Friday, August 29, 2008
In February of 1998 I drove to Ramona, California, the home of the famed Eddie B. and the location of the spring training camp for the wet-behind-the-ears U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team. Two years in and they were still finding their way in leadership and management. I was down to interview the team’s new signing, a hopefully renewed Lance Armstrong. My instructions were to interview Armstrong and during the interim while I was waiting to get time with him I was to interview any other Americans capable of delivering the goods in Europe.
I got an hour with Armstrong, one-on-one, but while I was waiting for that, I spent nearly two hours with Jonathan Vaughters and his roommate, this kid, a prodigy barely out of the junior ranks and Project 96. He was the son of a former Olympian and I was being told he was, with one possible exception, the next big thing.
Christian Vande Velde struck me as goofy, dislocated and awe-struck. I’d been steered to interviewing him by Dan Osipow of the team’s management. Osipow told me they were expecting big things from the rangy kid.
Vaughters and I had had a rocky first meeting. In an interview during the team presentation for Comptel/Colorado Cyclist (John Wordin’s first imploded team), I’d asked about racing tactics and how he might handle tactical mistakes. When I gave examples I’d seen in collegiate racing his response was laced with a tone of seething indignation. It was rather reinforced by his unequivocal, “This is pro racing, not college.” Oops, my bad.
So when I was unsuccessful at hiding my skepticism that this goofy kid whose suitcase was more yard sale than traveling tool, Vaughters immediately stepped in with a litany of notable pursuiters and team pursuiters who had gone on to stage racing greatness. He began with Viatcheslav Ekimov and threw in Eddy Merckx just for good measure.
What transpired in the next moment was a bit much to handle. I realized that:
1) Vaughters was a man of strongly held beliefs.
2) He was a smart guy.
3) He believed in Vande Velde’s potential more than team management did.
4) Vande Velde had the gee-whiz air of a kid told he’s the second coming.
To be fair, the poor guy couldn’t have been more disoriented. As part of Project 96 he hadn’t done massive mileage and his ’97 training schedule had been handed to him in a binder on January 1—for the entire year. Every day had been planned to a T, right down to the last BPM. Since joining Postal his direction had been to ride. Just ride lots and keep it easy. Truly, his training couldn’t have changed more. And given that Project 96 hadn’t really delivered a slew of medals for the U.S., his wonder was well-matched to my skepticism. The true believer, the skeptic and the kid—we were quite the trio.
So when Vaughters announced that he had signed Vande Velde to his team this winter, I was curious to see how it might play out. This spring I heard the first mentions of Vande Velde’s name in conjunction with Tour de France GC. And if you recall, for much of the world there was a collective gasp when Vaughters announced that Vande Velde would lead Garmin/Chipotle at the Tour.
Fifth place is, unfortunately, forgettable. Name one other fifth place performance in Tour de France GC that you can remember. We’ll remember this for no reason other than the fact that Vande Velde is American; it’s okay, we’re supposed to be jingoistic. It’s a very fine performance for an American. By cracking the top 10, Vande Velde can be counted as a peer to Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond, Levi Leipheimer, Bobby Julich, Andy Hampsten and Tyler Hamilton.
To the degree that you may be wondering how Vande Velde rode like a real contender in the mountains, consider the following: John Pierce said that when Vande Velde got to the Tour he had to, “Look twice. He has lost a tremendous amount of weight.” This is backed up by a contact at Pearl Izumi who said that each of the riders who went to the Tour had to have their clothing resized relative to what they were wearing at the Spring Classics. Pearl was so surprised by the changes and had so little time to deal with the resizing that rather than custom sizing all the clothing they had to go with their semi-custom sizing—six sizes, each in three lengths.
So fifth place is fourth among losers. Big deal, right? It is. Vaughters has been proven right on a few fronts. First, that he could field a team worthy of the Tour and not be an embarrassment. Second, he did it in as conspicuously clean a manner as has been done, proving you can race the Tour clean. And finally, he has proven a belief he has held for some 10 years, that Christian Vande Velde is the real deal. I’m almost happier for Vaughters than I am for his old roommate.
Photos courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International