Its been a long time since I asked anyone for their autograph, not since I was a kid, but when I learned that Tour de France stalwart, fellow Chicagoan Christian Vande Velde, who had finished 4th in The Tour earlier that year, would be attending a customer appreciation night at a local bicycle shop last December, I couldn't resist taking a Tour de France course marker that I had scavenged from The Race route for him to autograph. Those course markers are a hallowed object to anyone who has followed The Tour, as I have done the past six years. His autograph would make it even more hallowed.
But I wasn't so much interested in Christian's autograph as I was to see his reaction to the course-marker. I wondered if Christian would recognize it, as the riders don't need to pay attention to the markers, led as they are by a brigade of motorcycles along a route lined with fans most of the way. The course markers, though, are hard to miss--a black arrow on a day-glow yellow background with the Tour de France logo in a corner. They can be seen from half a mile away.
Christian didn't discernibly light up at the site of the marker, as I always do when I spot one as I'm bicycling the route ahead of the peloton, sometimes the evening before, but he did acknowledge that he was most familiar with what it was and handled it with genuine respect, as if it were a holy relic, as he autographed it. I later regretted that I didn't ask him if he had one himself, wondering if it would be as prized a souvenir to an actual Tour rider as to those of us who follow the route. If he didn't have one, I would love to have the assignment of nabbing one for him.
As luck would have it, I encountered him seven months later in Monaco at The Tour start, as he and his Garmin teammates were setting out on a training ride. They pulled up alongside me as I sat astride my fully loaded bicycle at a stop light. I quickly blurted, "Hey Christian, remember me, you autographed a course marker for me last December."
"I do," he said, "You sure do get around."
"Do you have a course marker yourself? If you don't, I could get you one."
"That would be great," he said. And then the light changed and off they sped.
This was my sixth Tour and at every one I have gathered a handful of markers to share with friends. There are probably a couple hundred of them scattered along each day's route at intersections and round-abouts. They are put up the day before each stage and the Tour fans give them their utmost respect, leaving them in place until the peloton passes. Then they are fair game and disappear fast. They are attached to light poles and road signs with a wire strip that is twisted so tightly that one needs pliers or wire cutters to free them. I generally garner mine out in isolated rural areas where there aren't too many fans. The past couple of years I didn't intend to harvest any more, but when I come upon one that has yet to be plundered, I can't resist, knowing that it will thrill another friend back home. I was happy to know that the next one I found would end up in the hands of Christian.
It wasn't until the third stage that I had the opportunity to nab one of those sacred signs. It was just beyond the town of Les-Baux-de-Provence, about 25 miles before the city of Arles, that I pounced on a marker before any one else. I could have sought out the Garmin team bus and presented it to Christian the next day before the team time trial in Montpellier, but I preferred to wait until we both returned to Chicago when we would be less harried.
A friend who knows Christian's dad conveyed the message that I had a marker for him and would be glad to take it out to his house. I mentioned I was a bicycle messenger, so was accustomed to making deliveries, and that I was also preparing for a two-month bicycle tour of China, so needed to get in some extra training miles. Christian emailed me giving me his address. We arranged to meet when he returned from Interbike in Las Vegas.
It was a fairly strenuous 30-mile ride into the wind through Chicago's southwest side and then through a series of suburbs to the distant suburb of Lemont where Christian grew up and continues to call home. Christian lives in a gated community around a golf course. A security guard called to announce my arrival. It was a few blocks further to Christian's house. When I came around a bend, I spotted him standing in his driveway awaiting me wearing a Garmin baseball hat. He greeted me with a broad grin, as if I were a lifelong friend, and asked, "How was your ride? I hope the wind wasn't too bad."
He led me into his house through his garage, past half a dozen bikes hanging from a wall. I didn't notice any golf clubs. I asked if he'd taken his clubs to Las Vegas. Even though he played on his high school team and has a brother who is quite an accomplished golfer, he said he hardly plays any more. "When I was in high school I spent a lot of time on the course, playing and caddying. I also worked on a crew that planted the trees on this course. It was hard work. My dad said he hoped it would inspire me to get a good job . But I just wanted to be a bike racer."
And that he has, one of the best in the world for the past decade. Not only has he finished in the top ten at the past two Tours, he's one of only two Americans to wear the pink jersey of the leader of the Giro d'Italia and is a two-time Olympian. He hopes for his third in London in 2012. "I'd like to make that my final race," he said. He rode the first of his seven Tours de France as a 22-year old in 1999 as a teammate of Lance, the year Lance won it for the first time.
The sign at the Lemont city limits announced itself as the home of the 2001 state champion high school marching band. I told Christian the sign ought to mention him. If this were France or Italy or Spain or Belgium, it certainly would. He admitted that would be nice, but he also likes being able to go out in public without being recognized, something that isn't so easy to do in Europe where cyclists are superstars and receive tons of attention from the press.
As Christian plopped down the three course markers I had brought, one for him and another for his dad, also a two-time cycling Olympian and his sister, a former Olympic cycling hopeful, he thanked me again for bringing them out. I told him it was a pleasure, that I am happy to spread them around. "This was my sixth Tour," I said, "I always bring back a handful for friends. A couple of friends have them in their office windows in the Loop, and I've given some to my favorite bike shops in the city. I even gave one to the Antler Guy at The Tour this year. He'd never gotten one. I'm sure you know him."
"Yeah. We used to not like him, as he'd only cheer for the Discovery guys, but now he has a Tyler Farrah outfit and cheers for us as well."
"I met him the day he unveiled it this year. He said he and Tyler are fellow Washingtonians."
"I didn't know that. I figured he was from Texas."
"I did too with that Texas longhorn football uniform he wears for Lance. But he's actually from Seattle and works for Boeing. He's a fairly normal guy. When I met him he was out of uniform and I had no idea who he was until he told me."
"He's a pretty tall guy, isn't he?"
"That's right. About 6'2". He's got a long stride so he can keep up with you guys."
As we chatted, Christian hopped up on his kitchen counter, as if he were in training and wanted to take the weight off his legs, even though his season had ended three weeks before when he broke a couple of bones in his hand at the Tour of Missouri, a race he had won the year before. He had ridden the Apple Cider Century, a long-time touring event in Michigan, the day before, and he said the bones were still hurting. "I'm going to have to see the doctor again if they don't feel better soon," he said.
The world championship bike race had taken place the day before in Switzerland, a race Christian has competed in representing the U.S. I asked if he had seen the two-hour coverage of it on the Universal Sports station. He said he missed it since he was in Michigan, but that he had Tivoed it to watch later. He said it must have been a hard race for everyone to be so spent that they couldn't stay with Cadel Evans when he attacked near the race's conclusion.
"You would have been on his wheel, wouldn't you?" I said.
"I would have," he said with a smile.
Christian is known as one of the nicest guys in the peloton. He was certainly proving it. He was in no hurry to get me on my way. We leisurely chatted away as if we were pals of long standing. I was wearing a Bouygues Telecom jersey of one of the French Tour de France teams. It was a souvenir I had gotten near the summit of Mont Ventoux on race day. It was so windy and cold up there that fans were besieging the van that was distributing them, desperate for an extra layer of clothes. Christian commented that he heard the Caisse d'Epargne team had been giving away jerseys as well. I'd gotten one of those, too, earlier in the race. Christian was surprising me with the fan minutia he was aware of that I figured the racers would be oblivious to.
Christian took me down to his basement and rummaged in a closet, then presented me with a couple of Garmin jerseys and a pair of tights and the team's trademark blue argyle socks. There was a large box just outside the closet with dozens of Cliff Bars
"Take whatever you'd like," he offered. "There's way more there than I need."
I was so boggled by his generosity I didn't know what to say. I was hoping I just might come home with a Garmin water bottle. I'd even brought along a couple of extras I'd scavenged from other teams--Cofidis and Telekom--to trade.
Rather than gushing my thanks I kept talking cycling.
"I was surprised Chris Horner wasn't at the world championships," I said.
"He's still recovering from a broken hand too," Christian said. "I saw him at Las Vegas."
"I read somewhere he was gong to be riding the upcoming Tour of Lombardy, so I figured he had to be back in Europe ."
"That's still two weeks away. He'll be ready by then."
"Has he signed with anyone for next year yet?"
"No. I'd love to have him as a teammate. He's an exceptional tactician. He's going to make a great team director.'
"I thought for sure he'd have signed with Lance by now."
"Lance wants him, but Lance is like a CEO trying to get the best deal he can. Chris will probably end up with him."
I had many more topics to bring up, but Christian kept diverting the conversation to me. He wanted to know about my bicycle messengering and touring and where I'd grown up. He told me I ought to follow the Giro some year. He asked how many miles I ride a year.
I told him, "About 10,000 miles touring and another five or six thousand messengering and getting around." "
"That's what I do," he said.
"Yes, but your miles are at a high intensity. You guys really push it. The effort you put out is just incredible. I go all out as a messenger, but I know I don't dig as deep as you do. I have no illusions in the least that my cycling compares to what you do. You have my utmost respect"
Christian wondered what climbs I had done in this year's Tour. I bypassed the Pyrenees after riding the first five stages, but I did several of those in the Vosges and the Alps along with Mont Ventoux.
"That climb just before the Colombiere, the Col de Romme," I commented, " Might have been the worst. Its first couple of kilometers were brutal."
Christian agreed, saying that it came as a surprise to even him as it was the first time it had been included in The Tour.
"Isn't that where Sastre tried to attack like he did on L'Alpe d'Huez the year before, but it was too much for him?" I asked.
"That's right. He had a rough Tour. Its a shame because he's a really nice guy."
"Did you know his 17th place finish was the second worst of a defending Tour champion?"
"I didn't know that. Was Pereiro's the worst?"
"No, it was some guy in the '30s who finished 31st."
Christian mentioned he was off to London later in the week to attend the wedding of his teammate David Millar. Then he'll be going out to California for a charity ride from San Francisco to San Diego.
We slipped out to the garage after an hour or so of talking biking like American sports fans talk baseball or football. After we shook hands and said our goodbyes we kept talking for another ten minutes. There was always one last thing. Christian said he was eagerly awaiting the announcement of next year's Tour route, just a few weeks away. Me too.
As I rode the thirty miles back home, even if I hadn't had the wind at my back, I would have been flying. All the way I kept replaying our conversation and thinking of countless other things I would have liked to have asked him. I was curious about his philosophy of tossing empty water bottles during a race. Did he do it randomly or did he look for a worthy recipient? I never saw his trophy room nor asked if he had a place of honor for his course marker. I had a whole series of questions regarding his team director Jonathon Vaughters and yellow wrist bands and his greatest thrills in the sport, as well as his dad's career, which included an appearance in "Breaking Away" as one of the villainous Team Cinzano riders.
But most of all my thought was preoccupied with looking forward to next year's Tour. I would save those argyle socks until then. I know they'll have me flying up the climbs faster than I ever have.