Opening team time trial lands Vande Velde in pink
By Andrew Hood
Christian Vande Velde might have the pink jersey, but it was a team victory in every sense of the word Saturday for Slipstream-Chipotle in the 23.6km team time trial to open the 91st Giro d’Italia.
Vande Velde, 31, becomes the first American since Andy Hampsten won the 1988 Giro to don the prized maglia rosa, but he’d love nothing more than to have eight more to pass among his teammates.
“We’re over the moon. It’s amazing,” Vande Velde said. “We’re happy with one day in pink. The next objective for me would be to pass it to one of my teammates. It wasn’t me who won today, it was my team.”
Slipstream’s grand tour debut couldn’t have gone better. David Millar called the performance a “perfect team time trial.”
“We’ve been working on this stage for a week to be ready. The objective was to win today. The victory is huge for our team,” said Millar, who peeled off in the final kilometer. “A perfect team time trial is when five arrive to the line. Everyone should give the absolute maximum until they can’t pull through.”
With three national time trial jerseys represented on the nine-man team (Millar in British, Dave Zabriskie in American and Ryder Hesjedal in Canadian), Slipstream delivered a superb performance under cloudy skies on the mostly flat, out-and-back course between bustling Palermo and the beach town at Mondello.
Vande Velde stabbed his bike across the line with the minimum of five riders coming through to stop the clock at 26:32 with an average speed of 53.366kph.
The time secured a six-second victory over Team CSC with U.S.-registered High Road stopping the clock at seven seconds slower to slot in for third. Astana, racing with Levi Leipheimer and Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, came through seventh at 29 seconds slower.
With four starting Americans, Slipstream wasn’t tempted by the chance to put another American in pink and agreed to sprint it to the line regardless of who crossed over first.
“Dave (Zabriskie) said that he didn’t want to finish first because he wanted to avoid this press conference,” Vande Velde joked. “First we wanted to win. We didn’t want to take the chance of making Dave go first, or me, or whoever, and lose by one second. That would be horrible. We didn’t want to take that chance and decided it was the fastest person across the line.”
Slipstream’s tactics were to drop riders when they tired and not wait for anyone.
Australian sprinter Chris Sutton was the first to fade, then Danny Pate and Pat McCarty lost contact. All three buried themselves in the first half of the course to let the big guns save their legs for the decisive second half.
Millar lost the wheel in the final kilometer, but Vande Velde, Zabriskie, Julian Dean, Magnus Backstedt and Hesjedal rode in together to post the early fastest time.
“This was the biggest motivation of the race. I think we’re a little more relaxed now, we were pretty stressed beforehand,” said Zabriskie, pointing out his new “Captain America” helmet decals. “We’ve been practicing for a week and a half, so we prepared as best we could.”
Vande Velde had a long wait in the hot seat. Slipstream-Chipotle started seventh out of 22 starting teams to edge Tinkoff, but late starters Team CSC and High Road gave the team a scare.
“CSC was very close. They did a fast first split, but we rode conservatively in the first third of the race and then we drove it home,” Vande Velde said. “When you’re in the hot seat, it’s a horrible feeling. You don’t want to get cocky and be too positive because the carpet can get swept out from under you. There was a little bit of tension on the bus, to say the least.”
The victory is huge for Slipstream, which is racing against the biggest and strongest teams in Europe for the first time this year.
Considered an underdog, Slipstream stepped up with a dramatic victory against the top ProTour and Italian teams. Vande Velde said the victory reminded him of his experience in the 1999 Tour de France when he rode with the upstart U.S. Postal Service team in Lance Armstrong’s first of seven wins.
“We’re a smaller team and this is our first year in the big leagues, so this is huge,” he said. “It’s very similar (to 1999). Then we were the underdogs. We only had 15 guys on Postal Service. We didn’t even have a bus, just two campers. Lance just killed everyone in the prologue. We couldn’t believe it. My roommate then was Jonathan Vaughters, so it’s funny how things have come full circle. My objective isn’t to win the Giro, but it’s very similar.”
Lifetime achievement award
Vande Velde’s presence in pink is a just reward for the hard-working veteran now in his 11th season as a pro.
“Christian was the strongest today,” Millar said. “In the last five kilometers, I couldn’t stay on his wheel. He’s an American and this is an American team, Christian deserves to be in the pink jersey.”
Vande Velde’s background drew interest from the Italian journalists, who queried about his Belgian roots. Vande Velde’s great grandfather emigrated from Ghent, Belgium, and worked as a janitor in the Chicago area.
Vande Velde comes from good cycling stock. His father, John, was a top amateur and pro track racer who competed in the 1968 and the 1972 Olympic Games and raced on the European six-day pro circuit.
“I started watching my father race. I always looked up to Greg LeMond and when I was a junior racer, I watched Lance race and then I rode with him a few years at Postal,” he said. “One of my idols was (Viatcheslav) Ekimov. He was a pursuiter like me. Eki was my idol when I was a kid.”
Vande Velde turned pro in 1998 with U.S. Postal Service and rode two Tours de France with Armstrong (1999 and 2001) before a string of debilitating back injuries nearly derailed his career.
He switched to Liberty Seguros in 2004, but his move to Team CSC in 2005 helped revive his career.
Vande Velde recovered his health and fitness as well as his passion for cycling during three years working with Team CSC boss Bjarne Riis. A victory in the 2006 Tour of Luxembourg was his first European victory after a decade racing overseas.
Third at the Tour of California and second at the Circuit de la Sarthe (with a time trial stage win) this season, Vande Velde sees his stint in pink as just reward for his long career that’s often been at the service of such captains as Armstrong, Carlos Sastre and Ivan Basso.
“This is the one picture that I will put on my wall,” Vande Velde said. “This is an amazing achievement and the highlight of my career so far. This is the one thing I’ll pass on to my grand kids.”
‘Sign of new cycling’
The team’s victory is also an important endorsement of the team’s strong anti-doping program. Working with Agency for Cycling Ethics, the team’s riders are subject to frequent unannounced blood and urine tests.
Vande Velde pointed out correctly that the top three teams also have introduced vigorous anti-doping programs.
“I think it’s a sign of the new cycling,” he said. “CSC and High Road have the same programs as ours, so when the first three teams are the teams with the biggest anti-doping programs within their teams, that shows that clean teams are winning and you can say without a doubt that a clean team won today.”
Vande Velde said he’s undergone blood and urine tests nearly every week since November.
“It’s hard sometimes, with all the team’s testing and the testing by the UCI and at the races, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it,” he said. “You can look at your teammates and know who you’re racing against are clean. It’s a good feeling.”
Slipstream will now enjoy its moment in the Italian sun and try to keep the maglia rosa as long as possible.
Vande Velde’s dream of playing hot potato with the pink jersey might be complicated by Sunday’s challenging stage from Cerfalù to Agrigento, which finishes on a 13km circuit that traces the route of the 1994 world championships.
The final four kilometers grind up 200 vertical meters with ramps as steep as 10 percent, so the top sprinters might not make it up the hill.
Mark Cavendish (High Road) and Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) are poised at seven and nine seconds back, respectively, and with one mid-race hot sprint and time bonuses waiting at the finish line, Vande Velde will need to be at his best to finish the day in pink.
Slipstream has already shown it’s up to the challenge.
1. Slipstream, 26:322. CSC, 26:383.
High Road, 26:384.
LPR brakes, 27:007.
Quick Step, 27:1410.
Serramenti Diquigiovanni, 27:2313.
Caisse d’Epargne, 27:2615.
Saunier Duval, 27:3416.
AG2R Mondiale, 27:3518.
Française des Jeux, 27:58