Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Of Course He Remembered

Quite a few friends asked me after I biked out to Christian Vande Velde's house this past October in suburban Chicago with the gift of a few Tour de France course markers, if he would remember me if we ever met again. (For a report on that)

It wasn't the first time we'd spent time together, though by far the longest and the most personal--hanging out in his kitchen for an hour talking bike racing. Our previous encounters had been just casual brief exchanges that might not have been enough to establish a connection, though they had, so I was certain my time at his house had fully solidified our friendship. But still, some friends suspected that he might fit the profile of the big time athlete, as a two-time Olympian and two time top ten finisher in The Tour de France, who has little concern for anyone but himself.

I hadn't detected any such airs in Christian. He was in no hurry to usher me out of his house when I visited. If he was a big shot he could have had me just leave the markers I'd brought out for him with the security guard to his housing development and pretend he wasn't home, but no, he actually came out of his house and was waiting for me in his driveway when I pulled up. I knew he was a genuinely good guy. I had no doubt that even if our next encounter was at some small French village during the hubbub of The Tour, he would greet me with a hearty smile and exuberant "How ya doin'."

I got to put my theory to a test last night when he had an appearance at the Garmin store of his team sponsor in downtown Chicago. He'd be signing autographs and then giving a Q&A. When a friend and I arrived shortly after five, the lobby of the store was already mobbed and there was a line of fans waiting for an autograph nearly out the door. I had no need of an autograph, so went upstairs to the small auditorium to take a seat.

My friend and I were among the first upstairs and could have sat anywhere. We chose a couple of seats in the back row to overlook the proceedings. It was nearly an hour before Christian had finished with the autographs and came up. Those of us waiting saw a couple minute Garmin team promo, still including Bradley Wiggins, over and over again on a large screen. The snippets of the racing never grew tiresome.

As Christian walked up the aisle to the stage he looked over his shoulder and seemed to notice me and gave a quick wave. I turned to my friend and said, "I think that was for me." He agreed. After a brief introduction by a Garmin PR person, a scattering of hands went up into the air, including mine. Christian looked squarely at me this time and said, "George, you can have the first one."

I thanked him. I considered asking, "What is the biggest loss to your team, Bradley Wiggins or Dr. Lim?," but thought that might not be so much to his liking. Dr. Lim was the team's long-time physiologist and was given a good share of credit for the team's success with his many innovative approaches to training and conditioning. He had just left the team to join Lance's Radio Shack team, a seeming betrayal.

Instead, I asked him a question that has long been on my mind, but had never gotten around to asking a rider in the peloton. I'd always wanted to know if riders just randomly toss their empty water bottles off to the side of the road or if they try to pick out a worthy recipient, someone wearing their team colors or waving their national flag or someone with a cute smile. I knew that members of the caravan of sponsors that precede the racers clearly make choices when they are tossing their goodies to the crowd and they are driving along at close to the same speed as the racers, though they don't have to worry about paying attention to the wheel inches in front of them. Christian acknowledged that he does try to be selective when he can, and when he can't, he makes sure he tosses his bottle somewhere that someone can retrieve it rather than in a creek or down a mountain side. Then he added, "Whoever gets my bottle, I hope they wash it before using it."

Quite a few astute racing questions followed from the surprisingly race-savvy audience. A young boy wanted to know how much sleep Christian gets during The Tour. He said, "You might think I'd get 12 or 14 hours, but I can get by on 8 or 9." Someone else asked if he ever used an oxygen tent. He said he never had, partially because he has a naturally high hematocrit level, but also because he'd heard so many stories of riders having a tough time sleeping in them, as they could be hot and sweaty.

The loss of Bradley Wiggins question was raised, though without bringing up Dr. Lim. Christian said the team would do just fine without him, despite his fourth place finish at last year's Tour. They'd replaced him with some fine racers, and one never knows who might be a surprise in the coming season as Wiggins was this past year and Christian himself the year before that. He said if Wiggins had decided to leave the team a year ago, rather than just this past month, no one would have been concerned about his loss.

Maybe the toughest question of the night came from a woman sitting in the front row. She wondered what his version was of what happened on the stage in the past Tour when his team helped chase down George Hincapie, who was in a breakaway group five minutes ahead of the peloton that would have put Hincapie in the yellow jersey if it maintained its lead. Hincapie was no threat to the overall leaders of The Tour and a well liked rider throughout the peloton. It would have caused no harm to let him take the yellow jersey that day. It would have only been for a day, as there was a mountain stage the day after. But Garmin, for some inexplicable reason, rode hard to close the gap and prevented Hincapie from the yellow jersey by just a handful of seconds. Hincapie was crushed and a lot of recriminations flew.

Christian acknowledged that Hincapie was a good friend and always would be. "He stood up for me at my wedding," he said. "But when a race is on, it is team first and my director Matt White told us to close the gap and that's what we did." It might have been a different story if that had been the experimental stage when the riders rode without earpieces receiving instant and non-stop orders from their directors. Christian said he greatly appreciated the one stage they rode without radio contact with their director. He actually used the word "peaceful." He hoped there would be more such experiments, but it was probably too much to hope that the ear pieces would be banned altogether, as it could make the races considerably more dangerous with directors having to drive their cars up alongside the peloton to give orders and not to be able to continually to warn riders of dangers ahead--railroad tracks, sharps turns, tricky round-abouts, slick spots where accidents may have already occurred and so forth.

The subject of cobbles in next year's Tour was raised, as there will be an early stage raced on sections of the Paris-Roubaix route. Christian said he would certainly scout out that stage but he wouldn't really train for it, partially because it would be hard to know what lines would be available when there were thousands of people along the route and l89 racers in the thick of it, plus its never fun to be riding all out on these jarring cobbles, whether in training or in a race.

Of his race schedule next year he said it was looking most likely that he would be riding the Giro d'Italia rather than the Tour of California, as they are going up against each other in May next year for the first time. He would love to be in both places at the same time, but unfortunately that's not possible. He won't be riding in any of the spring classics. He said he's ridden them all in the past and finished in the top 20 in all of them except Paris-Roubaix. When he's raced Roubaix his responsibility has been to ride hard for the first 130 kilometers and then leave it to his teammates to finish the race. He said one year at the start Hincapie patted him on his back to see how many energy bars he was carrying in his jersey pocket. Hincapie was shocked that he only had one. That's all he needed for the amount of racing he had to do. The one spring race he'd love to ride again is the Tour of Flanders. "Just thinking about that race gives me goose pimples," he said, and extended his arm as if to show us.

The questions could have gone on and on, but there was only time for a couple more. One was who he thought would be on the podium of next year's Tour along with him. He thought it would be pretty much the same as last year--Albert Contador and Andy Schleck and possibly Lance, unless Christian can unseat him. He added that there will be other contenders too and that it ought to be a great race, maybe one of the best ever.

I had my hand ready if there was any lull in questions, but there wasn't. I had to wait until afterward for some personal one-on-one time. "You're looking skinny," I complimented him. "Are you down to racing weight already?"

"No, I just had a haircut, that always makes me look thinner."

Then I asked, "So what's the biggest loss, Wiggins or Dr. Lim?"

Christian unhesitatingly answered, "Dr. Lim. He's a good friend, so I'm still in contact with him."

I wondered where Christian had placed the course markers I had brought him. "They are right at the entry to the house," he said, "But it's a new house. We're in the same area, but we've got six acres now."

I'd brought him a "L'Equipe," the French daily sports newspaper, from this past year's Tour with he and Lance filling the top half of the front page riding hard in the mountains chasing after Contador. He was very appreciative. "I don't have many of these," he said. Maybe that's what I can scavenge for him at next year's Tour. With luck there will be lots more featuring his picture. As he was ushered off by his handlers I said, "I'll see you in Rotterdam (the start of next year's Tour)."

"You're gong to be there?" he asked.

"I wouldn't miss it. As you said, it's going to be a great race."