When the day's early break was finally swept up on the streets of Denver, Colorado, and the bell rung for one 14.6km lap to go in the concluding stage of the USA Pro Challenge, Christian Vande Velde moved to the very front of the peloton for the finale of his last race on home soil. The 37-year-old American will bring his 16-year professional career to a conclusion following the team time trial world championships this September, but for the Garmin-Sharp veteran this final lap in front of the biggest crowds of the race was a fitting denouement for a career which began many years ago in this same state.
With two kilometres remaining the television camera zeroed in on Vande Velde, who looked into the lens and waved goodbye.
"It was a little more emotional than I thought it would be," said Vande Velde. "I didn't want to think about it too much before the race because it's a hard race and it's competitive but that last lap I definitely started thinking about the things I've done in my career when I first started racing 20 years ago in this state up until this time.
"I'm just happy that I got to race long enough to see three editions of this race. By far this is the coolest race there is in the United States and in my heart, the world."
Vande Velde, the defending USA Pro Challenge champion, finished his last race on US soil in 22nd overall, riding in support of teammates Lachlan Morton, wearer of the yellow jersey for two stages, and then Tom Danielson, who ultimately finished on the podium in third place behind a BMC one-two of Tejay van Garderen and Mathias Frank.
The son of US Bicycling Hall of Fame inductee John Vande Velde, Christian's cycling career began on the track. He embarked on his professional road career in 1998 with the US Postal Service Team where he spent the first six years of his career. Vande Velde spent 2004 on Liberty Seguros, 2005 through 2007 with Team CSC and then moved to the Garmin organisation, run by former teammate Jonathan Vaughters, in 2008. He's spent the final six years of his career on the US squad.
Vande Velde has contested 22 Grand Tours in his career, with multiple starts in Italy, France and Spain. He twice finished top-10 in the Tour de France, with 4th overall in 2008 his best result. While at Garmin, Vande Velde has been a part of three team time trial victories in Grand Tours, highlighted by a win in the first stage of the 2008 Giro d'Italia which put him into the maglia rosa.
Vande Velde is a two-time Olympian and has the following stage race victories in his palmares: 2012 USA Pro Challenge, 2008 Tour of Missouri and 2006 Tour of Luxembourg.
"I've had some insane highs and some really low lows," Vande Velde said of his career. "I hope people will think I've had the most well-rounded career ever. From racing for the minimum in the middle of my career to getting top-five in the Tour de France a couple of years later. I've begged Jonathan Vaughters for a job, being the director eight years ago, and I've had a very up and down career.
"The way I'm leaving my sport right now in 2013 I'm very proud of, leaving these guys like Tejay, Lachlan, all these guys are in a really great spot. They'll never have to look into the things that I had to look into when I came to the sport in '98. I'm very happy with the way I'm leaving the sport right now. If anything, I'm jealous of them (younger riders)."
Two months after winning the 2012 USA Pro Challenge, USADA released its 1000-page report detailing doping at the US Postal Service team, which resulted in Lance Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from cycling for life. Vande Velde was one of Armstrong's former teammates who provided testimony to USADA which buttressed their case against the Texan.
Vande Velde confessed to doping from July 1999 through 2003 while with the US Postal squad, as well as doping offenses in 2004 while part of Liberty Seguros and 2005 through April, 2006 as a member of Team CSC.
Vande Velde served a six-month suspension during his 2012-2013 off-season, from September 1, 2012 through March 1, 2013.
Throughout his career, Vande Velde has suffered more than his fair share of serious injuries and just days into his return to competition in 2013 he fractured his hand at the Volta a Catalunya in March. Vande Velde then faced much more serious injuries from crashing multiple times at the Tour de France, where he abandoned during stage 7.
Vande Velde had the choice to retire at the end of 2012, as did George Hincapie, another former US Postal Service teammate whose doping regimen was detailed in USADA's reasonded decision, but he opted for one more season.
"It was hard to come back [for one more season], there were doubts in my mind," Vande Velde told Cyclingnews. "I'm glad I saw it through and I'm not going to lie, it was hard because I didn't have anything more to prove to myself. I just wanted to be there with my team and to be there to show solidarity with everything after USADA and to not run away from anything. I'm glad I did what I did and this is a real special week for me. I'm happy I did it.
"In the uphill time trial into Vail i made a point of just trying to soak it all in from the start to the finish," Vande Velde said regarding the emotions involved in his final race on US soil. "Maybe I should have gone a little harder, though. I didn't think I was going to go that well.
"And then again today [Sunday - ed.], to get on the front for the last lap and doing some work and then getting off the back and coming down the home straight by myself I'd be lying if I wasn't a little choked up."
Vande Velde told Cyclingnews he's content with what's he's accomplished during his career.
"In all honesty when I look back at my palmares now I did things I never thought I'd ever do. I don't need to be greedy - I'm very happy and content with what I've done. I would have loved to have done something a little bit more in the Ardennes Classics, when I was younger I definitely liked them a lot, but that kind of went to the wayside."
And what of his future once his professional cycling career comes to a conclusion?
"I have no idea what's next, I'm going to take some time and think about it. I still have a couple of more races, I'm just thinking about that first."
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Based in the southeastern United States, Peter produces race coverage for all disciplines, edits news and writes features. The New Jersey native has 30 years of road racing and cyclo-cross experience, starting in the early 1980s as a Junior in the days of toe clips and leather hairnets. Over the years he's had the good fortune to race throughout the United States and has competed in national championships for both road and 'cross in the Junior and Masters categories. The passion for cycling started young, as before he switched to the road Peter's mission in life was catching big air on his BMX bike.