Friday, October 12, 2012

Christian Vande Velde Meets With His Fans

Last night for the fifth consecutive year Christian Vande Velde made himself available to his hometown Chicago fans for a chat about his year.  Not once in his previous four appearances did  the subject of the sport's dark underbelly, drugs, come up.  That would surely be different this year, as he  was prominent in the news as one of eleven of Lance Armstrong teammates to indict Lance and admit to   drug use in a 1,000 page report released the day before.  He was also featured in a front page New York  Times story that very day telling how he was forced to take drugs and was threatened with being fired if he didn't.

More than fifty fans turned out to see Christian and his teammate Tyler Farrar at the Garmin store, the lead sponsor of his team, on Michigan Avenue.  Shockingly, his audience was too polite to ask him about the story that was front page news around the world, nor did Christian address the issue in his opening remarks.

It wasn't until after the session, when I had a chance for a private chat, was I able to broach the subject.  I too had been guilty of avoiding the issue, despite having the opportunity, getting in a couple of questions during the Q&A, preferring to focus on sunnier subjects as did everyone else--his great season, which included helping his teammate Ryder Hesjedal win the Giro d'Italia, winning the week-long Pro Challenge in Colorado and also finishing second in a stage at The Tour de France after being part of a six-man sixty-mile breakaway.

I had been eager to ask Christian about that breakaway ever since watching the prolonged French telecast in a bar along The Tour route as it was transpiring.  The motorcycle cameras remained on Christian and his companions with hardly interruption for two hours.  That was one of my highlights this past year of following The Race, wondering what was going on in Christian's head and knowing I'd be able to ask him about it.

Christian acknowledged that being in a breakaway is less stressful than being in the pack, though it takes considerable effort to get into the break.  He said he couldn't have done it without the help of his teammate David Millar, who gave an all out effort to bridge him up to it and then dropped back to the pack, utterly exhausted. "I owe it all to David," the ever humble Christian said.

Thomas Voeckler, the French rider who is a breakaway specialist, was in the break.  Christian said he took charge.  I asked if he was surprised that Voeckler didn't respond to the attack of his fellow Frenchman and former teammate Pierrick Fedrigo with three miles to go.  "Not really," he said.  "You never know what kind of deal they might have arranged."  Christian was the only one in the break to be able to keep up with Fedrigo, finishing second right on his wheel, 12 seconds ahead of Voeckler and another.

Though most of the questions were directed to Christian, Tyler fielded a few as well. Tyler, one of the sport's top sprinters, is one of two Americans to have won a stage in all three of the Grand Tours.  He said the Vuelta is his favorite of the three three-week tours, as The Tour de France is so stressful and the Giro a pain with all the long transfers from one stage to the next, the riders spending almost as much time in their team buses as on their bikes.

Thanks to my fellow Tour follower Skippy, I had recently learned that Farrar had first witnessed The Tour as a six-year old.  His father was an ardent racing fan and made The Tour his family's vacation when Tyler was a youth.  There is a picture on the Internet accompanying a story on Tyler's dad from that vacation of Tyler on the Galibier, one of the highest passes in the Alps.  I asked what memories he had of that occasion and what it was like to ride over the Galibier twenty years later as part of the peloton.  Christian blurted, "You did the Galibier as a six year old?"

"I didn't ride up it," he said.  "My mother drove me up it while my father biked."

Tyler said he had no memory of that experience, but that it had doubtlessly been part of what led him to becoming a racer.

More questions followed, all focused on racing.  No one was brave enough to broach the taboo subject of doping.  I was prepared to if I'd been afforded another question, but the Garmin representative moderating the program cut it off much too prematurely after half an hour.

Among the many things I would have liked to ask Christian related to Tyler Hamilton's recently published book "The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-Ups and Winning At All Costs."  Christian is mentioned six times, all in a positive light.  Hamilton describes him as "easy-going" on one page and on another as "a great guy" and later mentions he has "a sly smile."  Hamilton and Christian were teammates on Lance's first Tour winning team in 1999.   Hamilton said that only he and Kevin Livingston, the team's climbing specialists, and Lance were given EPO during that race. They had their own separate van to make the doping easier, while their six teammates had another.

Hamilton mentioned that Christian once irked Lance when he teased him about a pair of new Nike bicycling shoes he was wearing. I would have liked to have heard Christian's version of that.  Hamilton also brought up a training camp incident where Christian had higher blood values than Lance after a hard ride, a barometer on who was the better rider.  Those in the know conspired to keep it a secret from Lance, as they knew it would upset him.  I wonder what Christian had to say about that as well.  But that will have to wait for another time.

During Christian's autograph session I whispered in his ear.  "Are you presently serving a suspension?"  There had been conflicting reports in the media what sanctions Christian faced for admitting he had taken drugs. Some said he would be suspended for six months starting in September and ending in time for him to compete in the season's first significant race in March--Paris-Nice.  Christian said yes, that was the case.

"I'm surprised no one brought up the doping during up the Q&A."

 "Me, too," he said, "but that was somewhat of a relief."

"How are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm okay. Getting out like this helps."

"When did you give your grand jury testimony?"

"Two years ago."

"Wow, you've been waiting for this report all that time.  It must be a relief to get it over with?"

He sighed a "yes," then turned to Tyler and said, "Remember George? I introduced you to him at the team time trial a year ago."

We shook hands again and I asked, "How did the crowds in London at the Olympic road race compare to The Tour de France?" 

"It was fantastic.  The crowds were ten deep all around the course.  I've never seen anything like it."

There was a gleam in his eye, as there had been when Christian was recounting his proud moments from the past year. It was good to talk racing and not the other stuff.  Hamilton's book brightened, too, on those rare occasions when he departed from the drug-taking and commented on the beauty of the sport--the incomparable camaraderie cyclists have with their teammates, unlike any other sport or endeavor, the beautiful terrain they train and race in, the strategy and the effort they give.

Although it would have been interesting to hear from Christian first-hand the turmoil the drug-taking caused him, it will be thoroughly covered in the media in the months to come.  We'll be reading all too much about it.   In fact, today's New York Times has a full-fledged story on Christian. He also issued a four paragraph apology the day the report was released:

“I love cycling, it is and always has been a huge part of who I am. As the son of a track cycling Olympian I was practically born on the bike and my dream, ever since I can remember, was always to be a professional cyclist. I have failed and I have succeeded in one of the most humbling sports in the world. And today is the most humbling moment of my life.

“As a young pro rider I competed drug free, not winning but holding my own and achieving decent results. Then, one day, I was presented with a choice that to me, at the time, seemed like the only way to continue to follow my dream at the highest level of the sport. I gave in and crossed the line, a decision that I deeply regret. I was wrong to think I didn’t have a choice – the fact is that I did, and I chose wrong. I won races before doping and after doping. Ironically, I never won while doping, I was more or less just treading water. This does not make it okay. I saw the line and I crossed it, myself. I am deeply sorry for the decisions I made in the past -- to my family, my fans, my peers, to the sport that I love and those in and out of it – I’m sorry. I always will be.”

“I decided to change what I was doing and started racing clean again well before Slipstream, but I chose to come to Slipstream because I believed in its unbending mission of clean sport. Today, I am proud of the steps that I and cycling have made to improve the future of the sport that I love so much. I am proud to be a part of an organization that implemented a no-needle policy. I am proud that I published my blood values for all of the world to see after almost reaching the podium at the 2008 Tour de France; showing first and foremost myself that it was possible to and then, confirming it for the rest of the world. I continue to be proud of the strides the sport has taken to clean itself up, and the actions our organization has taken to help shape the sport that I love.”

“I’m very sorry for the mistakes I made in my past and I know that forgiveness is a lot to ask for. I know that I have to earn it and I will try, every day, to deserve it – as I have, every day, since making the choice to compete clean. I will never give up on this sport, and I will never stop fighting for its future.”

I look forward to seeing Christian at The Tour's start in Corsica next July and equally look forward to his appearance at the Garmin store after the season.  All can be assured that he will continue to do himself and his sport proud.


Andrew F said...

Great stuff George. I had been wondering about Christian since reading about him in hamiltons book.

JeffOYB said...

Thanks, George. I haven't followed this stuff due to all the sneaky angles. I'll follow your take, man! You get up close and personal and without an ax to grind except for the bike and the humanity and the heritage. I like your balance. Thanks again, JP

george christensen said...

Wow, George, this is an amazing story. Your reverence for Christian and for cycling shines through every written word. What another tough year for cycling. I know this also must be very hard for you. You have always shown the utmost integrity for the sport and the way of the cycling life. Cycling will need you to help get the momentum back in the sport for people to understand and respect all the great things it has meant for so many cyclists and fans over the last millennium and more even more important, for the next millennium.