DENVER (VN) — In the moments before Christian Vande Velde rolled down the start ramp of Sunday’s 15km time trial in downtown Denver, he looked less like a bike racer and more like a prizefighter.
The Garmin-Sharp rider sat second overall, rolling out two minutes behind Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing, and two minutes ahead of Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step.
On the line was overall victory at the biggest race in America, and for Vande Velde, the most important win of his 15-year career. In order to make it happen, Vande Velde needed to take back nine seconds from Leipheimer and hold a 12-second advantage over van Garderen.
Before he rolled out of the start, Vande Velde was the picture of bubbling rage, swearing to himself, spittle spraying from his mouth. Then, in the seconds before he was counted down, his face and body went eerily calm and still
“I wasn’t going to let this slip by me,” Vande Velde said. “I wasn’t going to mess around. I’ve taken too many of these races for granted in my career. That’s always been my attitude, happy-go-lucky, if it comes, it comes. This time I was like, ‘No way. I’m in too good of a shape. I can push the pedals much harder than anyone else.’”
At the first time check Vande Velde had gone four seconds faster than van Garderen, though the Garmin rider said he’d known he would win within the first minute of his 17:35 effort.
Asked at what point during his ride he believed he would win, Vande Velde replied: “When I looked down and I was going 58kph. It was then I thought I was going to have a good day.”
Behind, Leipheimer rode well, but not fantastically, and certainly not well enough to hold his lead. With less than a kilometer remaining, Vande Velde had already been declared the winner — he had gone faster than everyone except stage winner Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing). He’d ridden nine seconds faster than van Garderen, and 33 seconds faster than Leipheimer, finishing the weeklong race 21 seconds ahead of the former and 24 seconds faster than the latter.
After tying Leipheimer in the 2011 Vail time trial, finishing second, just a few tenths of a second slower, and later finishing second overall, 11 seconds behind Leipheimer for the overall win, Vande Velde had returned in 2012 and taken redemption in the state where he once lived and trained.
Walking towards the podium celebration, Vande Velde strutted like a wrestler entering the ring, chest puffed out, slapping high-fives. On the podium, he flexed to the delight of a crowd of thousands.
“I went up there, and I gave everyone the flex. It’s so cool just to be here, and I knew the crowd would feed off it,” Vande Velde said. “It was just like it was in Vail last year. I’ve never had a situation like I had in Vail last year, and I was ready to kill people today.”
Vande Velde has tasted GC success on North American soil before, at the 2008 Tour of Missouri, but he’s also come just short on several occasions, including second overall in Colorado last year, second overall at the 2007 Tour de Georgia and third overall at the 2008 Amgen Tour of California. He said, without hesitation, his win in Denver on Sunday was the greatest of his career.
“I’ve had some great wins, but nothing compares to this,” he said. “I’ve been the bridesmaid so many damn times in my career. I’ve been on the podium on pretty much every stage race in the United States. I’ve only won one of them, and to win here, in front of these crowds, and just the atmosphere around cycling right now in America, it’s great.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t think about just stopping today. Every athlete wants to go out on top, and I don’t think it comes too much better than this.”
Asked by VeloNews what was left to accomplish in his career, which includes a fourth-place finish at the 2008 Tour de France, Vande Velde said that while he’d grown weary of living and racing in Europe, he still held passion for competing in the biggest races in the U.S.
“I was thinking about that last night,” he said. “There are a lot of sacrifices to live in Europe. I’ve been racing there for 15 years. … As long as these kinds of races are flourishing, I want to race as long as I can.
“This is the best, the crowds are so positive, they are so happy, they see us on television at the Tour de France, and when they see us in person they freak out. It’s so invigorating.
“As long as there’s races like California and Utah and Colorado — and hopefully something else that someone wants to build on from this — I would love to race forever.
“I won’t lie — going to Europe is the hard thing. …. I’m very fortunate to lead a great team in Garmin-Sharp. I love having the pressure on my shoulders. We had our first grand-tour win this year with Ryder Hesjedal, and helping him achieve that was one of biggest accomplishments in my career.
“And if there’s that kind of thing happening in the near future, I don’t want to miss out on it.”