After a year of hard knocks and success achieved through gritted teeth, Garmin-Transitions' Christian Vande Velde is ready to tackle the Tour de France pain-free and with an uninterrupted winter of training.
Vande Velde, 33, had a series of crashes in 2009 which effectively wrecked his chances of a podium shot at the Tour de France and the defense of his 2008 Tour of Missouri win. He crashed heavily in the Giro d'Italia and sustained three fractured vertebrae, a cracked pelvis and two broken ribs. Vande Velde nonetheless recovered in time to take part in the Tour de France, finishing eighth overall.
Following the Tour, Vande Velde crashed again at the Vattenfall Cyclassics in Hamburg, Germany on August 16. Although he made a speedy recovery, he hit the tarmac in the opening stage of the Tour of Missouri on September 7, breaking his hand and ending his season.
"It was horrible. There were way too many crashes last year," he told Cyclingnews at the team's training camp in Calpe. "I don't know if it was just a knock on effect from the crash after the Giro and being scared, because when you're braking too much you're more dangerous than if you just let it fly.
"Then other times it was just bad luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I crashed early in the Tour last year. Forty of us went down and there wasn't a thing I could have done."
Heading into the 2010 racing season Vande Velde looks in better shape than ever. Instead of training in his native Chicago and enduring a harsh winter he and teammate Ryder Hesjedal trained in Hawaii for several weeks, making the most of the warm weather to rack up their training kilometres.
"Hawaii was awesome. It changed everything from my winter and I feel a lot better."
But the benefit of those winter miles wasn't just physical. The 2008-2009 winter was one of the coldest on record in the US and Vande Velde was forced to cut back on his training, often reduced to spinning on the rollers while his European rivals were able to train in rather more accommodating surroundings. The result not only affected his physical state but also his mental state too. "You see what everyone else is doing and how they're coming on but this year I have a couple of thousand kilometres in my legs. I'm ahead of where I was this time last year."
If 2009 had its setbacks Vande Velde showed courage and determination to bounce back, finishing eighth in the Tour while also working for teammate Bradley Wiggins who finished fourth. The American is sure that although he learnt a lot about himself during the tough months of rushed training in order to make the Tour start line, he's not eager to repeat the episode.
"I think I'm a realist most of the time, that's what made it even harder for me last year. At the end of May I was at home and thinking 'why bother?' When I was sitting there crippled and I was seeing these guys finish the Giro with thousands of miles of racing and the Dolomites in their legs, I certainly had a pessimistic mindset.
"In time you get some faith in yourself. The team helped a lot with that, Allen Lim helped me a lot. The team gave me an opportunity and their undying faith. Matt White, too. They were telling me, 'You're still going to the Tour and you're still the leader.' I was like 'man don't you remember what happened to me?' But the race showed me more, more than in 2008, and what I can do in the future. I made the best of it and put myself through a lot but I don't ever want to go through that again. "
Vande Velde is already licking his lips at the prospects of this year's Tour parcours. With a mountainous route, including a potentially devastating final week in the Pyrenees, it suits both his style of riding and ability to persevere. "I've looked at it a bit. Enough to know that the third week is the climax and where you need to be fit. It's going to be apocalyptic going up the Tourmalet twice. I'm excited about it," he said.
Despite the loss of Wiggins, Vande Velde also believes that the team could go into the race with a hugely-talented squad of riders. Along with the improving sprint exploits of Tyler Farrar, Garmin-Transitions boasts the climbing abilities of Dan Martin, Tom Danielson and Ryder Hesjedal.
However, one rider Vande Velde is tipping to perform is David Zabriskie. The US time trial champion won his first stage race at the Tour of Missouri last year and despite never showing well in the overall of a three-week Tour, his team leader believes he has all the credentials to step up a notch.
"He plays it down but I would too as it's a big step mentally for him, but he's got the capabilities. Everyone's known that for a long time now. It's just being up there day after day after day. You can be the strongest guy but you can't take a day off.
"He's got the capabilities it's just about whether he wants to go after it."
Vande Velde will kick start his season at the Volta ao Algarve in February, before racing Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and the Ardennes Classics. He'll then ride the Giro, missing the rescheduled Tour of California.
"Even as I say it, it's still hard for me. Of course I'd love to be there. It's still one of my favourite races. It's a great race but also a stressful one for an American. I'll miss it, though."
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