’m worried more about those mountaintops. I’ve been looking forward to that time trial since I stepped off my bike after the first time trial.”