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LES ESSARTS, France -- To understand what Garmin-Cervelo's first Tour de France stage win in Sunday's team time trial meant to veteran Christian Vande Velde, it's necessary to go back to the same event in the same race 10 years ago.
At the 2001 Tour, the 25-year-old Vande Velde was a support rider for two-time defending champion Lance Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service team. Jonathan Vaughters and Thor Hushovd, a newly minted 23-year-old pro from Norway built like a brick barracks, rode in the green-and-white kits of a team sponsored by a French bank, Credit Agricole.
Vande Velde, the son of a track cycling Olympian from Chicago, had been part of Armstrong's inaugural Tour win in 1999. Vaughters, a slender, bespectacled Colorado-bred climbing specialist whose father was a lawyer, had previously been Vande Velde's Postal teammate and roommate in Girona, Spain.
It rained the day of Stage 4 in 2001 as the Tour teams negotiated the 42-mile course in northeastern France from the World War I battlefield of Verdun to Bar-le-Duc. Postal had finished second to the powerful Spanish ONCE team in the TTT the year before and Armstrong and director Johan Bruyneel -- a former ONCE rider -- were keenly intent on winning. Vande Velde was equally intent on restoring his status as a valuable Tour domestique after having to sit out in 2000 due to a freak infection.
|David Millar, left, team director Jonathan Vaughters, center, and Christian Vande Velde have been together since Garmin's inception.|
With 12 miles to go, Vande Velde's wheel slipped out from under him on a slick white lane line. He crashed, toppling Spain's Roberto Heras with him. Vande Velde did a heroic job towing Heras back, but the team would finish fourth.
The jubilant role of upset winners that day belonged instead to Credit Agricole, which hammered the pace in the downpour to try to defend the yellow jersey worn by Aussie rider Stuart O'Grady and finished half a minute faster than mighty ONCE.
Hushovd "was also the strongest that day," Vaughters recalled. (Major contributors to the effort also included Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt.) Vaughters, tipsy on champagne, sang opera on live French television. Every rider on the team says it was one of their best days on the bike.
It was one of Vande Velde's worst, and his relationship with Postal was never the same. He crashed out of the Tour two days later and fell out of favor with the team over the next two seasons, eventually migrating to Liberty Seguros for one unhappy year (2004) and contemplated retirement before signing with CSC (2005) and then Garmin (2008).
"Don't think I didn't think of that leading up to this day," Vande Velde said on Sunday. "There's been a lot of anticipation about this day since November, given the team we knew we had. It would have been a shame to let this opportunity slip through our fingers.
"Watching my friends and ex-teammates win the team time trial over the years, not being part of it ... I didn't think I was going to get this opportunity again."
Vande Velde wasn't selected for Tour rosters in 2002, 2003 and 2005. The 2004 Liberty Seguros team had no shot at contending for the TTT, and the event wasn't included in the race for the next three years. Garmin won the opening Giro d'Italia TTT in 2008, putting Vande Velde in the pink leader's jersey and helping secure its title sponsor, then brought a stacked team for the Tour de France TTT in 2009. Whittled down to the minimum five finishers early on, Garmin would finish second to Astana in Armstrong's first comeback season.
Even with a great ride, even with all the technology that could be mustered, Vande Velde knew there was no guarantee he would get a shot at that Tour TTT ride he so coveted. Execution and circumstance have to be knit together as tightly as the fiber in a space-age skinsuit.
Garmin had a start position midway through the field Sunday, thanks to the crash-marred Stage 1 that affected Vande Velde and other team leaders (he actually hit the deck three times). When Garmin finished in 24:48 Sunday, it was far from certain the time would hold up. As the afternoon went on, temperatures warmed and wind speed dropped, making conditions slightly more favorable for later-starting teams.
Vande Velde felt his heart rate soar as he and his teammates watched rival squads sprint in one by one on the television inside the team bus. Cheers erupted after Great Britain-based Sky, one of the favorites, stopped the clock a mere four seconds slower. Tension mounted as four other teams -- Radio Shack, HTC-Highroad, Leopard-Trek and finally BMC Racing -- came within 10 seconds of Garmin's time, with Leopard and BMC equaling Sky's time.
When Omega-Pharma-Lotto crossed the finish line to make the result official, Vande Velde embraced his teammates. Seven of nine have been with the team since its ascension to the elite level in 2008 under Vaughters' direction.
"We've been through so much together -- there's an insane chemistry between us," Vande Velde said.
Hushovd, who led Garmin across the line, leapfrogged into the Tour leader's yellow jersey by a second over BMC's Cadel Evans. Afterwards, he gave Vaughters credit for making a tough final roster decision, picking Lithuanian road champion Ramunas Navardauskas over some more experienced riders in part because of the role he could play in the TTT. Navardauskas is 23, the same age Hushovd was in 2001 with Credit Agricole, and Hushovd had mentioned that coincidence to his younger teammate that morning.
Vande Velde can finally put his decade-old disappointment to bed now. Few would have more of a sense of what this meant to him than David Millar, who played a big part in convincing Vande Velde that they could lead Garmin to this level when both signed on for the 2008 season. After the initial celebration in the bus, Millar came back to Vande Velde and gave him another bear hug. Vande Velde finally felt his guard crumble and began to cry.
"I'm not going to play this down," he said. "It was a seriously emotional day for me."