Friday, October 11, 2013

More Inside Racing with CVDV

Recently retired Christian Vande Velde spent more than an hour on stage at Chicago's Garmin store offering articulate and insightful answers to a wide range of questions last night, demonstrating why NBC  has hired him to be a commentator for its cycling broadcasts. He'll also continue his association with Garmin, mostly in a PR role.  He doesn't intend to do any coaching.

His last race was less than three weeks ago at the World Championships in Italy, where he competed in the team time trial.  He hasn't shaved his legs since, something he ordinarily does two or three times a week, and is happy to no longer have to pay sharp attention to what he eats. He said it was a great pleasure to make huge sundaes this past weekend for everyone in his family and to be able to eat as much as he wanted.  

When asked what were his proudest moments from his sixteen-year career in the pro peloton, he unhesitantly said they all came from The Tour de France.  It was a slight surprise that nothing else merited a mention, not even winning Colorado's USA Pro Challenge last year or wearing the pink jersey in the Giro in 2007 or his two Olympic appearances or his big breakthrough winning the Tour of Luxembourg in 2006 or perhaps winning the Tour of Missouri in 2008.  The magnitude of the Tour de France trumps all. His three proudest moments were being a part of Lance Armstrong's first Tour win in 1999, finishing fourth in The Tour in 2008 and helping Garmin win the team award in the 2011 Tour along with winning the team time trial that year and defending the yellow jersey for a week.  

Later a young cyclist asked him what it was like being a teammate of Ryder Hesjedal when he surprised the cycling world and won the Giro in 2012.  Christian was his roommate and to this day he still doesn't know how Ryder did it. He said when it became evident that Ryder had a chance to win the race, it was not a subject that anyone discussed.  When Christian would make his nightly phone call to his wife, he would leave the room so Ryder wouldn't hear him talking about his own excitement about the possibility.  When the race came down to the final two days and all was on the line, Christian gave it his all setting a hard pace for over an hour weakening Ryder's rivals before the serious climbing began, putting him in position to take control.  He remembers that as one of the finest moments of his career, a career that was always noted for his service to others.  

As with all his answers he made a fascinating story of it with multiple asides.  He spoke with such great warmth and sincerity, he made it seem as if he were the privileged one to be able to share his experiences rather than us his audience listening in. His life story will make a great book.  It is something he is considering, but he's not quite ready to do it.

He rode for four of the most prominent directors of his era during his career--Johan Bruyneel, Manola Saiz, Bjarne Riis and Jonathan Vaughters and learned much from all of them.  When he rode for Riis, he would sometimes stay over at his house in Lucca, Italy.  He was extremely devoted to his riders, happy to drive a motorbike for Christian to train behind.

When Christian switched from Bruyneel's Postal Service team to ride for Saiz, he was the only English-speaking rider on the team.  He didn't speak a word of Spanish at first.  He helped his former teammate at Postal, Roberta Heras, win the Tour of Spain, before moving on to Riis' team, the best in the world while he was there.  Before he and Dave Zabriskie left CSC to join the new Garmin team, as they stood on the podium in Paris after winning the team award at The Tour de France, they told each other to enjoy the moment as they never expected to be in such a position again, so when they were in 2011, it made it all the more thrilling.  Christian so genuinely expressed that sense, we could feel it ourselves.

For the first time in these annual appearances at the Garmin store someone brought up the subject of doping, asking Christian if he would be in favor of a Truth and Reconciliation Board for cyclists to unburden themselves.  Christian is fully in favor of confession.  He said it was a great relief when he went through the process before a Grand Jury, allowing him to clear his conscience.  But he isn't so sure how much he would trust others who would come forth, uncertain if they would give a full, or just a partial confession, so as not to diminish their results.  Erik Zabel is an example of that.  A few years ago he confessed to taking EPO briefly in 1996 before The Tour, outed by the book of a teammate.  He claimed he quit because he didn't like the side effects. However, this past year when it was revealed that a urine sample of his from the 1998 Tour tested positive when it was retested in 2004,  he had to greatly expand his confession.

As he reflected on his career, he said the sport is almost unrecognizable from what it was when he started, that the attention to detail has accelerated so much from recovery drinks to team buses and all their amenities.  Helmets were not required when he started.  He shudders to remember descending the Tourmalet at 65 miles per hour without a helmet.  His mother was right to worry about him, he said. So-called skin suits back then were ridiculously flappy, no tighter than the shirt he was wearing.  There was little attention paid to aerodynamics compared to now. There were no special time trial helmets. "I'd just wear a cycling cap turned backwards," Christian said.

The suffering though is no different.  Someone asked, "How do you get through the pain?"  Christian said that his dad, a two-time Olympic cyclist as well, told him to remember that everyone is suffering.  There is simply no way around it, but it is part of the gamesmanship to try to hide it.  For Christian, the hardest suffering is when he is training and having to push himself to his limits without the pay-off of a result or serving a teammate.

Someone asked where he trains locally, as he still lives in the southwest suburb of Lemont where he and his wife grew up.  He said he has a route that takes him towards Joliet.  Janina blurted out, "Do you ride on 52 and 53," as she and I had just done a ride out that way the weekend before to Midewin National Prairie.  There was a fair amount of traffic on the roads and she actually wondered at the time if Christian would dare such roads.  I thought he would, and Christian confirmed that was the case.  

Afterwards when we had a private chat with him and he autographed a Garmin poster for her, he signed it, "See you in Joliet?  Maybe.  Not."  He annotated my poster with "George, Push me next year."

I was able to introduce another friend to Christian, Tim, founder of Urban Bikes that has been renamed Uptown Bikes.

He joined Janina and I on our overnight ride to Midewin.  Tim mentioned to Christian that I had told him about our encounter in a Corsican cemetery before this past year's Tour as I was filling my water bottles and the Garmin team passed by on a training ride. Christian said that it was David Millar who had first spotted me and called out, "Hey Christian, there's your friend up ahead."  Christian peeled off for a quick greeting and then sped off to rejoin his teammates.

During the Q&A, I asked Christian how Daniel Mangeas, the long-time official voice of The Tour, would introduce him at the official sign-in before each stage, a Tour ritual for the fans that I rarely see as I am well down the route at that point.   It varies, as the riders can roll up to the stage any time they wish during a ninety-minute window.  If there is a bunch of riders at the time, it is very quick, but if there aren't others Mangeas might give a long dissertation citing the accomplishments of a rider, as Mangeas talks non-stop like an auctioneer for those ninety minutes.  Christian said Mangeas often surprises him, mentioning some result, such as finishing third on a stage of the Tour de Dunkirt, that he has totally forgotten about. I asked if he ever mentioned that his dad was one of the Team Cinzano riders in "Breaking Away."  He didn't think so, though his French isn't the best, so its possible that he might have.

As with many of his responses, Christian offered an unexpected insight into a racer's mentality and thinking process.  Mangeas' voice is so ubiquitous at The Tour, it becomes engrained in the mind of all Tour followers and can trigger a wide range of associations. For me it is a sense of great delight. For Christian it is at times a "sense of horror," as he associates it with the start of a stage and the torture to come, especially since the first hour of a stage is often the most difficult with 180 guys riding like bats out of hell trying to establish a breakaway. 

I was curious to learn what tricks Christian might have picked up over the years to minimize the effect of long trans-Atlantic flights and others on his legs, as they invariably leave my legs feeling tight and heavy.  He said he tries to get a bulk-head seat so he can stretch out his legs or hope to get upgraded to business or first class.  And he'll wear compression socks.  He makes no point of getting up and walking around.  He'll just sit and catch up on his movie-watching.  But it still usually takes him a week to fully recover from long flights.

As always, some of the most interesting insights into life in the peloton that Christian offered came in small asides.  Talking about the chatter in the peloton, he told about a couple of Italian teammates arguing over the use of hair driers on their team bus.  Three of them had had their hair driers going simultaneously, shorting out the bus electrical system.  

NBC is to be commended for presenting the bicycle racing community the gift of Christian's expertise and personality.  TV audiences will be greatly educated and entertained by his vast reservoir of knowledge in the years to come.

Before the event I emailed Christian asking if he had need of another course marker or two, as I usually provide him.  He replied just as I would, "I will always take a course marker. I put them up everywhere and they make great gifts."

And there were gifts for all attending the event--a slice of a chocolate cake with the inscription "Congrats Christian on Your Stellar Career," an autographed poster and a  seven-dollar DIVVY pass that permit one 24 hours of use of one of the new rental bikes scattered all over Chicago in 30-minute increments.  Janina can use it, as she has just begun giving them a try without a bike at present in the city. The day before she took advantage of the bikes for four rides, sparing her of public transportation each time.

For a full set of photos from the event, including the cake, click here --

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Sounds like an evening in heaven for you, George.