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Christian Vande Velde had a front row seat to history during Ryder Hesjedal’s victorious ride at the Giro d’Italia last month.
The veteran American rode unselfishly in the trenches for his Garmin-Barracuda teammate, providing vital support in the mountain stages to help pace Hesjedal into the history books as the first Canadian to win a grand tour.
Vande Velde, who wore the pink jersey in 2008, also shared a room with Hesjedal throughout the three-week battle and said one key to victory was Hesjedal’s calm demeanor and laid-back approach as the pressure built with each passing day.
VeloNews caught up with Vande Velde to reflect on what went on behind the scenes during the Giro. Here are excerpts from the telephone interview with Vande Velde, who is currently training in Boulder, Colorado, to prepare for the Tour de France.
VeloNews: What does Hesjedal’s victory mean now that you’ve had nearly a week to reflect on it?
Christian Vande Velde: It really is massive. I remember on the final TT, our bus driver is quite the magician when it comes to tech stuff and he set up a TV so we could all watch it outside the bus. Everyone was yelling and screaming, jumping around and freaking out. To tell the truth, I had no emotion when he won. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was so surreal.
VN: You roomed with Hesjedal during the Giro; did you talk about winning?
VdV: We never talked about it. We didn’t want to jinx it. We had a phenomenal first week. We won the TTT and had the pink jersey. The pressure was off our shoulders. Toward the end of the Giro, we were all thinking, wait a second, we can pull this off. The stars were starting to align. My form was coming on great at the end. Peter [Stetina] was riding amazing. The big boys on Garmin digging deep, a lot of time before the TV cameras came on. Everything just worked out 100 percent in our favor. It was like it was our destiny.
VN: Has it settled in now for you that Hesjedal actually won the Giro?
VdV: I don’t know if this is going to sink in for 10 years. It’s just too surreal and too new to even think about it. It’s like when you’re around kids when they’re growing up. When you’re with them every day, you do not notice, but if you haven’t seen them for four months, then you realize how much they’ve changed. That’s the way this Giro victory is for us. On the outside, we were a team that was never touted to win the Giro. We didn’t come with that mindset. We came with the idea of winning the TTT and some stages and maybe with the idea that Ryder could do a great Giro. But winning? You never want to put that kind of pressure on yourself.
VN: Ryder seemed pretty tranquillo from the outside; how was he handling the nerves inside the team bus?
VdV: We acted like it was no big deal. Every day we just went out and raced our race. I was rooming with him. We would talk some shit before we went to bed, maybe we’d watch TV for a while or read, but we tried to act as if it was just like any other bike race. We’d wake up, ‘hey, how did you sleep?’ ‘I slept good! OK, let’s go race our bikes.’ It was surreal. We could see the expectations growing as the race went on, but we didn’t dare bring it up. We both knew it was possible, but we didn’t want to talk about it. We kept it low-pressure and chill. That’s why we had so much success.
VN: When did you truly start to believe he could win the Giro?
VdV: It was the rest day last Monday. We got through those two mountain stages pretty much unscathed. That day in the rain (Reiselli) was not his best day. He had some mechanical problems, he wasn’t feeling good, it was cold, rainy. If that was his bad day – and he lost 30 seconds? – OK, I started thinking, maybe we can go far. Then on that stage to Falzes, we were at the front all day, and we were not pushed to our max at all. I looked over at Ryder [and said] ‘we’re going pretty fast right now!’ Ryder was right there at the front. That’s when I started to get confident. Ryder already was. Then on Pampeago, I said, ‘do not do anything crazy, do not attack unless you know you’re going to take time,’ and then he did, on the day that everyone thought he was going to lose time. Then on Saturday at the Stelvio, it was ours to lose.
VN: It seemed like the final climb up the Stelvio was very similar to what Cadel Evans faced last year in the Tour de France when Andy Schleck was attacking up the Galibier and Evans had to claw back that time to save the Tour …
VdV: It was a carbon copy. That effort of what he had to do in the last 15-to-20 minutes of the stage: It was about the same length, the same epic setting, the same people falling apart. It was the exact carbon copy of what Evans did to win his Tour last year. That was critical to everything.
VN: You were great in that stage. What was it like riding at the front up the Stelvio with the pink jersey on the line?
VdV: I will remember that day for the rest of my life. No one had any teammates left at that point. It was every man for himself from there, and Ryder took over. I was four minutes ahead in the breakaway when they called me out of the breakaway to wait. It seemed like it took four hours for the peloton to catch me. Group after group came flying by, including that one group with [Thomas] De Gendt. Peter [Stetina] did a great job in the valley. He was just getting everything out of his body. Then I took over from Bormio until as far as I could go. I counted every meter and I pulled until 8.6km to go.
VN: That stage was critical – everything was on the line – and Liquigas and Katusha seemed to want to put Ryder under pressure, so you really had to grab the bull by the horns?
VdV: There was no choice. When I finished, there were no teammates for anyone. They were really trying to screw us in the valley. No one was doing anything and De Gendt was really making some time. Liquigas had done so much work until then – they had shot all their bullets. Katusha was trying to put pressure on Ryder. I was on a very, very good day and I knew that was the day that it was all going to matter.
VN: Describe what it’s like to be at the top of your game, in the Giro’s most epic stage, when the pink jersey is on the line?
VdV: It was like, ‘holy shit, this is really happening.’ You’re suffering, but you’re not really suffering: You’re just dead. You’re pushing as hard as you can. It was really neat to be in that situation. It’s something that I will never forget. It was one of the highlights of our careers.
VN: What does it mean to the Garmin organization to win this Giro?
VdV: It’s almost incomprehensible. When we started in 2008, at that point in time, we didn’t even think it was possible to win a grand tour. This is really a litmus test for clean sport and how far the sport has come. It’s a great thing for our team and for our sport in general. We never would have thought this would have been possible. That’s how far our sport has come.
VN: How far has the team come since 2008? I remember you once telling me how after you won the pink jersey in Palermo that the team left you behind and you had to take a taxi back to the team hotel…
VdV: That says it all, about how the team was at the time. We were so far above our heads in what we were doing. Only a few of us on the team had any experience at the time. Back in 2008, a lot of us were just managing to finish the stage each day. This time, we were winning the Giro. It’s a massive difference to be at the front with the team and fighting for the overall.
VN: Alan Peiper was saying how this Giro was the first time Garmin truly had a plan for GC – how in other grand tours, it was more of a ‘let’s just hope for the best and see what happens.’ Is that true?
VdV: That’s 100 percent accurate. This team has always been open, every man for himself, every rider got a chance. This time we went in with one set leader. I was happy that I was there to help.
VN: Everyone talks about how laid back Ryder is. Did you ever see him nervous or panicking behind the scenes?
VdV: Not once. We kept it as cool as possible in the room. On the bus, we kept it positive. The biggest day he stressed out was the day that Ramunas [Navardauskas] lost the jersey to [Adriano] Malori. That was one of the hardest points, because even though we didn’t lose time to anyone else, we lost the jersey and Ryder should have had it. But the way we got it the next day, I dropped him off with 800 meters to go, that made taking the pink jersey even sweeter.
VN: How was it for the final-day time trial? It probably didn’t help waking up to learn that the course had been reduced by 1.8km…
VdV: That is so Giro. We were just happy that we were not going up against some Italians, because who knew what could have happened. Ryder had his game face on. We didn’t want to mess with him much. I said a few words to him, but up to that point, he had ridden a superb race, so there wasn’t much to say. If Ryder had the time trial of his life, I don’t know what to say about Purito’s. The way he rode – he just went nuts. Ryder knew more than anyone that he couldn’t take anything for granted.
VN: What do you think the victory means to Hesjedal?
VdV: His life is changed as of today. He’s a Giro winner. He’s in the record books. Everyone’s going to be looking at him differently. I remember as a kid, I had a poster of Andy Hampsten up in my locker at school when he won the Giro. That’s what it’s going to be like for Ryder. I hope it’s the first of many for him.
VN: What was the key factor to his victory?
VdV: The calm. In all honesty, we had the luxury of no pressure. When you start off on the right foot, it’s easy to stay on the right foot. We were just always able to stay ahead of the game. There was never any moment when we had to panic to take back time. That’s key to having a great race. And he was able to make things happen when people were not expecting it. He was an opportunist and using his underdog role to the maximum.
VN: Were you surprised that Scarponi or Basso never truly laid down a major attack? Everyone was waiting for that and it just never came.
VdV: The big surprise was how good we were. I kept thinking, ‘Oh man, they’re going to throw everything at us today.’ But they never did. One day, I said to Ryder to get ready for some big attacks, and he said to me, ‘We’re the strongest in the peloton.’ Even on the Mortirolo, I was expecting everyone to come roaring down our necks. That’s when I realized that the guys were just dead. That’s when I realized they didn’t have anything left to attack Ryder.
VN: How big of a surprise or a threat was De Gendt? He came out of nowhere and almost won the Giro.
VdV: To be honest, that was our biggest scare. I knew how strong he was and how good he is in the time trial. Even in that final time trial, after we took some time back on him, I thought it was possible he could win the Giro. That was scary, when he attacked on the Stelvio stage. He was always there, always eighth, ninth, 11th. De Gendt was always just there, and then suddenly he’s riding away, everyone was like, ‘holy shit!’ I don’t think when the Giro started that he expected to be on the podium. I am sure he’s pleasantly surprised to be there.
VdV: There’s one more thing I want to add that we haven’t talked about. We raced the Giro with a massive chip on our shoulders and that was critical. We felt like people didn’t give us much respect or appreciate how much we were at the front of the race from start to finish. The Italians were not giving us much space in the peloton. We caught a bunch of flack: The Italians kept trying to push us out of the way. I can understand that it’s their race. It would be like the Colombians handing it to us at the Tour of Colorado [sic]. I know it’s their race, but it wasn’t like it was our first year in Europe. That chip was firmly set on our shoulders and it helped us win this Giro.