SERRA SAN BRUNO, Italy -- In August 2012, moments after winning the USA Pro Challenge and eight weeks before beginning a six-month offseason suspension, American Christian Vande Velde was faced with a major life decision -- end his career on a high note, or continue on in the inevitable aftermath of his sworn testimony to USADA, in which he admitted to doping during his time with the U.S. Postal Service team.
"I'd be lying if I didn't think about just stopping today," Vande Velde said in Denver on August 26. "Every athlete wants to go out on top, and I don't think it comes too much better than this."
But Vande Velde didn't stop. Instead, the 36-year-old Garmin-Sharp veteran opted to continue on with his racing career, weathering an offseason storm of criticism leveled at him and his teammates, Dave Zabriskie and Tom Danielson, for effectively dodging punishment after admitting to doping earlier in their careers. All three riders served six-month suspensions, beginning September 1, 2012, and ending March 1, 2013 -- essentially pro cycling's offseason.
The ensuing controversy -- Oprah Winfrey brought up Vande Velde's testimony in her televised interview with Lance Armstrong -- and the mandated time away from his team made for an uneasy winter.
Vande Velde, the son of Olympic track cyclist John Vande Velde, kept a low profile, granting only one interview about his past transgressions, telling ESPN's Bonnie Ford in March, "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.'… 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."
Things didn't get any easier when he returned to the pro peloton. Vande Velde moved back to Girona, Spain, his European base for nearly 15 years -- only this time he was without his wife and two daughters, who are now based in their hometown in Illinois, near Chicago. He crashed out of his first race back, the Volta a Catalunya, after tangling with a TV motorcycle, resulting in a painful broken finger that required surgery.
Instead of going out on top, Vande Velde was injured, embattled, far from race fit, and far from his family. He admits there were moments after that injury when he second-guessed his decision to continue with his racing career.
"There were definitely times, when I was all by myself, thinking about how easy it would be to just to pack it in after breaking my hand," Vande Velde told VeloNews. "I just had to tough it out."
Now Vande Velde is back, at the Giro d'Italia, his 20th grand tour start, riding alongside defending champion Ryder Hesjedal, one of his closest friends in the sport. "It's been a tumultuous spring, so I'm just happy to be here, on the start line, healthy and happy," he said in Naples over the weekend.
The Giro is a race the Vande Velde has often said he has a "love-hate relationship" with.
He wore the maglia rosa for one stage, a career highlight, after his Slipstream-Chipotle team won the team time trial in 2008. However in both 2009 and 2010 he exited the Giro on the third stage, after race-ending crashes. The 2009 crash was particularly serious -- his front wheel was taken out on a descent and he flipped over his bike, sustaining five broken vertebrae, a broken pelvis, and broken ribs. In 2010 Vande Velde again abandoned the Giro, this time with a broken shoulder.
After a year away, in 2012 Vande Velde was Hesjedal's chief lieutenant in the mountains, helping to deliver his friend to overall victory for the biggest win the Garmin team has had since both men helped get it off the ground in 2008.
"It's an honor to be back, with number one on your team, going to the team presentation with the pink jersey," Vande Velde said. "It's a huge honor. I never expected to be on a winning team, with Garmin, here at the Giro. To come back and try to do it again is really cool."
Vande Velde also played an integral role last year when Garmin won the team time trial, which proved pivotal to Hesjedal's success. The team didn't fare quite as well on Sunday, finishing seventh, 25 seconds behind Team Sky, after 17.4km of racing.
"It was a good ride for the team, but it was a big hit losing David Millar very early where he would usually be a staple until the end," Vande Velde said. "But given the fact that he crashed pretty hard [on stage 1 in Naples], we are happy he was in good enough shape to contribute at all. Apart from that we were good, but not great. For our résumé it wasn't up to our standard, but we did the best we could with the tools that we had. Ryder is in great shape and the team will only get better."
Hesjedal showed his fitness, and determination, on stage 3, attacking twice on the day's final climb, the Cat. 3 Sella di Catona.
"I think the team is a little stronger than last year, and we have higher expectations, but I think the biggest difference is Ryder himself," Vande Velde said. "He's more ready than we was in the first week last year. Where that will take him, I don't know, but he's definitely more prepared. But I also think it will be a different race than it was last year."
As for Vande Velde, he admits that he has "a ways to go," but said that he has no regrets about returning to the pro peloton after the most complicated period of his professional career.
"Now that I'm back in the team and getting into the groove of things, I'm starting to feel the flow," he said. "I know that my family is happy and safe home in Chicago, and I can relax and get on with things. It took a lot to get here, but now I'm happy I made the decision to push on. Yeah, there were many sleepless nights, wondering what am I doing? And why am I doing this? But I'm happy I did it."