By Andrew Hood
Christian Vande Velde is back racing after a two-month ordeal to secure a working permit that would allow him to legally race with his new Spanish team Liberty Seguros.
With working papers safely in hand, Vande Velde negotiated the perils of the Vuelta a Asturias last week in northern Spain for his first week of racing since the Tour of Valencia in mid-February.
After an injury plagued 2003 season, the 28-year-old Vande Velde decided it was time for a change. After racing his entire pro career at U.S. Postal Service, Vande Velde is opening new doors with a switch to Liberty Seguros where he’ll ride in service of two-time Vuelta champion Roberto Heras.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with Vande Velde in his home-base in Girona, Spain. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: How did it feel to be back racing after the hassles with the work permit?
Christian Vande Velde: “It almost felt like a different season because it was so long ago that I raced. Things went pretty well, but it was kind of a shock to the system. The first few days hurt pretty bad until I could get into the rhythm of things. A lot of it was mental, just because I was so out of it while I was dealing with the permit. Part of it was not even being able to train because of dealing with the legal issues, flying back and forth, trying to get my visa in Los Angeles.”
VN: Did you feel any pressure to be racing again?
VdV: “Part of it was trying to prove yourself to a team that doesn’t even know you, in that part I felt pretty pressured. Most of the pressure I put on myself. The team understands what I’ve been through and they’ve been supportive. But I wanted to show I could still ride well.”
VN: How much time have you spent with your new teammates?
CVV: “Not much time at all. We had a training camp, Mallorca (Challenge in February), Valencia – about three weeks in all.”
VN: How was the Asturias race? Had you done it before? It seemed very difficult.
CVV: “I had never done it before. It was a hard race, no doubt about it. The terrain was not easy; it was up and down every day. There were some big climbs, there wasn’t a flat day where you can sit in and not have to worry about what was coming up next. The hardest part of being on a big Spanish team is that they want to be in every move.”
VN: How did you first get in contact with Liberty Seguros?
CVV: “Through Roberto (Heras). I was looking for something new and talked to Roberto a little bit and within three weeks it was done.”
VN: Was your contract up at Postal Service?
CVV: “No, I had one more year. Last year was just so frustrating, with the injuries I had, some of the races I had to go to that I wasn’t scheduled to do. It was just demoralizing. I could never get myself out of the hole and they didn’t give me all the proper chances to get out of the hole. It was not the support I was looking for. I was just not being looked after the way I thought I should have been looked after.”
VN: Tell us again what problems you had last season?
CVV: “It was mostly back and muscle balance. They just continued to get worse and worse. I was racing when I should have been off the bike. It just happened from the get-go when I came over to Europe last year. The first three months I was suffering. I didn’t get to go to Algarve (in February) and came back at Setmana Catalana (in March). It was a sequence of errors through the whole year. When I would come out of the hole, I would do a little too much and get behind again or further behind from where I was in the first place.”
VN: So it was a combination of back and muscle problems?
CVV: “Some of the biggest things were from crashes in previous years when I never rehabbed myself properly. In the 2001 Tour crash where I broke my arm, I never rehabbed my left arm and shoulder, so I was favoring my right side. My right was more developed, which twisted my pelvis. I had no power because I was all twisted. I felt like I was riding on the side of my saddle, I looked horrible. I would go train and tried to push through it. I could race and still finish with the lead pack, but I just couldn’t contribute.”
VN: What did you finally do to correct the problem, did you use chiropractors, massage therapists, physical therapists?
CVV: “Yes, it was all that. It was very vague what was happening, but something was wrong. I worked all winter long on it. I was overusing some muscles so that they were bound together, it gave me tendonitis. My left leg was doing too much work in the wrong motion. It was a big mess.”
VN: You were overlooked for the Tour de France as well as the Vuelta a España, what happened with that?
CVV: “Things started to get better in summer, but I didn’t stop racing until mid-June at the Vuelta a Cataluyna. I had to do all this stuff with my doctors, going for MRIs back in the United States. By that time, everything kept getting later and later, by the time I got a grasp on things it was the end of July. It wouldn’t have been likely for the Vuelta. I was an unknown.”
VN: When you decided to leave Postal Service, was it your choice?
CVV: “I was ready for something new. I was looking at Stayer (a team that never got off the ground), that put me in contact with Manolo Saiz. I had a lot of respect for him, but then it was looking shadier by the second and I stayed away from that. At that point I was planning on coming back to Postal if I had to. Then Roberto left and I gave him a call.”
VN: Were you and Roberto close at Postal?
CVV: “We weren’t especially close away from racing, but Heras and I had some key moments, like at Cataluyna and the 2002 Vuelta.”
VN: Postal Service was the only professional team you’ve raced for, was it difficult leaving?
CVV: “It was strictly professional. I did feel bad leaving because I have some many friends there. That’s all I knew. It was a scary time – pick up a different language, all these unknown factors – things like the whole papers fiasco, who would have seen that hindrance? It did help me renew my enthusiasm for the sport and racing. I’m not looking back.”
VN: Postal Service seems all about the Tour, either you’re in or you’re out. It seemed like you got back ‘in’ after your strong Vuelta in 2002?
CVV: “After the Vuelta, I thought I was back in, but 2003 was marred with the problems with my health. I don’t have much bitterness. They have the way they run it, and they do it very well, but it wasn’t the perfect set for me.”
VN: What was your last race with Postal Service?
CVV: “My chain broke at Paris-Tours and I didn’t have a spare bike on the car, that’s how my tenure ended at Postal Service — there you go.”
VN: So the change of teams has given you new motivation to race?
CVV: “I’ve never had a lack of motivation. First of all, getting my body working again was half the battle. It was just focus, narrowing it down to the things I needed to do. Last year I was trying to do everything at once, racing, training, rehab, but nothing was working out. I should have just stopped racing, got the rehab done, got the training done, then race. I’ve got that all taken care of, now I’m trying to start racing now. Motivation has never been a factor for me. I am motivated that the team has confidence in me and expects a lot from me.”
VN: What races are next for you?
CVV: “Tour of Germany. We’ll see how I come out of that race. I might be doing Vuelta a Cataluyna, hopefully the Tour. In my mind, I want to race the Tour, and the team wants me there, too. If I come out strong from the Tour of Germany, I might not need to race in Cataluyna. My form is getting better and better every day.”
VN: How important would it be for you to get back to the Tour?
CVV: “That’s one of the reasons I came to the team, to race the Tour. I can’t wait for it. In some ways, the cards are stacked against me starting the season in the middle of May, but I think I can still pull it off. I never want to just go to the Tour. I want to have a good Tour.”
VN: What will your role be at Liberty at the Tour if you’re selected?
CVV: “It will be a similar role to the Vuelta, support in the middle mountains. The high mountains at the Tour are a little different than the Vuelta, but maybe I will be in the high mountains too. Doing a good team time trial. I can be a good asset.”
VN: How do you think Heras can do at the Tour?
CVV: “I think there’s a lot of unknown with some guys like Roberto. Some guys are going fast this time of year, Tyler, Mayo, Lance, who have won all big races this year. I think Roberto is biding his time a little more, not hitting the gas at the top end. He’s looking stronger and he’s more focused on the Tour this year. Before, he was just supporting Lance at the Tour and thinking about the Vuelta. I think he’s going to turn some heads and be a protagonist in the mountains. It depends on how the race unfolds. A good, hard attacking race will be in Roberto’s favor. Jan seems to have so many chiefs and not enough Indians. Our team is like Postal, we have one serious chief.”
VN: What’s the future hold in store for you? Will you get your chances in some of the other races?
CVV: “I’m just trying to get through these couple of months first. All my goals and concentration are on the Tour, whether I’m going or not. If I get through the Tour, then I’ll start thinking about the rest of year. That’s enough on my plate right now.”