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By Andrew Hood
Christian Vande Velde stepped out of the Garmin-Chipotle team bus Wednesday morning in Lannemazen to find a good-sized media scrum waiting to speak with him.
The fact that a dozen scribes and a few TV camera crews wanted to learn more about the American sitting third place overall revealed just how far Vande Velde’s stock has risen midway through the 2008 Tour de France.
“I surprised myself a little bit on Hautacam the other day,” Vande Velde said. “But it’s everything I’ve worked for, so every day it’s becoming less and less of a surprise.”
Vande Velde has ridden under the radar through the first half of the race, but his excellent performance up the decisive climb to Hautacam fortified his position as a legitimate threat for overall victory.
“Ignorance is bliss,” he said. “We’ll keep it that way.”
It seems many of the GC favorites haven’t considered Vande Velde a serious rival. His name wasn’t mentioned as a threat during rest-day press conferences at CSC, Silence-Lotto or Saunier Duval.
When told that Vande Velde was in third place at 38 seconds back, race leader Cadel Evans said, “Oh, good for him.”
When riders like Denis Menchov and Frank Schleck speak about adversaries for the podium, no one mentions Vande Velde.
“That’s fine. I love being the underdog,” Vande Velde said. “The next couple days we want to keep things the way they are and keep it status quo until we get to Italy.”
Some are waking up to his threat, however. With the way he’s climbing, Vande Velde has the long time trial waiting for him in the final week.
“Watch out for Vande Velde,” said Ag2r-La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu. “We know he’s a great rider, but no one’s been paying attention to him. He’s on a serious team and he’s a real candidate for the podium if he stays regular through the mountains. The climbers will need to take some time on him.”
Vande Velde’s performance might be a surprise to some, but those who know the laid-back Chicago-area native, it’s a fulfillment of a long-touted promise.
When team owner Jonathan Vaughters rebooted the team’s lineup for the 2008 racing season, he wanted Vande Velde to be his GC leader.
“When I retired from European cycling, I still thought of Christian as one of the top American talents in Europe. So when I started this team, I told Christian that I wanted him as our GC rider for all the big races, and he was like, ‘oh, I can’t do that.’ I said why not?” Vaughters said. “And now he’s doing it. He’s starting to believe in himself.”
Teammate David Millar has worked closely with Vande Velde this season. Millar was a key member of the team time trial victory that put Vande Velde into the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia, only the second American ever to earn that distinction.
For Millar, Vande Velde’s rise is no surprise.
“He’s a genuine Tour contender. We can’t wait to see what he does in the Alps. There are only five riders now who can win this Tour and Christian is right there,” Millar said Wednesday. “We’ve known for a long time he had it in him. Right now he’s surprising himself, but he’s always been there. He’s worked harder, he’s injury-free. He’s had a very good, solid year. It’s all accumulated here.”
Vande Velde came into the Tour quietly hoping for a top 10, but now he’s poised for even greater things. Vaughters predicted as soon as last week that Vande Velde could be even an outsider for overall victory.
“I think it’s too early (to speak about the podium). Two days ago was a big test for everyone, things have changed a lot in the first 10 days about who thought was going to do well and not do well, the same thing could happen the next 10 days,” Vande Velde said. “In my head, I’ve always been practical, I know what I had done before, 24th or 25th, is far from top 5. My big goal coming into the Tour was a top 10.”
And the sudden rush of media attention isn’t ruffling his feathers, either.
“It’s a different change of pace, I’m taking it in stride,” he said. “I think the team is doing quite well.”
If he keeps riding so well, he’ll have to get used to the growing media horde.