- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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Veteran Christian Vande Velde is one of three Garmin-Sharp riders who will start this week's Tour of Catalunya in Spain, their first race since serving doping suspensions that were reduced in exchange for cooperation with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's case against Lance Armstrong. Vande Velde, 36, of Lemont, Ill., signed with the U.S. Postal Service team before the 1998 season and rode in support of Armstrong at the Tour de France in 1999 and 2001. He subsequently competed for two European-based teams before joining the Garmin organization in 2008, and finished fourth at that year's Tour.
In 2010, Vande Velde was among numerous witnesses interviewed by federal investigators then gathering evidence in a criminal investigation of organized doping on the Postal team. Last year, he and 10 other former Postal riders gave sworn testimony, including their own admissions to performance-enhancing drug use, that collectively formed a crucial and compelling part of USADA's case.
The five riders who were active at the time received six-month suspensions and had some past results nullified. Armstrong's longtime teammate George Hincapie has retired. Levi Leipheimer was fired by his Omega-Pharma-Quick Step team and remains unsigned. Vande Velde, David Zabriskie and Tom Danielson, whose suspensions ended March 1, will compete at Cataluyna this week. It marks the beginning of what Vande Velde says will be his final professional season. His tentative schedule includes the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado, a race he won last year in dramatic fashion in a time trial on the last day.
Vande Velde spent much of his suspension in suburban Chicago with wife Leah and daughters Uma, 5, and Madeline, 4. He also trained by himself (and occasionally with Zabriskie) in Southern California, where he struggled emotionally. "It finally dawned on me that I really enjoy this, and I'm really thankful I have my health and have the opportunity to race at the highest level cycling has to offer,'" he told ESPN.com in a telephone interview Saturday from Girona, Spain.
"I don't want pity from anyone. That's my biggest fear of saying these kinds of things, and that is the farthest thing from the truth. I'm just saying what I was going through. There were plenty of times when I questioned what I was doing at this stage of my career and why I was doing this. I definitely stumbled for a while there."
The following are excerpts from Vande Velde's conversation with ESPN.com.
What have the last six months been like?
It's been hard. I'm not going to lie. And I didn't foresee a lot of the things that would be hard. Like, for example, a training camp in November-December that a lot of times I didn't want to go to. I've been at a training camp at that point in time for the last 20 years of my life. Having that gaping hole there and not being retired, it blindsided me. I know I'm going to race this year, that'll come, and I wasn't freaking out about that. But it was definitely being away from the team, having that communication like I always have, that was hard, much more than I thought it would be.
I put myself out there and did quite a few public speaking [engagements] and it was all met really well. I was happy to do it, too, because there aren't too many questions I get asked now that I can't answer honestly. [Editor's note: USADA still has pending cases against former Postal director Johan Bruyneel and other staff members that could involve evidence from riders.] I enjoyed it, and I think most of the people I spoke to enjoyed it too. That was a different side that I didn't foresee being so positive.
I spoke to the Challenged Athletes Foundation [charity ride] three or four days after [USADA's evidence] was announced. That was one that I was pretty scared about, in all honesty. Of course people threw some hard questions out there and I addressed them. I definitely made it so that I wasn't that elephant in the room: "Come up and ask me, I don't want you to be avoiding me.'"
What was the hardest question you were asked?
"Do you think [cycling] is better, do you think it's the same?" You have some people who have a little bit of animosity. The best thing I could do is say the only thing I knew, which is, this [investigation] has been going on for two and a half years. In my eyes this wasn't a new thing even though you guys have just been reading about it for the past six weeks, which is really pretty brutal. This has been a process over the last 15, 18 years for me and I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly, but I've also seen a turning [around] in the sport many years ago, long before this came out in 2012. I did bad things in the past. I was part of a bad culture in the sport. But I was also one of the first people to say, "Enough." We've [the Garmin team] been a big part of that and I'm very proud of that.
It'll be different to be asked these kinds of questions by reporters during a race. Are you ready for that?
It's always frustrating. You are still an athlete and you are still putting your life on hold and dedicating yourself. The last thing you want to be talking about is doping, doping, doping, especially when things are coming out from 10 or 12 years ago or even longer. A lot of us would have liked to get Truth and Reconciliation out of the way and then go on with our lives within the sport. [Editor's note: Various anti-doping and cycling officials have proposed a format that would enable disclosure of past doping practices with immunity or reduced sanctions, but the effort has stalled.]
There are riders in the peloton who haven't told the truth, or the whole truth. Do you see a divide opening up between those who have nothing to hide anymore and those who do? Will there be discomfort with that?
No, that's their problem if they don't sleep at night or can't look at themselves in the mirror. I'm happy to be in the situation I am, that I got that behind me years ago. I don't have any animosity toward them. That's their own burden. As far as the sport goes, I'd love for that to get done sooner than later so it doesn't keep dragging the sport through the mud.
So you're not worried about how you'll be received by your colleagues, on other teams especially?
If I'm received negatively, that's just part of omerta, isn't it? When we signed up for this, signed up for [the public anti-doping message and policies advocated by] Garmin, we said we'd help out in any way or shape possible, and that's what we thought was the best thing to do, was to help out in this whole process.
Do you consider a truth and reconciliation process necessary?
I don't know if that would ever help anything. I believe the helping is what comes from inside. Things we've done, things I've shown by example, people who looked up to myself and people like [Garmin's David Millar], seeing that we could get good results -- this is what helps and actually works. Whether or not everyone exfoliating themselves and telling what happened 10 or 12 years ago is going to help, I don't know. The thing that won't help is someone new coming out every other week for the next year and a half, or three years, until they go all the way back to the 1920s. I don't know how it would work. There would be so many different intricacies with how they would process people: if they're retired, if they work for a team, if they're still an active rider, if they only did it two years ago. They'd have to put so many different protocols in there, I think it would be pretty hard. I'm still all for it, but I don't know when is a good date to get it done or not get it done.
What do you say to people who say you got off too easily?
First of all, I didn't make any of these rules. I didn't get to go to the Olympics, didn't get to go to the world championships, didn't get paid for six months. I went under my own will and told all these things 100 percent truthfully under oath. I'm not going to say I got off too easily or too hard.
There are a lot of moral judgments being made out there about you and other riders who have confessed. How does that affect you?
I wish I could say I let it roll off my back. You're on a roller coaster, you go up and down and I'm sure I'll continue to be like that. I know what I did and didn't do, and I told the truth. Nothing's good enough, really. I can't please everybody. As long as the people close to me and my team are happy and have confidence in me, that's all that matters. That's what I keep telling myself.
Do you still field a lot of questions about Lance?
Before he came out, it was always about, "Do you think he really did it?" and that was always a hard spot. Now people have stopped doing that, obviously.
Do you think he'll ever go into more detail about what he did?
I think he got a lot off his chest. Now, I think it's just a matter of him taking his own time. I don't know how many roadblocks he has in front of him for saying what he needs to say, or what he can and can't say for legal reasons.
Have you talked?
No, we haven't had a dialogue yet. I would love to at some point, whenever the time is right. I'm sure it will happen sometime.
Last year after you won in Colorado, you said it was such a great moment that you considered retiring right then and there. Do you regret that you didn't? How are you looking at this season?
It's been hard to train by myself this winter, and I know I'm going to struggle this spring [laughs] like I always do. But I didn't want to go away and hide after everything that came out. It would have been really easy for me to say, "I'm out, I'm done, don't mess with me anymore." I almost felt compelled to come back and show that I'm still proud of what I've done on this team and lead by example. I'm still doing what I love, and I have a great team who were happy to see me when I got here.
How are you going to handle this with your kids when they're old enough to understand?
That is easily the hardest thing for me, is my kids and how they're going to view their dad and what I did and what I didn't do. But that's one of the reasons I do these interviews. I want them to see their dad did something wrong, took responsibility, and made a change for the better. I want them to take responsibility for their actions. I'm proud of the life lesson, even though it's a very hard life lesson.
If this is your last year, you might be in for some pretty intense emotions.
I tell myself to really embrace what's going on, that this may be last time you're going to be at this hotel or this race or on these parcours [courses] that you did the first time in such-and-such a year. It is hard to take yourself out of the moment when you're racing, but I'm going to try my best to slow down and appreciate everything and not take myself too seriously. I'm not going to be on a farewell tour, but I am going to try to, once in a while, take it all in.
Bonnie D. Ford has covered Christian Vande Velde since 1998.