As the first gathering of Garmin-Cervélo's 2011 squad wrapped up this weekend in the Caymans, it proved to be the ideal culmination of Christian Vande Velde's road to recovery following a season plagued with injury. Vande Velde suffered early exits from both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France due to broken bones, yet managed to put the dark days behind him with a rejuvenating performance at the Vuelta a Espana, a race he started low on form and with four cracked ribs.
Vande Velde concluded his season at the road world championships in Australia and the 34-year-old Chicago native found the perfect tonic for recovery was complete rest at home.
"I didn't do anything for almost five weeks and that's the longest break I've ever had in my entire life. I really needed to let myself completely relax, heal psychologically and physically," Vande Velde told Cyclingnews. "I have a new house and enjoyed being back in Chicago. I had an amazing fall.
"Since then I've been getting myself back together on the gym, on the bike, mountain biking quite a bit, getting to know some of the new teammates and sponsors for next year. It's too fast as usual, you look at your watch and it's December already and it's pretty daunting to see that. You always want that extra two weeks, but it's not there."
As was the consensus among all the Garmin-Cervélo riders and staff of the week-long camp at The Reef resort on Grand Cayman, it was a perfect way to bring together a team returning 18 riders and adding 11 new ones.
"It's always important to come together and be away from the bike and talk about things that don't relate to cycling. It's not about your programme, it's girlfriend, wife, kids, family - everything that you enjoy doing apart from cycling, whether it's shooting guns at kangaroos, or stuff like that," said Vande Velde with a laugh.
"I never thought that volleyball would be fun, but it was hysterical. I was astounded at how bad we were, first of all, and then also how decent it was at times. We had amazing volleys with maybe 12 on one side and nine on the other, a ridiculous amount of people. That was fun and just being able to completely stop and sit in the sand and talk with the guys."
Vande Velde has been coming to grips with his likely retirement after the 2012 season, and he's been inspired first by his Vuelta performance and then by the initial team camp in the Caymans.
"After the [Tour de France] crash I was thinking I still have two more years, I don't even know if I really want to do this anymore," said Vande Velde. "Now I'm thinking of it the other way around. It took me until the first dinner [in the Caymans] where I looked around the room. We had some speeches where Jonathan [Vaughters] said some words, Doug [Ellis] said some words. It wasn't really about what they said, it was being amongst the guys again and seeing where I am and what my responsibilities to myself and to my team are.
"I don't want to look back and say I didn't reach my potential or do everything I could in those last two years. I'm looking at it more as I only have two more years in my timeline, I don't care to race forever and just ride to ride. I think a lot of times when you do see the end it's much easier to say I've got these two years, and I'm going to do everything I possibly can.
"My palmares are nothing crazy at all. I realized that during the Vuelta that I'm a natural stage racer and that's the best thing for me. I think if I'm healthy and fit that I could do some great things whether it be going for stages, or overall, or helping my teammates succeed, whatever that is, I just want to do the best I can."
Vande Velde's 2011 race programme through the Tour de France nearly mirrors his past season's schedule. He'll open his season with a few stages on Mallorca, followed by the Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, Pais Vasco, the Ardennes Classics, Amgen Tour of California, Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France.
"It's a pretty classic programme and I think I'll be seeing a lot of people over and over and over again," said Vande Velde.
A return to California was important to Vande Velde. "I really realized this last year that I appreciate riding back in the States. That's obviously where I'm from and I feel that much more relaxed. You don't have to fight anything. It was really hard for me to watch the guys back in California and miss out on that."