Contributed by Guy Wilson-Roberts
It was a massive year for Christian Vande Velde, his best in his ten-year career. He wore the maglia rosa at the Giro, rode strongly to a fifth, er, fourth place overall at the Tour de France, then finished the season with a fine win at the Tour of Missouri.
His team, Garmin-Chipotle, in its first big year of racing, also made all the right moves, spearheading a new level of transparency and openness in the sport and giving some jaded fans a team of riders to really get behind.
“We spent all year looking the skeptics in the eye,” team boss Jonathan Vaughters said at the team presentation in Boulder in November. “And converting them into fans and believers.”
But at the presentation, outlining next year’s season, Vaughters had a more serious message: “We raced with dignity, passion, and honour. But we forgot to go ahead and win, because we can win a hell of a lot more than we did this year.”
Vaughters explained that the crusade was over and that as a reward to all its supporters the team now had an absolute obligation to win. Vande Velde will be at the forefront of the team’s new mission, and will undoubtedly be looking for more Grand Tour success.
PEZ wanted to find out more about that mission and the 2009 season. We caught up with Vande Velde in early December on a freezing cold day in Chicago, as he was on his way home from the airport. But before discussing the future, we wanted to talk a little about 2008 and firstly to find out how he had been coping with the spotlight of media attention this year.
“It’s definitely been a bit of a change from years past,” Vande Velde explained. “I had to change my outlook of what I expected it to be like when I was at home and how much time I’d have with my family, which was sparse to say the least. But now I’ve gotten everything out of the way I’ll have the next 5-6 weeks at home with the family through the holidays so I’ll really save every moment I have now.”
The start of next year’s season doesn’t seem too far away and PEZ wanted to know what Vande Velde had been doing for training through November and December and how much was possible in cold and snowy Chicago.
“I try to do something every day, whether it be in the weight room or riding the bike, or both,” he explained. “It’s been so cold out here in Chicago, I’ve even been ice skating in my back yard – it’s been nasty. The weather has been a factor for me, but I’ve still been out, but at the same time take in all the good things that Chicago has to offer with friends and family.”
Vande Velde was sounding very grounded, and obviously content to spend some much-needed home time. PEZ wanted to find out a bit more about his time on the bike and whether it was going to be strictly a month of riding the rollers.
“It’s funny, actually, about 5 minutes ago I just picked up a new trainer, like a spin bike but made to my TT bike more-or less,” he said. “It has a fly wheel and a power meter inside it. It’s really nice. I’ll be spending plenty of time on that for the next few weeks.
“Last year was pretty mild here, and I think I had a false sense of security for riding. This year has just been so cold, averaging minus 8 this month: that’s not funny!”
PEZ didn’t want to talk too much about the 2008 season but wanted to get a feel from Vande Velde, as an overview, how he was feeling about his performance looking back.
“I’m very happy with how the year shaped up,” he said. “If you would’ve told me this time last year I wouldn’t have believed you in all honesty. And the icing on the cake for me, obviously, was Missouri. It was an unexpected win as I was coasting a bit at the end of August and didn’t know how much fitness I’d have. At the same time, I was having a good time riding my bike back in the States, so it was an unexpected win – but kind of reassured everyone about what I did this year.”
Prior to talking to Vande Velde, PEZ had been looking back at some footage from the Tour de France and couldn’t help but notice that on some days – even on the toughest climbs – that Vande Velde actually looked like he was enjoying himself. We wondered if this was his ‘game face’ or whether he was indeed having a good time on the bike and enjoying being at the front of the peloton.
“There were a couple, like Hautacam and Alpe d’Huez, I was truly enjoying myself on those climbs,” he revealed. “I probably didn’t reach my full potential on those two climbs and I kind of kick myself the way I raced them but, anyway, I did have a great time and I’d never been in that position before and I’d always dreamed of being in that position, and I knew I could, and everything came to fruition, and so I had a good time this Tour.”
Vande Velde has talked before in interviews about his ‘mental shift’ this year and its importance in his performance. PEZ wanted to touch on this issue again, the mental aspect versus, say, some changes in training for the 2008 season.
“I think it was a little bit of everything,” he explained. “A mental shift, growing up, then I have a great coach this year that changed a lot of things. Also, to have the support of a team around me, from the mechanics to the soigneurs to chiropractors, everyone from top to bottom, and then my teammates backing me up. There were a lot of things that all seemed to work this year.”
It was indeed a big year for Garmin-Chipotle and PEZ was interested in what the main lesson for the team was over the season.
“We were saying at the training camp last year  that we were hoping to always be up there,” Vande Velde said. “This year we were there more times than we thought we’d be. But at the end of the day we were so excited to be there that we forgot to finish the deal and win the race. That’s the biggest lesson; we are good enough to contend with the best. The hardest step is to win. Second, third and fourth come easy, but the win is always hard.”
Vande Velde was echoing Vaughters’ message from Boulder about the importance of winning and PEZ asked how this was going to translate into a team strategy for 2009 and who we should be looking out for.
“There’s a lot of guys who are going to step up and starting winning,” he said. “Tyler Farrar for sure will do that; Dave Zabriskie, who didn’t race half the season is going to be hungry; and David Millar had crazy amounts of really close calls. We have a great team and, in a perfect world, we’ll be a step ahead of where we were.”
Then of course there is Vande Velde himself. After his breakthrough ride in 2008, would the Tour be his main focus for 2009?
“Yes. But I never like to put everything onto just one spot in the season,” he explained. “I like to really try to go well for most of the season, not just train for a handful of races. I like to be well prepared for all races and if I’m in a position to do something I’ll do it.
“I’m 100% focused on the Tour, there’s no doubt about it. But I’ll try to do well in other races: I still want to get the pink jersey back at the Giro and do well in California and other races.”
The Tour of California starts in the middle of February and Vande Velde joked that he was starting to worry about his training given that he was driving through the snow in Chicago. Two months is plenty of time for preparation and there’s a team training camp in the near future. But Vande Velde and his wife have a little one on the way, which will make planning a challenge.
“I could still be sitting on the couch waiting for the baby to come, come the Tour of California, who knows,” he said light-heartedly. California will be an exciting race but the Grand Tours with their innovative routes for next year are shaping up to some of the best we’ve seen. Echoing Paul Sherwen’s excitement about the finish of next year’s Tour de France, with the penultimate stage up Mont Ventoux, PEZ wanted to get Vande Velde’s thoughts on whether this would be the deciding stage of the Tour.
“It could be, but a lot of times at the end of the race like that, a lot of people are getting content to where they are in the placings,” he pointed out. “They’re not really seeing themselves attacking, and are not going to risk their placing for attacking for the glory on the last stage. Carlos [Sastre] did it this year on Alpe d’Huez and he was heavily rewarded for it, but it could have gone the other way of course.
“I agree with Paul, we should look at it like that. But at the same time, the Tour is such a long race. If it is close [going into the stage], we’ll be very fortunate and it’ll be a great race. But you can’t predict too much. Big time gaps could happen elsewhere, like a bad day in the Alps.”
Whatever happens leading up to the Mont Ventoux, it will be a great stage for the fans, who will undoubtedly be lining the road in their thousands. Cycling has had a tough time in the last few years with scandal, but roadside support at many races has remained strong. PEZ wondered what the fan support for Garmin had been like.
“The fans have been great, at times unexpectedly so,” Vande Velde answered. “We don’t have the biggest team in the world, but sometimes you wouldn’t think that for how much the fans got behind us. That’s been a great thing and we hope to keep it up.”
PEZ was also interested to know whether the fan support was a good boost to the team’s philosophy of openness and transparency, reassuring them that their strategy was the right one.
“It was a great reassurance and you hear it over and over again, and that really does help when you’re a bit down it does keep you ticking over,” he said. “It was stressful at the beginning of the year [with all the attention], but that wasn’t by chance to get so much press as we were completely transparent and had journalists embedded with the team more or less the whole year. That gets stressful after a while if there’s always a TV camera or a journalist sitting on the bus with you.
“It was good and in hindsight I’m glad that we did it. I might have had a different answer back in February but right now it is great and I understand the vision of Jonathan a bit more afterwards.”
America’s favourite bike racer, Lance Armstrong, will be back in the peloton for 2009 and PEZ wanted to know if there was going to be a battle for the hearts and minds of fans between Garmin and Astana.
“Of course,” he said. “Now we have to win and really do well. It’s not a cute team anymore and fans are not going to be there just to be supporters. They want to be there because you’re doing well. That’s going to be the biggest difference.”
There’s also some new faces on the Garmin team, including Olympic multiple medallist Bradley Wiggins and hometown Vancouver hero Svein Tuft. An exciting year is shaping up for the team.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Vande Velde agreed. “Both Wiggo and Svein are unbelievable athletes and they bring a lot to the table in terms of personality, really good guys. We just welcome them with open arms and can’t wait for the season to get underway with those guys.”
There was still Garmin’s team time trial plans to talk about, but it seemed like the perfect point in the interview to let Vande Velde finish his drive through the snow, perhaps thinking about getting his new trainer set up as soon as possible. He was enormously patient with PEZ’s attempts to get the interview set up, for which we were very grateful.
Will Vande Velde ‘finish the deal’ at the Tour or in other races this year? With him and the rest of the Garmin team fired up to win, we can’t wait to find out!