By Neal Rogers
Heading into the Tour de France, Garmin-Slipstream’s Christian Vande Velde didn’t know what to expect. After a breakthrough ride in 2008, where he finished as the top American in fourth place, Vande Velde started the 2009 season as the team’s primary GC hope at the world’s biggest bike race.
The Lemont, Illinois, native circled the month of July as his primary target, with the objective of bettering his 2008 result by riding onto the podium in Paris. As they did last year, he and his team manager Jonathan Vaughters decided Vande Velde would race the three-week Giro d’Italia in May as a preparation race.
However unlike last year, when Vande Velde helped drive his Slipstream team to an early team time trial victory and an opportunity to wear the leader’s jersey, this time disaster stuck.
Vande Velde went down in a high-speed pile-up that left him with two broken ribs, five broken vertebra and a broken pelvis. Worse than the broken bones was the soft tissue damage surrounding the fractures.
Instead of using May to prepare for the Tour, Vande Velde spent that time undergoing physical rehabilitation. His participation in the Tour was in doubt until two weeks before the race but he proved he had come to compete, placing 17th in the hilly opening time trial in Monaco. Three days later he helped propel Garmin to a second-place finish in the stage 4 team time trial.
With Vande Velde and teammate Bradley Wiggins sitting in the top 10 after almost two weeks of racing, Garmin was poised as one of the only teams capable of mounting a true challenge to Astana. However on the race’s second summit finish, at the Verbier Ski Resort in Switzerland, Vande Velde had a tough day and lost any hope of a podium finish.
Instead of expressing disappointment, Vande Velde said he was just happy to be racing the Tour, and pledged his support for Wiggins.
He lived up to his promise, riding in a support role on the final mountain stages. Though he struggled on the final slopes of Mont Ventoux, Wiggins managed to finish fourth overall, while Vande Velde finished eighth.
VeloNews caught up with Vande Velde in the week following the Tour to ask him to reflect on his second consecutive top-10, and what more we can expect from him in 2009.
VeloNews: I suppose it’s a no-brainer that you’ll be defending your title in Missouri. How important is the race to you?
Christian Vande Velde: Missouri is the icing on the cake. It’s all about coming home and trying to do a good race and put together what you still have at the end of the season. It’s my home race — throughout my career I’ve never had the opportunity to have a home race, other than Downers Grove — so yeah, I want to showcase myself and do a good race in front of my family and friends. But I can’t do any better than win.
VN: How about the world championships?
CVV: I don’t think so. It’s been a hard year, with my injuries and all that. It’s not like I was out on vacation when I crashed. It was a lot of time and effort, putting my body back together and hurrying up and trying to do the best I could throughout May and June. It was a lot of stress on my body. It wasn’t time off, per se, like a lot of people sometimes think it is. I didn’t race, but in a way it was just as stressful getting myself to start line in Monaco.
VN: Last year you attributed your breakthrough season, in part, to overcoming muscle imbalances. How much did the crash affect your back problems?
CVV: It’s always pretty rough after I take time off bike. It’s just tight, you know, all those adhesions. But I always feel better after I get worked on, and after I race, which is kind of weird. The crash at the Giro didn’t help it. I was getting over those problems and imbalances. But did it put me back to square one? No. But it didn’t help things out, that’s for sure. It just added to the list of things that are tight.
VN: After you were dropped at Verbier and lost any chance of making the podium, you were pretty upbeat, saying you were just happy to be riding at the Tour. Now that you’ve had some time to reflect, do you still feel the same way?
CVV: Oh yeah, I am still where I was with that. Verbier was really my worst day of the Tour, by a long shot. The hardest day, where it really mattered, was the Grand Bornand stage, with five mountains, and that was my best day. I’m really happy with my Tour and how it went. To have the preparation that I did and to still be top 10, it really gives me a lot of confidence for next year. It actually gives me more confidence than I had last year going into this year. Last year was the first time in the top 10, and this was second time going top 10, and with not half the preparation that I had last year. It shows me I do have something for the Tour de France, and I’ll be ready for next year for sure. I’m already looking forward to it.
VN: Wiggins was really the revelation, and he wants to improve on his performance and reach the podium. How do you see that affecting the team dynamic?
CVV: Yeah, it’s a bit strange, going from just focusing on one person, but our team is really open. As you saw this year, if Bradley is going better than I am, I have no problem working for him, and I would just hope the same if the roles are reversed. And I have confidence in Bradley that he would do the same for me.
VN: At this year’s Giro we saw a lot being made about Liquigas, whether or not Franco Pelizotti would ride for Ivan Basso, or vice versa. But I didn’t hear much talk about that happening at Garmin prior to Verbier.
CVV: Yeah, I think a lot of times they have a lot of pressure put on themselves, too, and they would never ride for anyone else. They’ve always been just leaders in their own right. I think it’s really hard for Ivan to work for somebody else. He’s always been the leader, and for him to just be thinking about the Giro, and just thinking about himself, it’s hard to think anything less than that he’s going to be winning the Giro.