An interview with Christian Vande Velde, January 12, 2009
In the world of professional cycling the transition from domestique to team leader is difficult and rare. For every rider that makes the jump, there are dozens who try and fail - or simply never try at all. Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde emerged as a leader after years of service to others. Procycling's Jason Sumner caught up with Vande Velde at his Chicago home to find out what made the difference.
Until 2008, Christian Vande Velde lived the life of a cycling domestique. Sure, he had occasional breakout performances - a win at the 2006 Tour of Luxembourg, second overall at the 2007 Tour de Georgia. But more often than not, the 32-year-old American was content in his supporting rider role, breaking the wind and fetching bottles for the likes of Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre.
All that changed a year ago when Vande Velde left the comforts of CSC and signed on with the then-fledgling Slipstream team. At the time the Boulder, Colorado-based squad had no title sponsor and no guarantee that it would be invited to the sport's biggest races. But everything fell into place in 2008. GPS-maker Garmin stepped into the title sponsor role, and the newly named Garmin-Chipotle team earned a coveted invite to the Tour de France.
Vande Velde took over from there, announcing himself as a rider to be reckoned with. The Chicago native finished fifth overall - or fourth if you remove the subsequently suspended Bernhard Kohl. And he was tops among GC contenders in the Tour's final time trial, finishing fourth - or third if you remove Stefan Schumacher, who also tested positive for CERA.
"Overall I'm as healthy as I've been since 1999. I'm as healthy as I can be right now." - Vande Velde explains his clean bill of health heading into '09
Those results, plus a win at the season-ending Tour of Missouri gave Vande Velde a huge boost of confidence, and earned him top honours in the Cyclingnews most improved rider reader poll.
So how did Vande Velde make such a big jump? To find out the answer we paid a visit to his modest home in suburban Chicago. Check out excerpts from the exclusive interview here and read the full feature in the Procycling's season preview.
Cyclingnews: First I'm wondering what you're doing in Chicago in the dead of winter? This can't be the best place to get in your base miles.
Christian Vande Velde: It's all about [18-month-old daughter] Uma and being close to both my family and [wife] Leah's. We both grew up around here and it's great for Uma to see her grandparents. And it keeps Leah sane because she can get help when she needs it. [Note: Leah Vande Velde is expecting their second child at the end of January.]
CN: But from a strictly professional standpoint, is it hard for you to be here?
CVV: A lot of the time, yes. If it's dry I can manage because I can get on the 'cross bike and ride the trails around here. But for a lot of December I couldn't even do that because there was too much snow. That was rough. But I got through it and here we are with just two more days before I head to training camp. And I did get some good work done. I've been in the gym a ton and working with a PT, so in that respect I'm really strong right now, maybe stronger than I've ever been.
CN: So what are the trails around here like? It looked pretty flat driving over from the airport.
CVV: Actually there's a huge forest preserve that was formed by a glacier so there's lots of ups and downs. When the conditions are good I can ride for three-plus hours and never see the road. There's tons of great single track. But right now there's too much ice so I have to stay on the road and go south into the cornfields and that's like riding in Nebraska. It sucks.
CN: Do you feel like the bad weather has set you back or are you going to be okay?
CVV: I think I'm okay but I do worry a little. I've been consistent, but I haven't gotten in a lot of good rides. The upside is that I'm strong in the core and back, and that's really important. Besides we ride so much these days that I don't think it will be a big deal. I mean I've done 30,000 kilometers [18,641 miles] a year for 12 years now, so it reaches a point where I need to work on specific things like getting my back strong as much as anything.
CN: So you're a lot stronger right now than in years past?
CVV: No doubt. The big thing is that I hired a trainer for the first time. He's the total opposite of me, 275 pounds, big and loud. He's been great though. He gives me a ton of intensity, and is always watching me to make sure I'm doing things right.
CN: What are the key areas that you're working on at the gym?
CVV: Back, hips, glutes, hamstrings - all the core muscles that are weaker in me. We do it with and without weight, so it's different than the old school, squat, leg press, squat, leg press. I'm also doing physical therapy. I was there today and have been doing it twice a week all fall. The big thing is that I have almost completely different posture. Overall I'm as healthy as I've been since 1999. I'm as healthy as I can be right now.
CN: It seems like you've always been battling one ailment or another. Give us the laundry list?
CVV: It's just been a lot of imbalances, weaknesses, overuse injuries. I think it stems from never doing proper PT after injuries like when I broke my arm [at the 2001 Tour de France]. Instead the body is able to do four or five hours holding the bars with one hand, and slowly but surely you start favoring one side over the other. Then all the sudden you're all messed up.
CN: So how big a role is improved health in your recent emergence as a rider?
CVV: It's huge. I think one of biggest things is that I don't take it for granted anymore. I've really been working at it. When my body feels good I train better and really enjoy it. It's so easy it becomes euphoric.
CN: But clearly it's more than just good health. Fair to say your entire outlook has changed?
CVV: Definitely. The switch really flipped at the  Giro when I got the leader's jersey after the team time trial. That was great but then I lost it by a second on the next stage to [Italian Franco] Pellizotti and had to watch him everyday on the podium. I mean I saw him crying when he had the jersey and I was like, wow this is a big deal. That's when I got pissed and wanted to get it back. I had the taste of blood in the mouth.
CN: Was being in the Giro leader's jersey your biggest moment in 2008?
CVV: For sure it was one of them but also winning Missouri. That's a race I wasn't looking at to do anything. I just wanted to work for the team and help somebody else. But I'm really glad it happened the way it did. It forced me to ride as a leader and reminded me that I could do it. It was reassurance of everything I did throughout year.
CN: And is that Corvette in the garage your reward for what you did?
CVV: Actually that was basically an impulse buy. I went to get the oil changed in the SUV and had too much time on my hands. The Chevy dealership was across the street, and I knew the way things are with the economy I could get a good buy. So I got talked into test drive and ended up driving it home.
You can read the rest of the interview in Procycling's season preview. Subscribe to get your copy today!