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DENVER (VN) — Behind the final podium presentation at the USA Pro Challenge in Denver on Sunday, John Vande Velde fought back tears.
A former Olympic track cyclist— in Mexico City, in 1968, and Munich, in 1972 — Vande Velde had just watched his son, Christian, finish his final race on U.S. soil.
After a 15-year career that included 23 grand tour starts and two Olympic appearances, as well as a six-month suspension for doping between 1998 and 2006, Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp), 37, crossed the finish line in Denver and concluded his U.S. racing career.
“I was down in Colorado Springs the other day, at the Olympic Training Center, and I saw Christian’s old dorm room,” the elder Vande Velde said. “It brought back a lot of memories.”
After the race’s final podium finishers were presented, the entire Vande Velde family — father, mother, son, brother, and wife, as well as Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters — were brought onstage to recognize the American rider’s long career.
Though he will race at the Tour of Alberta and the world team time trial championship in Florence, Italy, Vande Velde won’t race again in the United States.
And though he took fourth at the 2008 Tour de France, Vande Velde’s best results came in North America. He won the overall at the 2008 Tour of Missouri, and last year he won the overall at the Pro Challenge, one of the most important victories of his career. He also wore the maglia rosa for one day at the 2008 Giro d’Italia, the first American to wear the pink leader’s jersey since Andy Hampsten in 1988.
As a rider whose career began in 1998, during the heyday of the sport’s EPO era — and as a rider who helped usher in a cleaner period, as part of Slipstream Sports — Vande Velde, a former Colorado resident, was bittersweet about his final U.S. race.
“I’ve had insane highs, and really low lows,” Vande Velde said when asked how he’d most like to be remembered. “As to what people think of my career … having the most well-rounded career ever, as far as that goes, racing for minimum [salary] to top five in the Tour de France a few years later. I begged [Vaughters] for a job eight years ago.”
To some fans, Vande Velde will always be stained by his doping admission. In his Tour debut, a 23-year-old Vande Velde was part of Lance Armstrong’s controversial 1999 “winning” U.S. Postal Service team; in 2001, he was again. He went on to ride at CSC, in support of Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre, and later as a GC contender in his own right.
To others, Vande Velde represents a rider from a lost generation, whose jump to Slipstream in 2008 is now widely viewed within the pro peloton as a major step forward in the sport’s long, slow battle to clean itself up from within.
“I’ve had ups and downs in my career, but the way I’m leaving my sport, I’m very proud of it,” Vande Velde said. “I look at riders like Tejay [van Garderen], or Lachlan [Morton], and they’re in a great spot. They’ve never had to look into the things I had to look into back in 1998. I’m happy with the way I am leaving sport. If anything, I am jealous of them. It’s really cool.”
That some have vilified Vande Velde and his teammates is a bitter pill to swallow for the Chicago native, given that his offenses, as he swore under oath, last occurred over seven years ago.
“I did find it ironic, and I still do, when we were the ones who took the first step, and were getting our asses kicked by people who hadn’t, and we were hanging on the cross. And then we were the ones hanging on the cross again, last year. It was hard to take,” Vande Velde told VeloNews in June. “But I’ve tried to take myself out of the situation many times. And I think we continue to inspire, with our training and our dedication, and what we do in sport, and that’s one of the biggest things. In the bigger picture, I think it’s positive.”
After abandoning his final Tour de France last month with injuries to his collarbone, ribs, and knee, Vande Velde was unable to contend for the overall victory this year in Colorado, instead riding in support of podium finisher Tom Danielson.
Asked if he’d made a point of taking a moment to soak it all in during the Pro Challenge, Vande Velde said he had during the Vail time trial. In 2011, Vande Velde missed the stage win in Vail by 0.58 seconds; on Thursday he finished ninth on the stage, 1:24 behind van Garderen’s winning time.
“In all honesty, during the uphill time trial in Vail, I made a point to soak it all in,” Vande Velde said. “Though maybe I should have gone harder, I didn’t actually think I would go that well. And then today, being on the front, and then on the last lap, riding down the home straight at the back, by myself, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little choked up.”