Can you say leader? Vande Velde finally breaking out of cycling shell

MONTLUCON, France -- On the second rest day of the Tour de France, Garmin-Chipotle team director Jonathan Vaughters emerged from a nap, sat down in the team hotel lobby and picked up a copy of L'Equipe, the French sports daily newspaper.

The front page photo showed the overall race contenders barreling around a switchback in the Alps, a flying wedge of power and experience and desire. Vaughters traced his finger along until he got to the far edge of the frame, then tapped the image of a rider slightly tucked away behind the rest, eyes vigilant, legs pumping.

"Typical Christian," Vaughters said. "A little bit hidden. Watching. But he's right there."

If you're trying to understand how Christian Vande Velde came to be right there, dueling with the sport's best, with a chance to finish in the top three of the biggest event in cycling, it won't help to rifle through his past results in this race. They reflect the energy he expended for other riders.

Likewise, it won't be of any use to pore over his blood test results, laid bare for all to see in Bicycling Magazine this week and declared honest by one of the world's top anti-doping researchers. Anything else would have been a shock, since Vande Velde is the leader of a team that long ago dedicated itself to proving it was possible to compete clean.

It's not about the numbers. To explain this transformation, you'd need to track the inner workings of Vande Velde's heart with a monitor a lot more sensitive than the thin black strap he wears around his chest. You'd have to see a longitudinal chart of his confidence, which has spiked recently after years of meandering in a valley as his early promise took detour after detour.

Vande Velde has come into his own at age 32 partly because he is enjoying a sustained period of good health for the first time in five seasons and partly because of the nurturing environment he found first at Team CSC and then with Garmin, the U.S.-based team formerly known as Slipstream.

There is no accurate metaphor in American sports for what Vande Velde had to do to convert himself from support rider to leader, a transition still in progress.

Take a baseball player whose strength is the art of advancing the runner -- the unheralded, versatile, perhaps good-field-no-hit guy who can tap a bunt that dies on the line or consistently drive the ball to the warning track. Make him the cleanup man, and you might start to get a grip on Vande Velde's odyssey over the last year, except that those moments at the plate don't begin to approach the hours of intense effort he logged to help other men gain glory.

"When you do that long enough, you forget how to win," said Vande Velde's genial Dutch coach, Adrie van Diemen, a former Vaughters mentor who began working with Vande Velde and teammate David Millar last winter. "He had to stop thinking about how good he could be for the team, and start thinking about how good he could be for himself."

Sounds simple. But Vande Velde, whose easy smile and conversational manner mask his competitive drive, had become accustomed to completing specific tasks -- riding at the front in the flats, or setting a hard tempo up an intermediate climb, or escorting the designated leader to the base of an uphill finish.

"You have a mindset of how you race, how you look after yourself and how you don't look after yourself," Vande Velde said. "You put other people on a pedestal when the difference between you and them is one percent, or sometimes you're even better than them. But they have the psychology that they're going to go to the finish line and you're just going to go to two K [kilometers] to go."

For most of his career, Vande Velde would complete his daily mission, ease off or "sit up," as cyclists say, and roll through the finish line and onto the team bus uninterrupted. That was a far cry from the scene at the summit of Alpe d'Huez, where a horde of reporters, photographers and cameramen descended on Vande Velde, barely giving him breathing room as they hung on his every word.

"It's a change to be in demand," he observed.

Vande Velde is resculpting his mentality, trying to embrace the expectations and attention that come with breaking out of an ensemble cast. That shift has been magnified by Vaughters' open-door media policy, in which formerly sacrosanct areas from hotels to the bus to blood test results are accessible -- within reason -- for the asking. Vande Velde is, in short, trying to get used to a different way of measuring success, and it makes him uncomfortable at times.

It wasn't always that way. In the late '90s, Vande Velde, who grew up in Lemont, Ill., in the south suburbs of Chicago, enjoyed the fact that he was hailed as a great young talent. It ran in his veins -- he comes from a family of Belgian cyclists, and his father, John, was a member of the 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympic track cycling teams. John Vande Velde earned an additional 15 minutes of fame when he was cast for a bit part in "Breaking Away" as one of the villainous Italian riders who knock earnest wannabe Dennis Christopher off his bike.

Vande Velde lived at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs before he turned pro in 1998. In 1999, he had a dream of an early season, winning events on the road and the track. Late that spring, he was named to the nine-man U.S. Postal Service roster for the Tour de France, and had a blissfully uneventful three-week ride en route to the first of Lance Armstrong's seven titles.

That milestone was both the best and worst thing that befell Vande Velde. He learned what he was capable of, and tasted ultimate success. But as Armstrong's reign turned dynastic, Postal morphed into an organization famously intolerant of any perceived weakness, physical or mental, and Vande Velde was about to enter a long, discouraging tunnel.

Named to the 2000 Tour roster, Vande Velde was forced to withdraw days before the race with an infected boil on his posterior doctors believed might have been insect-borne. (With characteristic humor, Vande Velde later labeled his home-brewed beer "Spider Bite.")

On the rainy day of the team time trial during the first week of the 2001 Tour, Vande Velde's wheels went out from under him on a slick painted line on the road. He crashed, bringing teammate Roberto Heras down with him. Vande Velde did a yeoman's job of towing Heras back to the team, but Postal lost the stage. Still shaky a couple of days later, Vande Velde crashed out of the race with a broken arm and things were never the same for him after that.

Doubt built up in his legs like lactic acid. Vande Velde was left off the 2002 and 2003 Tour rosters and suffered from chronic back and hip problems that caused a domino effect of muscular imbalance and weakness.

"He wasn't in pain, but it was like walking on an uneven sidewalk all the time," said his wife, Leah.

Often unable to train between competitions, Vande Velde counted on his ability to ride into form as a race went along. He showed flashes of his old self, including strong support for Heras in the mountain stages of the 2002 Tour of Spain, but his trajectory was mostly downhill.

Given his notice by Postal, Vande Velde whiled away the fall of 2003 unemployed and idly wondering if he should find another way to make a living. Heras eventually persuaded his new Liberty Seguros team to hire Vande Velde at a deep pay cut. The 2004 season was perhaps the most miserable of his career, as the disorganized Spanish outfit forgot to process Vande Velde's visa paperwork, sidelining him for months. He spoke little Spanish and spent most of the summer isolated and unhappy.

"They left me alone, which turned out to be a good thing, in a way," he later said.

Many of his teammates, along with veteran manager Manolo Saiz, were discredited by links to the Operacion Puerto doping scandal. Vande Velde has never been implicated for doping, but he says he knows people will look at his résumé with some skepticism. "There's not much I can do about it," he said, adding that he's glad he's been racing for two teams with proactive anti-doping approaches in the last two seasons.

After completing the 2004 Tour, Vande Velde toyed with quitting and even asked Vaughters -- his long-ago Postal teammate and roommate -- if he could work as an assistant director on Vaughters' then-fledgling team. Vaughters helped talk him out of it. At the same time, Vande Velde was eyeing Bjarne Riis' CSC squad, where English was a common language and camaraderie seemed to be a common ethic.

"I begged my way onto CSC," said Vande Velde, who negotiated a rock-bottom contract with Riis at the 2004 world championships. The healing began, from his back -- via regular sessions with a chiropractor -- to his head.

"I was on the legendary, beautiful team of washed-up cyclists going over and being renewed," Vande Velde said. "I knew [Riis] took care of the all-around. Whether it was a time trial bike or having a physical therapist there, everyone was working ahead 100 percent at all times.

"During the three years I was there, I came from being someone down on the sport to someone who didn't really care what else was going on besides what was happening with my buddies. If I wasn't at the race, I wanted to be at the next one. You'd turn on the TV and they'd be doing great at some other race. It was a success breeding success team, where you're among friends and not just co-workers. Without Bjarne and his team, there's no way I'd be where I am today."

Vande Velde won his first race in years -- the Tour of Luxembourg -- in 2006, but there still was something wanting in his CSC experience. He figured he had one last opportunity to play a different role and have more input in the way a team was run. Vaughters, his old friend, beckoned. It was a tough choice, and one that forced Vande Velde out of a very cozy zone, but he says it was a natural progression.

Ever wary of setting the bar too high, Vande Velde initially told himself he would be more of a mentor than a leader. The latter mantle, however, has settled onto his shoulders. This year has brought a third-place finish at the Tour of California, a team time trial win at the Tour de Georgia and, most sensationally, a day in the rose-colored overall leader's jersey at the Tour of Italy. Slipstream, still without a title sponsor in May, won the opening team time trial. Vande Velde called Riis to thank him for his past support.

But Vande Velde knows that without Vaughers and Garmin, he probably wouldn't have broken his old habit of putting other athletes first. His self-belief should have been stuck in that ambivalent place where he preferred to be in the wings instead of squarely center stage. He certainly wouldn't be poised to roll down the start ramp of the Tour's decisive individual time trial Saturday with a shot at the podium. The only lingering question is whether he should have tried to make himself over earlier, but Vande Velde finds it more constructive to focus on the present.

"I don't have any regrets," he said. "I look back and I'm happy I'm a well-rounded person. To finish off my career being a contender for the Tour de France and the leader of a great American team, I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world. That's a pretty big full circle.

"I've been humbled enough in this sport and I know I'm fortunate to have one chance, let alone any chance."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.