Christian Vande Velde has seen it all in his time with Garmin - crashes, bad luck, success and controversy - but the American begins the final two years of his career with his confidence and aims as high as ever.
With the season underway the 34-year-old is on the back of one of his best winters in recent years and appears free of the demons that almost ended his career last year.
"I usually have my ass handed to me at training camps at this time of year so it's been a pleasant surprise with how things have gone so far this season," he told Cyclingnews.
"I'm around the same level as last year but just that little bit better, especially in terms of motivation and calmness. That goes for the whole team, our insecurities are a little less and everything seems just that bit more poised now."
Towards the end of last season Garmin-Transitions pooled resources with part of the sinking Cervélo TestTeam, signing a strong block of their Classics team. Although a number of riders were released in conjunction with the move, Garmin-Cervélo starts the season as one of the strongest teams in the world, on paper at least, with Vande Velde's teammate, David Millar, calling the team a 'hit squad'.
"It's a different team now, the average age is higher than last year and we've added quite a bit more experience," said Vande Velde. "There's a lot more firepower and that goes a long way to levelling out the pressure on all the guys."
Vande Velde joined the team in 2008, signing from Bjarne Riis' CSC team. It was a leap of faith for the American who admits he was riding in a comfort zone as a super-domestique on the Danish team.
"If you want to compare now to 2008 it's an insane difference," said Vande Velde. "I went to the first training camp and I remember sitting there and thinking 'what the hell have I done. Why am I here?' I was terrified. Going from the best team in the world, in CSC, who were head and shoulders above everyone else, to what was at the time a start-up team in the States, it was a rocky start. There's a big difference from that to where we are now."
However, Vande Velde took the plunge, signing for the team after admitting that he had gone stale with Riis's team and wanted to challenge himself before it was too late.
"I was getting very comfortable at doing what I was doing and I was one of the best domestiques in the world. There wasn't much pressure and I was being paid well. This was a chance to go with an American team and see how good I could be. It was scary but I'm glad I did it.
"The scariest part was really me just trying to put myself out there. Saying that you're going to do top-10 in the Tour and having everyone laugh at you, even my trainer was questioning whether or not I could do it, was tough but I realised that I wasn't 23 anymore and that I wasn't going to be racing for another 12 years. These are some of the last years in my career and I wanted to make a difference with them."
With two seasons left before a possible retirement following the Olympics in 2012, Vande Velde wants at least one more shot at the Tour de France general classification. Having finished fourth in 2008 in his first bid as a GC rider and eighth a year later despite a disastrous build up, the American still has top-10 aspirations for this year's race. And while some riders would be happy to take a final pay check in the twilight of their career, Vande is having none of it.
"I'm not going to let these last two years slide. I could easily just ride and do my job but I want these years to be the best I can make them and it's in my nature to think like that. Cycling is just too hard to go through the motions so if wasn't going to go for it I would just stop.
"Saying that, I'm not going to put an insane amount of pressure on myself. I'm going to think top-10 for the Tour and try for that. I know if I'm there healthy I can ride with anyone. After that, who knows?"
Whiter without White
One person Vande Velde and the rest of the team will have to cope without this year is former senior directeur sportif Matt White, who was dismissed last week for referring former Garmin rider Trent Lowe to Dr Luis Garcia del Moral.
White was seen as the spine of the team by several of the riders but was dismissed because his actions contravened the team's anti-doping policies.
"I've not really had a chance to talk to people about it but you have to remember that a third of the guys don't know Whitey because they're coming from Cervélo. Of course we're going to miss him but the rules on the team are the rules on the team. It's a shame it happened the way it did and I've talked to him since. He'll always be a close friend and nothing will take that away."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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