What was the most impressive performance of last year’s Tour de France? For some, it was the dominance shown by Alberto Contador. For others, it was the defiance displayed by Lance Armstrong, who came back from four years off to take third overall at 37 years of age.
Yet it can be argued that the stand out performance in the race was actually the determined ride by Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Transitions. His eighth overall doesn’t immediately seem remarkable, especially in the light of his fourth place in 2008. But when you consider that he suffered three fractured vertebrae, a cracked pelvis and two broken ribs in a crash just seven weeks before the start of the Tour, the magnitude of what he achieved is much more significant.
At the start of the season, Vande Velde had targeted a podium place, yet he had to fight the pain to start the Tour de France and ended up riding for his Garmin-Transitions team-mate Bradley Wiggins. He embraced the role and despite burning energy in support of the Briton, he still finished inside the top ten, showing a considerable degree of grit.
The plan for 2010 was to once again head to the Giro, but to stay upright and to chisel out the type of form that would see him chase a top-three slot. Vande Velde needs a lot of racing to hit peak form, and the Giro should have been perfect.
Yet, incredibly, he once again crashed out on the third stage, and once again sustained fractures. This time round the damage was a little less, being ‘just’ a double break to his collarbone. Still, it was a major disruption to his schedule and ruled him out of competition until the Tour de Suisse. Not exactly the ideal preparation for his big tilt at cycling’s biggest Grand Tour.
“The crash was obviously a disappointment,” the friendly 34 year old told Cyclingnews recently. “I came back and tried to work as hard as I could after the operation. I did my best, but obviously I had some crashes at the Tour de Suisse and hurt myself a couple of times."
“But it served its purposes. The Tour de Suisse was very hard. It was a lot of kilometres, a lot of horrible weather, big mountains. My fitness improved tremendously throughout the week, so I am still happy. Even though I have a busted up body again.”
Had Vande Velde not crashed in the Tour de Suisse and cracked some ribs, he would have picked a couple of stages to go deep and to test his condition. Instead he had to bide his time, holding back due to difficulties in breathing. It means that he is a little uncertain as to how things will go in the Tour.
“I’m about the same, if not a little bit better,” he said, when asked how his physical fitness compares to twelve months ago. It’s clear he’s a little frustrated, but he doesn’t dwell on things. “It is just a different kind of form..I think I am more fit, but it's a strange feeling. Your body always reacts differently to different situations.”
Even before the Giro crash, things were difficult. “This year has been trying, at best. There has always been little nagging things,” he admitted, referring to an early hip injury and then a lung infection. Things looked up when he finished thirteenth overall in the Tour de Romandie, but his progression was interrupted by that Giro d’Italia fall.
He now hopes the bad luck is finally behind him now, and he’ll do the Tour he deserves.
Expectations for himself and his team
Following the Tour de Suisse, Vande Velde headed back to Girona for ten days, catching up with his family there and doing more training in advance of the Tour. When asked if he could remain upbeat heading towards the year’s number one goal, he said that he didn’t have much of a choice.
“I am always an optimist – you have to be,” he answered, before stressing that Garmin Transitions is not just about him. “We have a great team apart from myself – we have Tyler for the sprints, and a lot of other guys like Zabriskie and David Millar. We have got a great team. I am going to try to my best for GC, and hopefully I’ll have a great one like last year after my crash. If so, great…if not, we have other options.”
Those other options include Tyler Farrar, who scooped the first Grand Tour stage win of his career on stage 11 of the 2009 Vuelta a España. He had been knocking on the door for quite a while, picking up three second places in last year’s Tour de France, and finally broke that duck in Spain. He’s continued to progress since then, netting two stage wins in this year’s Giro d’Italia and galloping to victory in the Schledeprijs.
Vande Velde is convinced the 26 year old is going to be one of the top riders in this year’s Tour. “I think Tyler is going to continue to be a better and better sprinter every year, as he starts to learn more and more, as the team has more confidence in him, as he has more confidence in himself,” he said. “I believe that Tyler is going to be one of those sprinters who continues to progress as his career goes on, as opposed to a lot of sprinters who come out at 22 years old and they already have everything."
“With Tyler, we didn’t believe how good a sprinter he was, but he had this really good faith in himself a long time ago. I think that Tyler is going to continue to progress and is going to be a big protagonist for the green jersey this year.”
Last year’s Tour saw a staggering six wins by Mark Cavendish. However the HTC-Columbia rider has picked up just three victories this year and hasn’t yet shown anything like the same form as in 2009. As a result, Vande Velde thinks that that the sprints are going to be different in this year's Tour.
“It’s going to be a lot closer,” he said. “We have definitely padded our support for Tyler, and that has been a huge plus psychologically, if not physically."
“Cav has had a lot of physical ailments this year, as well as mental ones – he has had a lot of hard stuff in his personal life. But he has been on such a high for so many years that something had to give out at some point in time.”
Essentially, one rider is gaining momentum, the other appears (for now, at least) to be losing it. “When you are on top like Cav, the only place you can go is down. It is always hardest for him,” said Vande Velde, somewhat sympathetically. “You have to respect Cav for what he has already done, it has been unbelievable. If he takes a year off, he deserves it. But Tyler is chipping away and he wants that stage win, so he has his eye on the prize. Cavendish has been there, done that – it is a little different for Tyler.”
If it indeed transpires that Farrar picks up a stage win or two -– or, better still, the green jersey -- it will take the pressure off Vande Velde. He’ll still ride as well as possible, of course, but it would mean that Garmin-Transitions' Tour would be a success even if his Giro and Tour de Suisse injuries cost him a little climbing form. At this point, though, he’s not thinking that way. He’ll start the race fully committed to doing a good overall classification, keeping his mind on his original targets.
Battlegrounds and challengers
For those aiming to fight for yellow, this year’s race is going to demand a lot of concentration. The traditional opening week tended to be dominated by the sprinters, with perhaps a team time trial being the only point of concern after the prologue. In 2010, things will be different; stage two is expected to be a mini Liège-Bastogne-Liège, while stage three will cover some of the pave sections of Paris-Roubaix. That spells danger for the GC contenders, and will require a lot of concentration and extra effort.
“There are too many key points this year,” said Vande Velde. “Even starting the prologue, I think there are going to be time gaps early, just like there was at the Giro this year. After that, it will be a case of staying out of trouble for the first two days up in Holland, like you saw in the Giro."
“Then of course you have the cobblestones, the Mende stage, the Alpine stages and the Pyrenees. It is going to be gnarly from start to finish. It is going to be a great Tour to watch, but…” His voice trails off when he thinks about how things will be from a rider’s perspective. “It will be a great Tour,” he decides.
One concern in relation to the pavé section will relate to how his collarbone and ribs hold up. Both were troubling him at the Tour de Suisse, but he hoped the fortnight after that race would give him a chance to fully heal. If he can get through that third stage without problems, he’ll feel a lot more confident about his chances. Like many of the big riders, staying upright will be his first concern; avoiding time losses a close second.
One thing he is certain about is that there are plenty of riders who will be in the battle for the final victory. “I think Andy [Schleck] looks great…he has been playing around a lot, helping out his team-mates [in the Tour de Suisse]. Not taking things too seriously. But he is going to be climbing very well by the time we get to the mountains.
“Lance also looks great. He is definitely motivated and has his head turned on. I think Klöden is actually much better than he appears. He doesn’t take himself too seriously these days, but he is very strong. Levi looks okay. Kreuziger – I think he was just chilling out, but I think he is good.”
Tour de Suisse stage winner Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and final victor Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) also got the thumbs up from Vande Velde, who he sees as being in the hunt for yellow. “Having just one big time trial really plays into Gesink’s hands, and so too for Andy,” he said. “As for Frank, you never know with him – I think he surprises himself all the time. He has got Leea, his new baby, and I think that has changed his mentality. It certainly did for me when I had my children."
“There are so many guys [going well], both at the Tour de Suisse and amongst the guys who have done the Giro and have been pretty much resting ever since.”
That group includes world champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Giro victor Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Bradley Wiggins, who was Vande Velde’s team-mate last year but who is now racing for Team Sky.
Others who missed the Tour de Suisse include defending champion Alberto Contador (Astana). Unsurprisingly, Vande Velde sees him as the main favourite. “I think the Tour is made for him, apart from the pave,” he said. “As long as he gets through that first week unscathed, then he will have as good a chance as anybody. He definitely comes to mind as the best climber, ahead of the others.”
The Spaniard gave his rivals a bit of hope when he showed a little less dominance than usual in the mountains at the Criterium du Dauphiné. He won on Alpe d’Huez, but had to work very hard for the victory, and couldn’t drop race leader Janez Brajkovic (Team Radio Shack). There was certainly a difference when contrasted with his blazing attacks in last year’s Tour de France.
Yet Vande Velde warns against making too many judgements based on that. “There are so many guys who have felt horrible in the Dauphiné and go on to win the Tour de France, and also the opposite – the guys who decide to kill it and are still good [in the Tour]…like Lance used to do.
“Everyone reacts differently. Alberto took it quite easily last year in the Dauphine too, but he still finished second or third overall. I don’t like to speculate on others – when you see Ivan Mayo, he killed everyone in the  Dauphiné, but he didn’t even finish ten days of the Tour.”
The message is clear; whatever happened before, it is only in the Tour itself when you can see how well a rider is going. Big gains can be made in the final few weeks, and this is something that Vande Velde will himself be counting upon.
His ride in last year’s Tour was one of the most courageous. This time round, with rather less battle damage than twelve months ago, he’s hoping that he’ll be much closer to his best.