AJACCIO, France (VN) — For all of its 100 editions, the Tour de France has played a unique role in the career of every pro cyclist, and that’s certainly been true for American Christian Vande Velde.
In his Tour debut, a 23-year-old Vande Velde was part of Lance Armstrong’s controversial 1999 “winning” U.S. Postal Service team; he was again, in 2001. He went on to ride at CSC, in support of Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre, and as a GC contender in his own right, placing a career-best fourth overall in 2008. He’s left the Tour with broken bones (in 2001 and again in 2010), and he’s been on the podium in Paris, as team classification leader, with Garmin, in 2011.
Now 37, Vande Velde is in the final year of a rollercoaster 16-year professional career that has run the gamut of victory and defeat, pride and shame, excellence and injury. The start of the 100th Tour, in Porto Vecchio on Saturday, will be his last, and he hopes to leave his final Tour with memories, and results, that eclipse some of the darker moments.
Taking that first step
Vande Velde’s results at U.S. Postal were invalidated, of course, as were all of Lance Armstrong’s seven consecutive titles, after the release of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s reasoned decision, last October, which exposed systematic doping within the USPS team. Among the evidence used to sanction Armstrong was Vande Velde’s sworn admission of his own drug use, which also incriminated Armstrong, team manager Johan Bruyneel, Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, and two Spanish team doctors.
The Garmin rider admitted to having doped as part of the team from 1998 to 2003, and on other teams, through April 2006 — the last time, he said, that he used banned substances.
In September, after winning the general classification at the USA Pro Challenge in Denver, Vande Velde began serving a six-month suspension. He returned to racing in March, and in May he completed the Giro d’Italia, his 22nd grand tour.
Vande Velde took the start of this 100th Tour with mixed emotions, bittersweet over the events of the past nine months, and over the fact that this, his 11th Tour, will be his last. Though there’s been no formal announcement, he’ll retire at the end of the season, after he attempts to defend his title in Colorado, a state he called home earlier in his career, and possibly a shot at the world team time trial championship in Florence, Italy, in September.
When Vande Velde made the decision in the spring of 2007 to join his former Postal teammate Jonathan Vaughters at Slipstream Sports and form a staunchly drug-free squad, he and his CSC teammate Dave Zabriskie thought their days at the top of the sport were over.
“I remember Zabriskie looking over at me when we were on the sign-in podium [being recognized as the current team classification leaders, in 2007], and saying, “Soak it in, we’ll never be up here ever again,” Vande Velde said. “I thought [going to Slipstream] was going to be the end of my career. I certainly never thought we would win the team GC at the Tour de France.”
Their move, to a decidedly clean team, came amid an era when the peloton was still coming to terms with Operación Puerto, Floyd Landis, and the disastrous 2007 Tour that saw both Michael Rasmussen and Alexander Vinokourov sent home in separate doping scandals.
That Slipstream Sports team — which included Vande Velde, Zabriskie, Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal, David Millar, Dan Martin and Tyler Farrar — stepped into the big unknown, launching its own, internal, biological passport system, as well as its own no-needle policy. Not only was each of these riders not using any banned substances himself, no one on the team was. Posting big results wasn’t in the forecast.
“We got laughed at,” Vande Velde said. “People said, ‘what are you talking about? You don’t do anything? Nothing at all?’ I got laughed at a lot.”
Yet the team has delivered major results; Garmin has won the team time trial at the 2008 Giro d’Italia, the 2011 Tour, and the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Riders from the team have placed in the top 10 of the Tour in 2008 (Vande Velde), 2009 (Vande Velde and Bradley Wiggins), 2010 (Hesjedal), and 2011 (Danielson). The team has also registered wins at Paris-Roubaix (Johan Vansummeren, 2011), the Giro d’Italia (Hesjedal, 2012), and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Dan Martin, 2013).
Seven members of that 2008 squad remain with the team in 2013. Perhaps more importantly, the team has maintained the same title sponsor, the Kansas City-based GPS manufacturer, for six seasons, even through the turmoil of last year’s doping confessions; Garmin’s title sponsorship is good through 2015, which will be its eighth season.
And though Vande Velde and his teammates have been criticized in online forums and social media after admitting to doping — the biggest complaint is that they weren’t sufficiently penalized for their cheating — their collective decision to jump to Slipstream is now widely viewed within the pro peloton as a major step forward in the sport’s long, slow battle to clean itself up from within.
He estimates that when his pro career began in 1998, 98 percent of the peloton was doping; today, he said, it’s the exact inverse. The peloton’s attitude towards doping has flipped, he said, during the span of his career.
That some have vilified Vande Velde and his teammates is a bitter pill to swallow for the Chicago native, given that his offenses, as he swore under oath, last occurred over seven years ago. Since then, he and his teammates believe they’ve been a catalyst for change — that they were among the first to improve an untenable situation.
“I did find it ironic, and I still do, when we were the ones who took the first step, and were getting our asses kicked by people who hadn’t, and we were hanging on the cross. And then we were the ones hanging on the cross again, last year. It was hard to take,” he said. “But I’ve tried to take myself out of the situation many times. And I think we continue to inspire, with our training and our dedication, and what we do in sport, and that’s one of the biggest things. In the bigger picture, I think it’s positive.”
Asked why he didn’t just end his career after winning the USA Pro Challenge — just walk away on top, and retire before the USADA report became public — Vande Velde said he wanted to finish on his own terms.
“I felt I was going to be judged on what I did after my ban, and not before,” he said, “because I think some people still assumed I was still doing things before my ban, and after, it was like, ‘okay, we’ll see what he’s like now that he’s clean.’ It’s ridiculous, but I felt like that. I felt like I had to come back, and lead by example, and hold my head high that I did the right thing.
“That’s the reason I trained hard to go to the Tour. I didn’t need to go to the Tour again. This will be my 22nd grand tour, and that’s a lot. But I felt that would be cowardly. I wanted to go out on my own accord, under my own steam, and say goodbye the way I wanted to say goodbye, to see everybody, and do all the races, for the last time.”
Change comes from within
Vande Velde comes to his final Tour on a team stacked with strong GC riders — Hesjedal, Martin, Danielson, and Andrew Talansky — perhaps not vying for the podium, but capable of disrupting the race. The team has a very good chance at winning the stage, and putting Millar in yellow, during Tuesday’s team time trial in Nice. Now 37, Vande Velde is the team’s oldest rider at the Tour.
On Saturday morning, prior to the start of stage 1 in Porto Vecchio, Vande Velde took to Twitter, quoting Samuel Beckett: “Try again, fail again, fail better.”
It was a quote provided by his mother. By not winning often, pro cyclists, Vande Velde explained, “fail” about 99 percent of the time they race. The best they can do, the saying goes, is try to improve upon that failure rate.
It’s a saying that could also speak for the sport’s attempts to clean itself up. Given pro cycling’s history, and its difficulty — particularly the Tour de France — the sport will likely never be free of doping. Recent positive drug tests at the Giro confirm that there will always be those who attempt to cheat the system. Instead, the best pro cycling, or any sport, can do is hope to change the mindset of the majority of its athletes.
And in that effort, Vande Velde sees himself, and his teammates, as pioneers in a movement that started off slow, but has become significant.
“[Doping] is still happening, and we’re still fighting the good fight,” he said. “And we get no credit for that. I’m out there, getting my teeth kicked in. Maybe some of these guys are still doing something, but I’m here, staying my line, being as transparent as possible, and that’s all we can really do. The change all comes from the mentality of the teams, from the inside out. That’s the change. People are pissed off, telling [drug cheats] to get out of the sport. That’s the biggest change. And it’s huge.”