Thursday, December 22, 2011
A Garbage Bag for Christian
For the fourth holiday season in a row Christian Vande Velde made a magnificent Christmas present to his hometown fans of Chicago--a free public appearance talking about his career and life in the peloton.
I haven't missed a one and have been greatly enriched by each. I've reciprocated his Christmas spirit with a gift for him of some Tour de France souvenir from that year's Race that I figured would have a special meaning for him. My first offering was a course marker, a relic that is a prized item for anyone who has been a part of The Tour, whether as a rider or a follower. He was so thrilled by it, I asked him if he'd like another. He said absolutely, so that was a repeat gift one year. Another year my gift was a Tour edition of "L'Equipe," the French daily sports newspaper, with a photo filling its first page of he and Lance battling it out in the mountains. That also put a large smile of delight on his face.
I could have brought him another course marker this year, but I thought I'd surprise him with something different--one of the official green Tour plastic garbage bags that line The Tour route. When I presented him with a course marker the first time, I wasn't sure whether he as a rider would be cognizant of them, as he certainly didn't need them to find his way, as the peloton is led by an armada of gendarmes on motorcycles. But he was well aware of them as their bright day glow background are hard to miss, especially when they come in pairs or trios pointed at an angle warning of a sharp turn ahead.
I was curious if he'd be aware of the garbage bags, as they aren't mounted high like the course markers and are generally hidden from the racers by the throngs of fans lining the course. They are hung on barriers or attached to trees or posts at waist level. But Christian has surprised me over the years by being aware of aspects of The Tour that I suspected would only matter to fans.
I presented the bag to him folded with The Tour logo facing out, and asked, "Do you know what this is?" hoping he'd instantly recognize it by its distinctive soft green color, and reward me with an exclamation of delight as he has in the past. But I stumped him, even as I unfolded it further to reveal what it was. After I explained it to him, he playfully chided me saying, "What's with a garbage bag? Where's my course marker."
"You don't have too many?" I asked.
"Hell no," he replied.
"Okay, next year I'll be sure to bring you some more course markers."
Before I could feel too bad, he held the bag up and showed it to his sister, standing off to the side and said, "Look at this. An official Tour garbage bag. Isn't that cool?"
Then he asked, "Do you know about the garbage disposal zone along The Tour route for the riders?"
"Yes, it's just before the feed zone. Do the riders actually take advantage of it?"
"We sure do. Every one's emptying out their pockets of wrappers and unused energy bars before they load up with more food. You should hang out there. You're always so skinny, you could use the food.
I was standing with my friend Elizabeth, who brought along several bicycling calenders of her photographs for him to autograph. They are a fund raiser for the annual world wide Ride of Silence the third Wednesday of May every year in memory of those killed while riding a bicycle. Elizabeth spearheads the Chicago edition that attracts several hundred riders. Christian wasn't aware of the event, but he turned instantly serious at the mention of the subject. He's known his share of racers who've died over the years, including one in the Tour of Italy this past year in a horrific crash. Christian crashed five times in this year's Tour alone, and is well aware of the dangers of the sport, as are all the racers. He says he has a German teammate who rides with a small block of wood that he taps at any thought of death or close call.
There were only about forty of us on hand for this year's event at the Garmin Store on Chicago's glamour shopping street, Michigan Avenue, the stretch known as the Magnificent Mile. A cold drizzle discouraged all but the most hardy of cyclists of coming by bike. The Garmin representative who introduced Christian asked, "How many people bicycled here?" Only three of us raised our hands. Then he asked, "Who came the furthest?" A guy sitting in front of me spoke up first and said, "I came a mile." My friend Craig said, "I came three miles." When the Garmin rep turned his eyes on me, the only other one to have raised his hand, I said, "I live in Wicker Park, about five miles away." Christian immediately piped up, "That's no surprise. No one bikes further than George."
Christian began by saying how much he enjoys this annual gathering with his fans and being able to spend some of the year in his home town with family and friends, since he spends so much of the year traveling all over the world to race. When he asked for questions there was a hesitancy in his audience, who seemed awed by his presence, allowing me to dive right in.
"Are you back from Hawaii?," I asked.
"No, I didn't go out there this year. My teammate, Ryder Hesjedal, who I always stay with, got married to a girl from Missouri and wasn't there, so I did my December training in San Diego instead."
"Did Ryder still have his camp for paying customers?"
"He did, but I wasn't a part of it this year."
Our informal exchange wasn't enough to give anyone else the courage to raise a hand or speak up so I simply continued, as I could have all night. "Tell us about your team time trial win at this year's Tour. When you were here a year ago you predicted you'd win it."
"Yes, remember I asked if you would assume the yellow jersey afterwards, as you had in the Giro a few years before with the pink jersey after Garmin won that team time trial, and you said it would probably be one of your sprinters and you were right about that too."
"The win was one of the biggest thrills of my career. I broke into tears in the team bus afterwards. I kept remembering how far our team had come in the four years I had been with it and all the effort we put into building the team. It was quite emotional for all of us."
He continued on saying how proud he was of how well Garmin did in the Tour with two other stage victories and defending the yellow jersey for a week and winning the competition for the best team. They put a lot of effort into winning the team victory, which is determined by the times of the first three riders for each team on each stage. Garmin had three strong climbers, Christian, Hesjedal and Tom Danielson. Christian said they had to be very vigilant on certain stages not letting three riders from other teams get too far up the road. "It upset some riders that we were trying so hard for the team victory," Christian said. "Stuart O'Grady chirped at me once, 'Haven't you guys won enough. You ought to give the rest of us something.' But that's not the way it goes"
At last some else spoke up asking, "What language do riders chirp in."
"When I first started riding in Europe in 1998," Christian said, "It seemed that there were more Italians in the peloton than anyone else and that was the dominant language. Now there are lots of English riders with us Americans and the Australians and English and all the Dutchies speaking English and Belgians and a lot of Germans, so you hear more English than anything else"
The next question came from a young man up front who wanted to know,"Did you dig deeper on your team time trail or the Vail Pass time trial at the Colorado race?"
"At Vail, by far. I was standing on my pedals the last three kilometers. I was 17 seconds behind Levi at the mid-point check point and I made up all but half a second of that by the summit. I held the record for the climb for about a minute, until he finished."
Christian had also finished second in the opening prologue of the week-long race that attracted crowds of Tour de France proportions and finished second overall, his best achievement of the year, ending his season on a fine, fine note tht seems to have him inspired to do even better next year.
"What's your favorite race to watch and which is your favorite race to participate in," another asked.
"I love watching the Tour of Flanders. I've raced in it a bunch of times, but I never want to race it again. I'm happy to just load up with snacks and sit and watch it from start to finish on television. And my favorite races to ride are the Tour of California and the recent Colorado race."
Christian went on to say he wouldn't be riding the Tour of California in 2012 though, as he'll be riding the Giro in Italy instead, indicating how serious he is about doing well in this year's Tour de France, as the three-week Giro is much better preparation than the week-long California race. Some years the Giro course is too demanding, as last year, which left Contador weakened for The Tour despite dominating the Giro. But the Giro course this year isn't the killer it has been.
A young man wondered what Christian's thoughts were about collegiate bicycle racing. "I'm all for it," he said. "I didn't have that opportunity and so didn't go to college, as I wanted to pursue the bike racing. That's an experience I missed and I'm not sure if I'll be able to do it after I retire."
Then he mentioned that he went riding earlier in the day with Bo Jackson, the Heisman trophy winner who was a star in both football and baseball, a man who was able to get a good education and also pursue his athletic career.
"How was Bo on the bike?" I interjected, drawing a laugh from the audience.
"Not so good," Christian said. "He weighs about 280 pounds. We were riding on a trail and his bike was sinking into the ground."
A woman said, "I don't know that much about the sport and can't understand how everyone on a team can sacrifice for one rider who gets all the glory."
Christian explained that its hard on some teams with individuals who don't get along so well, but at Garmin he enjoys a great camaraderie and respect with his teammates. "We're all like brothers. We're together so much, sharing hotel rooms and eating breakfast and dinner together, we become very close. I was very happy to sacrifice for Thor at this year's Tour when he was in the yellow jersey and I know he'd be happy to do the same for me. We'll miss him. He was just offered too much money by the BMC team to turn it down. They're printing money over there."
The Garmin rep cut off the questions after half an hour so everyone could go down stairs and line up for an autographed photo from Christian and a one-on-one exchange. No one passed up on the opportunity. If this had been Europe or Colorado or California there would have been several hundred people drooling at this chance. Though I would have loved to have seen such a mob here, I couldn't be overly disappointed that there were only a handful of us, allowing for a truly intimate and relaxed interchange with one of the sport's significant riders. Its a little over six months until The Tour starts in Liege, Belgium at the end of June. It can't come soon enough.
For more photos of the Garmin event see http://flic.kr/s/aHsjxz19Qp
To read about Christian's two previous Garmin appearances, see these posts: