Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde sustained one of the worst crashes of his career at this year's Giro d'Italia and effectively threw his Tour de France challenge into severe jeopardy. Just a few weeks on from the crash Cyclingnews caught up with Vande Velde to talk about the Tour and his recovery.
CN: Let's get something out of the way before we talk about the Tour de France. Last year you said that the pendulum was swinging and that the Tour was becoming cleaner and that the speed of the race was a good indication of that change. With the recent comments from Bernhard Kohl…
CN: Does that belief still hold water? Is the sport moving in the right direction?
CVV: Yes, I think things are moving in the right direction. I really think that. Maybe I'm naive for saying it but the only thing I can talk about is myself and that I got top five in the Tour and that I did it being clean and that I wasn't so far off the podium.
How can I say that people in front of me are doing anything when I'm really not that far away from them? You have to remember that I made mistakes at the Tour and could have finished closer, so there's no way I'd point fingers at those around me.
CN: Kohl's comments are damaging to both the credibility of the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the peloton and while he hasn't named anyone he has made implications over the top 10. Do you have any reaction to the claims he's made?
CVV: The only thing I can say is that if I'm clean then I think everyone around me is clean. That's my mentality. If he's doing these things then he must be sceptical about the riders around him and think that they're doing more than him. It's very wrong that particular way of thinking.
So while I applaud him in coming out and trying to help the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) or whoever he is working with, I don't think he can make claims about the top if they're unfounded.
CN: Okay, let's wind things back a bit to the start of your season. You seemed to be building things up gradually at the start of the season. Would that be correct?
CVV: Bingo. I was a little bit more conservative when it came to training and racing compared to the past. I was trying to conserve myself for the Giro and I was really pleased with my spring campaign and my performances in races like the Tour of the Basque Country and Paris-Nice. But like you said, it was all a natural and steady progression.
CN: Was that always the plan?
CVV: Yes and no. Okay, I wanted to build up slowly but some of it was forced because of the harsh winter we had back home in Chicago. It was the worst winter since I've been alive and then the birth of my second daughter, which was of course a lovely distraction, came just a week before the Tour of California. So it put me back a bit compared to 2008 where I was really firing on all cylinders right from the get-go after California.
CN: Moving to the Giro, your build up seemed to be over-shadowed by the rivalry between Garmin and Columbia. Did that affect you and the team?
CVV: A bit, yes, but only because you don't want any other stresses and you just want to deal with your race and not have to handle any of those type of questions. On the day of the race you just have do your own thing and remind yourself that you're not racing against just one team. There were teams like Liquigas and Astana there too, who we hold in high regard.
CN: You seemed to get stick for focussing on the team time trial. Was that fair?
CVV: I think our training really got blown out of proportion. You do two afternoons of training and suddenly you've trained for just one stage? I don't think so. We (the team) all live here in Gerona, and we have one of the best team time trial teams in world, so of course we're going to try and win it and if we all live in the same town then why don't we all get together and ride together?
CN: I guess the team trial and any rivalry was the last thing on your mind a few days later when you crashed out of the race.
CVV: Totally. I don't remember much about the crash. I don't know if I hit anyone or what. I didn't anticipate anything, but before I knew it all my spokes were gone and I knew that it was going to hurt as I went over the handlebars. I knew straight away that I wasn't going to get up and that was the first time in my career that's happened to me. I didn't even think about the Tour and if I'd miss it. When it's that bad you just lie there hoping you're okay and that it's not a really serious injury.
CN: It was a bad crash. You sustained three fractured vertebrae, a cracked pelvis in addition to the two broken ribs.
CVV: Yeah, I was beat-up pretty bad for a while and probably started pushing it a bit too early. It wasn't like I could take a few days off and then start training again.
CN: Since the crash you've been off the radar a bit. Tell us a bit about your recovery.
CVV: It's been a long process and it's been tedious at times, but I've had a tonne of support from the team, from everyone really. For example, I have a really steep hill at the end of my drive and I couldn't even ride up it to start with. So the team would drive me to the other side of the hill so we could go for a ride. We started with 30 minutes and then built that up and now and I can do whatever I want. But it's been hard unravelling my body after how tight and sore it was.
CN: Was that the hardest part of the recovery process?
CVV: Being on the couch was the worst bit and watching the guys in the Giro even more so. I was lying there and asking myself, 'why am I being so serious? Why am I not eating junk food and having some beers with my friends?' You really start to wonder what it's all for and I had serious doubt over whether I'd be able to do the Tour.
Psychologically that was easily, easily the hardest part. My wife can testify to that. The support from her and friends really pulled me through.
CN: On the bright side, you did manage to celebrate your birthday at home.
CVV: Yeah, that was a nice surprise. I've been a professional for so long and I can count the number of times I've been home for my birthday on one hand, so that was nice - the silver lining through all of this. It didn't make up for not being able to ride my bike though. Knowing that I wouldn't be riding my bike the next day every time I went to bed was really hard to take.
I've had a lot of bad injures and set backs in my career but this recovery has taken a lot of effort. It's great sitting here talking and not being in pain but I won't forget how much I had to go through. It was a case of taking it day-by-day but that's easier said than done.
CN: So, is it too early to even contemplate how you'll do at the Tour de France?
CVV: It's too early to tell if I'll even be at the Tour. I'll try and get through the Tour of Switzerland, starting on Saturday with the prologue, and see how it goes. But I've not even decided if I'm even going to the Tour yet. That mentality has worked for the last few weeks and it's not going to change now.
CN: It sounds like the grit and determination are still there though, right?
CVV: I'm pushing but holding myself back at the same time. There are days when I've gone hard but at the same time that last half hour of training hasn't been easy. So I'm still doing five hour rides just like I should be at this point in the season.
CN: Still on the Tour, some team leaders are heavily involved with the make up of the squad, some not. Where do you sit?
CVV: Team selection is down to Matt White and Jonathan Vaughters. They're the guys who see the team and every rider at every race. They've got the well-rounded view. I could give my two cents but I don't think it's worth too much (laughs).
CN: So, assuming you do ride the Tour de France, what will your personal expectations be?
CVV: It's unfair to say where I'll be or what I'll be doing come July 4, but that's the beauty of the race - you can go for stage wins or the mountains jersey, the glass is always half-full at the Tour in my opinion. If I do ride, I'll be going into the Tour with a lot more of an armoury than last year, both in terms of experience and confidence.
Last year I was climbing with the leaders of the race and having done that, and knowing a bit more about my competitors will go a long way. Okay, the confidence has taken a nice hit and I'm coming back from zero but I hope I'll get some of that back soon.
CN: I read an interview in Procycling magazine in which you said that you had the legs to follow Carlos Sastre but that you hesitated. Is that what you mean by experience and confidence?
CVV: At the end of the day, that day on the Alpe d'Heuz, which I think you're alluding to, I wasn't the only one that could or wanted to go with Carlos. It was a very ballsy move and very unlike Carlos. I will have more confidence in the future in those situations.