An interview with Christian Vande Velde, January 12, 2009
Finishing domestique duties
In the world of professional cycling the transition from domestique to team
leader is difficult and rare. For every rider that makes the jump, there are
dozens who try and fail - or simply never try at all. Garmin-Slipstream's Christian
Vande Velde emerged as a leader after years of service to others. Procycling's
Jason Sumner caught up with Vande Velde at his Chicago home to find out what
made the difference.
Vande Velde's daughter Uma hangs out
with her dad.
Photo ©: Jason Sumner
Until 2008, Christian Vande Velde lived the life of a cycling domestique. Sure,
he had occasional breakout performances - a win at the 2006 Tour of Luxembourg,
second overall at the 2007 Tour de Georgia. But more often than not, the 32-year-old
American was content in his supporting rider role, breaking the wind and fetching
bottles for the likes of Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre.
All that changed a year ago when Vande Velde left the comforts of CSC and signed on with the then-fledgling Slipstream team. At the time the Boulder, Colorado-based squad had no title sponsor and no guarantee that it would be invited to the sport's biggest races. But everything fell into place in 2008. GPS-maker Garmin stepped into the title sponsor role, and the newly named Garmin-Chipotle team earned a coveted invite to the Tour de France.
Vande Velde took over from there, announcing himself as a rider to be reckoned
with. The Chicago native finished fifth overall - or fourth if you remove the
subsequently suspended Bernhard
Kohl. And he was tops among GC contenders in the Tour's final time trial,
finishing fourth - or third if you remove Stefan Schumacher, who
also tested positive for CERA.
Those results, plus a win at the season-ending Tour of Missouri gave Vande
Velde a huge boost of confidence, and earned him top honours in the Cyclingnews
most improved rider reader poll.
So how did Vande Velde make such a big jump? To find out the answer we paid a visit to his modest home in suburban Chicago. Check out excerpts from the exclusive interview here and read the full feature in the Procycling's season preview.
Cyclingnews: First I'm wondering what you're doing in Chicago in the
dead of winter? This can't be the best place to get in your base miles.
Christian Vande Velde: It's all about [18-month-old daughter] Uma and
being close to both my family and [wife] Leah's. We both grew up around here
and it's great for Uma to see her grandparents. And it keeps Leah sane because
she can get help when she needs it. [Note: Leah Vande Velde is expecting their
second child at the end of January.]
CN: But from a strictly professional standpoint, is it hard for you
to be here?
CVV: A lot of the time, yes. If it's dry I can manage because I can get
on the 'cross bike and ride the trails around here. But for a lot of December
I couldn't even do that because there was too much snow. That was rough. But
I got through it and here we are with just two more days before I head to training
camp. And I did get some good work done. I've been in the gym a ton and working
with a PT, so in that respect I'm really strong right now, maybe stronger than
I've ever been.
Emerging into the light.
Photo ©: Jason Sumner
CN: So what are the trails around here like? It looked pretty flat driving
over from the airport.
CVV: Actually there's a huge forest preserve that was formed by a glacier
so there's lots of ups and downs. When the conditions are good I can ride for
three-plus hours and never see the road. There's tons of great single track.
But right now there's too much ice so I have to stay on the road and go south
into the cornfields and that's like riding in Nebraska. It sucks.
CN: Do you feel like the bad weather has set you back or are you going to be okay?
CVV: I think I'm okay but I do worry a little. I've been consistent, but I haven't gotten in a lot of good rides. The upside is that I'm strong in the core and back, and that's really important. Besides we ride so much these days that I don't think it will be a big deal. I mean I've done 30,000 kilometers [18,641 miles] a year for 12 years now, so it reaches a point where I need to work on specific things like getting my back strong as much as anything.
CN: So you're a lot stronger right now than in years past?
CVV: No doubt. The big thing is that I hired a trainer for the first time. He's the total opposite of me, 275 pounds, big and loud. He's been great though. He gives me a ton of intensity, and is always watching me to make sure I'm doing things right.
CN: What are the key areas that you're working on at the gym?
CVV: Back, hips, glutes, hamstrings - all the core muscles that are weaker
in me. We do it with and without weight, so it's different than the old school,
squat, leg press, squat, leg press. I'm also doing physical therapy. I was there
today and have been doing it twice a week all fall. The big thing is that I
have almost completely different posture. Overall I'm as healthy as I've been
since 1999. I'm as healthy as I can be right now.
CN: It seems like you've always been battling one ailment or another.
Give us the laundry list?
CVV: It's just been a lot of imbalances, weaknesses, overuse injuries. I
think it stems from never doing proper PT after injuries like when I broke my
arm [at the 2001 Tour de France]. Instead the body is able to do four or five
hours holding the bars with one hand, and slowly but surely you start favoring
one side over the other. Then all the sudden you're all messed up.
"Overall I'm as healthy as I've been since 1999. I'm as healthy
as I can be right now."
- Vande Velde explains his clean bill
of health heading into '09
CN: So how big a role is improved health in your recent emergence as
CVV: It's huge. I think one of biggest things is that I don't take it for
granted anymore. I've really been working at it. When my body feels good I train
better and really enjoy it. It's so easy it becomes euphoric.
CN: But clearly it's more than just good health. Fair to say your entire
outlook has changed?
CVV: Definitely. The switch really flipped at the  Giro when I
got the leader's jersey after the team time trial. That was great but then
I lost it by a second on the next stage to [Italian Franco] Pellizotti and had
to watch him everyday on the podium. I mean I saw him crying when he had the
jersey and I was like, wow this is a big deal. That's when I got pissed and
wanted to get it back. I had the taste of blood in the mouth.
CN: Was being in the Giro leader's jersey your biggest moment in 2008?
CVV: For sure it was one of them but also winning
Missouri. That's a race I wasn't looking at to do anything. I just wanted
to work for the team and help somebody else. But I'm really glad it happened
the way it did. It forced me to ride as a leader and reminded me that I could
do it. It was reassurance of everything I did throughout year.
CN: And is that Corvette in the garage your reward for what you did?
CVV: Actually that was basically an impulse buy. I went to get the oil changed
in the SUV and had too much time on my hands. The Chevy dealership was across
the street, and I knew the way things are with the economy I could get a good
buy. So I got talked into test drive and ended up driving it home.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
You can read the rest of the interview in Procycling's season preview. Subscribe to get your copy today!
John Vande Velde proud of his son
Getting fit with Christian Vande Velde
Vande Velde's shot at the Tour podium
Vande Velde emerges a Tour contender
Other Cyclingnews interviews