Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another Session With CVDV

Everyone attending Christian Vande Velde's second annual Christmas week appearance at Chicago's Garmin store was handed a raffle ticket for a chance to win one of six autographed Garmin jerseys. The drawing for three of them was held before Christian took the stage. When the guy next to me won the first jersey, I figured that was it for my row. But no, the third ticket drawn was mine.

I was still stuffing the jersey into my backpack after unfolding it to give it a good look when Christian settled into his chair on the stage. Before he began fielding questions from his audience of one hundred or so fans, he looked directly at me sitting in the third row and said, "Congratulations George on winning the jersey."

"Thanks," I replied, somewhat stunned at his cordial familiarity, "I'll be wearing it at this year's Tour."

"George, folks," Christian continued, "Travels all over the world on his bicycle. He was in China last year and just returned from Turkey."

Even as a team leader and one of the foremost riders in the peloton, Christian is widely known as a great supporter of his teammates, happy to share the limelight, and here he was doing it even at a public appearance with me, a mere touring cyclist. His manner was so casual and unassuming, it was as if he had just walked into a living room full of friends.

It had been six months since I last talked with Christian at his team hotel in Rotterdam before the start of The Tour de France, but he was acting as if we'd talked just last week. And that's how he responded to each of his questioners, from the eight-year old girl in the first row who asked, "How much do you ride your bike?" to the young man sitting over on the side who asked, "How many bikes do you have?"

He told the girl that he rode his bike every day and then asked her how often she rode her bike. She squirmed a bit and meekly said, "Not that much." As to the number of bikes he has, I was surprised to hear him say, "I have a lot," as when I was out at his house a year ago I only saw three bikes hanging in his garage. Evidently he has a room full of bikes elsewhere. Among his bikes are a Trek from his time with Lance's Postal Service team and also a CSC bike from his spell with Bjarne's Riis' team when it was ranked number one in the world.

He also has his father's track bike that his dad rode in the Olympics in 1972, the second of two Olympics he participated in, the same number as Christian. "I won the national championships on it in 1994," Christian said, "So don't let anyone tell you that its necessary to have the latest equipment to do well."

Someone else wanted to know what it felt like to wear the pink leader's jersey in the Giro d'Italia. Christian said he didn't appreciate it enough and that he only wore it for one day. "When I lost it the next day by eight tenths of a second to the Italian rider Pellizzoti and saw him fall to his knees in tears, I realized it was a bigger deal than I thought. Those next four days while he kept the jersey by less than a second over me were the four worst days of my life. I kept looking over at that jersey knowing that it could have been mine."

Among the questions I got in was, "Who on the Garmin team will wear the yellow jersey after you guys win The Tour's second stage team time trial?"

"You're right that we'll win that stage. We'll have a very strong team and the course is very good for us."

"It's not too long is it."


"So will we see you in yellow?"

"No, it will probably be one of our sprinters, either Tyler Farrar or Thor Hushovd."

"Not you, this time, like after the team time trial in the Giro?"

"No, I'll get it in the mountains."

"What do you think about the summit finish on the Galibier."

"I'm dreading it already."

The Galibier is a high peak in the Alps not far from L'Alpe d'Huez. The peloton has ridden over it many times, but it has never hosted a stage finish. It will be the highest stage finish in Tour history and will be perhaps the most anticipated stage in this year's race. It will be the eighteenth of The Tour's twenty-one stages, the second to last stage in the mountains. The next day's stage will finish on L'Alpe d'Huez. The final two stages will be a time trial in Grenoble and then the final processional stage to Paris.

I prefaced another of my questions with the comment "I've been reading Mark Cavendish's autobiography." Christian grimaced at the mention of the hot-headed, super-sprinter, who has a sometimes heated rivalry with Christian's teammate Farrar, and made a scowl of disapproval, muttering "I'm sorry to hear that," about his only negative comment all night. "Cavendish wrote," I continued, "That George Hincapie's legs are a bundle of varicose veins. Are there many distinctive legs in the peloton?"

"Its true that the veins on George's legs really stick out. Even when he's wearing tights you can see the veins bulging. Andre Greipel has really huge legs. You look at them and you almost feel fear."

Christian had mentioned Hincapie earlier when someone asked him about the hierarchy in the peloton. "It takes a while to earn respect," he said. "When I first started riding in Europe whenever I'd go by someone they'd mutter, 'Stupid American.' I'd really have to fight to get through the peloton. Now its surprisingly easy. George Hincapie, one of the most veteran and respected riders, says he still sometimes gets abuse, but the difference now is that whoever has a harsh word for him will later apologize."

I subscribe to two cycle racing magazines and peruse several racing websites and devour every book on racing I can get my hands on, but as with the previous two Christian Q&As I've attended, and the personal Q&A I had at his house, I was gaining insights and insider information that expanded my knowledge and appreciation for the inner workings of the sport. Christian had us all spellbound with his anecdotes.

At 34 Christian is one of the veterans of the peloton. His first Tour de France was in 1999 as a support rider for Lance, the year he won The Tour for the first time. Someone asked what he planned on doing when he retired.

"I'm not thinking about that," Christian replied. "When I turned pro and was riding with Lance he told me not to be concerned about my career after cycling, just to focus on the job at hand. And that's what I do. I put all my thought and energy into being the best rider I can."

"Who was your hero growing up?" one of the younger members of the audience asked. I expected him to say Greg LeMond, as Christian had once told me what a thrill it was for him to play a round of golf with LeMond when he was a young rider. But no, he answered, "The Russian pursuit rider Viatcheslav Ekimov, even though I couldn't spell his first name and I'm not sure if I could now. I just loved the way he rode in his all red Russian uniform on the track. And then he was my roommate the first year I rode the Tour. That was quite a thrill."

I'd emailed Christian before the event telling him that I had a couple extra Tour course markers if he'd like some more, as I felt I owed him a dozen or more for his generosity the year before when he gave me two jerseys and a pair of tights and socks and box of Clif bars in exchange for the three course markers that I'd scavenged from that year's route for him. I wore those tights and one of the long sleeve winter jerseys nearly every day in my travels about Turkey and thought of him as I pulled them on every morning in my tent.

He replied he'd love to have a few more. He told me he had mounted the ones I gave him last year at the entrance to his house. Where these would go, he did not know, maybe to Spain in his house in Girona, where he was headed next week. It was nice to know that those yellow day-glow markers with a large black arrow and the official Tour emblem in its lower right hand corner meant as much to him as they do to me.

They are truly hallowed objects to any Tour follower. They give me delight when I spot them ahead as I ride The Tour route and also when I give those hanging in my apartment a glance. Their luster never wanes, not only bringing back memories of following The Tour, but also knowing that I've been able to disperse a few to friends, including Christian, who have mounted them in their home or bike shop or office or garage, and equally revere them. Christian's eyes lit up when I presented him with a couple more, as he blurted, "Awesome."


Stuart said...

George, are you bothered at all by the non-stop allegations (sometimes confirmations) of doping in professional bicycle racing? Would you really council a young athlete to take up professional bicycle racing?

george christensen said...

Stuart: The doping certainly is disconcerting. There is no doubt that Lance and the vast majority of them have resorted to it, though it does seem as if the enforcers presently have an upper hand and drug use is diminishing.

Drug-taking is nothing new. From the very beginning of the sport the racers indulged in fireball cocktails of some sort. Its hard not to when one is trying not only to win, but to keep up and to survive. I rarely even ingest caffeine, but I know if I'm desperate to get somewhere and my energy is flagging, a can of coke works wonders. I haven't fallen into the trap though of regular consumption making the pedaling easier.

In the three public appearances I've attended with Christian never once has there been a drug-related question, not even asking what he thought of Floyd Landis or the guilt of Contador. Part of it has been savy and respectful audiences not wishing to raise a somewhat taboo subject, but also audiences that love the sport and wish to dwell upon its beauty.

When a New York Times reporter asked Christian about drugs in the sport, he told her that was something he didn't wish to discuss. Perhaps his audiences knew that would be his response too if the question was raised. Someone did ask him what he thought about "Chaingate," from last year's Tour when Contador attacked Schleck before a mountain summit when he threw his chain. Christian just said, "that's a gray area," and left it at that.

Athletes in every sport are always looking for an edge and pushing the rules. Football and basketball players try to get away with illegal contact and holding hoping the referees aren't looking. Drugs is the one area that cyclists can cheat. It will always be a factor, though at present it seems to be on the decline.

Stuart said...

I used to be an avid fan of the Tour de France and cheered Lance on to every victory, but the non-stop doping revelations have really made me feel like a sucker for being a bicycle racing fan. I'm not singling out bike racing, there's plenty of disappointment to go around. Revelations about baseball doping have also confirmed my worst suspicions. I don't even watch the Olympics anymore. I guess my disgust with dishonesty in sports also reaches to other spheres of life. The recent economic recession was caused by dishonesty run amok on Wall Street. Political dishonesty was rewarded big time in the recent congressional elections. It seems the prevailing ethic everywhere has become "I'm gettin' mine while the gettin's good" or "I'm gettin' mine no matter who I have to step on." Maybe that's why I admire you so much, you live your life in the most honest fashion possible, with low impact on the environment and without stepping on anyone. Your reports from the Tour de France are so interesting that I might come around to being a Tour De France fan again!

Julie Hochstadter said...

as usual, thanks for sharing!