By Shane Stokes
Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde was behind Tour de France contenders Fränk Schleck (Team Saxo Bank), Alberto Contador (Astana) and Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto) in the Paris-Nice's general classification, yet, according to team CEO Jonathan Vaughters, things are bang on schedule. Vande Velde finished 25th overall in Paris-Nice, ending the event 19 minutes and 40 seconds behind winner Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne).
"I think he's right where he needs to be, fitness wise," Vaughters told Cyclingnews. "Remember, Christian does a very heavy racing program to get ready for the Tour, much more so than any of his competitors. He can't be up at the level of some of the other contenders who race much less, or he'd crack."
After eight solid days of competition, Vande Velde headed away from the French event with something very significant to show for his efforts. He took the first individual stage victory of his career on day four, soloing clear from a long-distance breakaway and hitting the line first in Saint-Étienne. In doing so, he held off a charging Alberto Contador (Astana), who had attacked on the final climb in pursuit of the American.
Up until last year's Tour de France, Vande Velde was a rider who lacked the full confidence to be a leader. Finishing fifth [fourth, subject to Bernhard Kohl's disqualification] changed him and, seven and a half months later, Vaughters is convinced that taking that stage victory will further reinforce his new self-belief.
"You can't imagine the difference it will make," he said. "Christian is a rider that needs little confidence boosters to ride well. This stage win certainly provided that."
The Garmin Slipstream team itself is also gaining in self assurance. One year ago its goal was to show well enough in early-season races to justify a place in the Tour de France; now, it is heading to these events as an equal to the biggest squads in the sport. Strong performances are no longer an aspiration, they are an expectation.
"The race was a lot better than last year," Vaughters said. "This year we came in with the goal of winning the prologue, winning a stage, and getting David [Millar] in the top 10 in the general classification.
"We almost got two out of those," he said, referring to Bradley Wiggins' second place in the day one time trial.
The team also scooped an important victory in recent days when Tyler Farrar out-sprinted Mark Cavendish plus former Tour de France green jersey winners Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Robbie McEwen (Silence Lotto) and Thor Hushovd (Cervélo Test Team) to win stage three of Tirreno Adriatico. That kind of speed should give the squad yet another weapon in the big stage races to come later this year.