About six weeks ago, a few readers sent emails complaining because the Tribune had given no coverage to local cyclist Christian Vande Velde’s victory in the U.S. Pro Challenge stage race in Colorado.
My response was to say we felt leery of writing anything about Vande Velde’s competitive achievements because of unanswered questions.
Why had he declined a chance to compete in the London Olympics? Was it, as had been reported with no confirmation, part of a deal related to Vande Velde’s testimony in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation of Lance Armstrong? Did that testimony include, as had been suggested, his own admission of doping?
Two years ago, Vande Velde had answered those questions before the federal grand jury hearing evidence against Armstrong. Since then, other than the drip of an occasional anonymous leak, it had been silence, a silence following the code -compared to mafia omerta - that had reigned in elite cycling for decades. Vande Velde, whom I have known since acting as Tribune liaison to the insightful and entertaining diary he wrote as Armstrong won the Tour de France for the first time in 1999, had not returned phone calls or messages.
“The hardest part,” Vande Velde said, “was the 24-month wait.”
That ended last Wednesday, when USADA released an Everest of evidence in its case against Armstrong. It included the sworn affidavit in which Vande Velde admitted both his own doping over eight years and testified to Armstrong’s involvement in the U.S. Postal team’s doping program.
A few days later, as we sat in the rec room of the Lemont home he shares with his wife and two young daughters, Vande Velde expressed a variety of thoughts, from rationalization to remorse to relief, from shame over the past to pride in the example he has tried to set by insisting he has competed clean since early 2006.
“It was two-sided,” he said of his feelings when the answers became public knowledge. “There was relief it was finally going to come out. But nothing can ever prepare you to look at your mistakes in black and white.”
His mistakes began, at age 23, with taking testosterone as Armstrong's teammate in the 1999 Tour. Vande Velde moved on to the blood-booster EPO, then to human growth hormone and a banned corticosteroid. The doping continued even when he left U.S. Postal in 2003, after a confrontation with Armstrong and team director Johan Bruyneel over Vande Velde’s unwillingness to be completely committed to the team’s doping program.
It seemed that escaping the Armstrong orbit would have been a good time for Vande Velde to both ride clean and come clean. It was not.
“I truly thought that (doping) was the only way, that you had to do it,” he said. “I was still in that mindset.
“I had to learn to stop being paranoid about what everyone else was doing. . .it made me a mental milkshake.”
This was the mantra: virtually every elite professional cyclist was using performance-enhancing drugs, and the only way to keep a job as a rider was to go along for that fraudulent ride.
That logic involved both reason and rationalization. It is an answer that mocks absolute ethical values, an answer that raises the mirror question: how does one live with looking in the mirror and seeing a lie, a lie that easy-to-beat doping controls and the complicity of the sport’s leaders helped kept secret?
“My reasoning to myself was this was the next step I took as being a professional,” Vande Velde said. “I really thought I had no other choice at that point in my career. I was wrong, especially because it made my life not a happy place.”
If the team did not have an organized doping program like the one several U.S. Postal riders described in their USADA affidavits, then you would find a doctor to create a personal program or do it mainly on your own, including self-injection into skin or veins. That included the health risk that certain substances (like EPO) might not have been stored or administered properly in the frequently absurd hide-and-go-seek game of getting them to riders surreptitiously.
“Everyone had to have doubts (about the risk), or you’re not thinking it through,” he said. “But for the most part, these were things people were taking in hospitals for many years, not risky, unproven drugs.”
Like most of the doped riders, Vande Velde could not entirely hide what he was doing from a wife or girlfriend. He argued with Leah, his wife of 10 years, about having hypodermic needles in the house.
“She knew but didn’t know,” he said. “I tried to keep her as sheltered as possible.
“I did explain it to her, of course. She was 100 percent against it. I had to block (her objections) out. Those were definitely dark days.”
With the release of the USADA documents, one rider after another – including Vande Velde – has issued a statement taking full responsibility for the cheating and apologizing for it. But there has been criticism that the initial statements did not apologize to those riders who raced clean – no matter how few there may have been. And cyclingnews.com writer Daniel Benson wondered why no one had defended or apologized to those who dared tell the truth, like former U.S. Postal factotum Emma O’Reilly and Betsy Andreu, wife of former U.S. Postal rider Frankie Andreu, who admitted doping six years ago.
According to the New York Times, O’Reilly said Armstrong had called her a prostitute with a drinking problem. Armstrong excoriated Betsy Andreu in every way possible.
Vande Velde rationalized his silence back then by being unwilling to sacrifice his job for them.
“I feel horrible for that,” he said. “I am glad they have had this closure now.”
Tuesday, Vande Velde called from California, where he is taking part in a charity ride for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, to make that point even clearer.
“Regarding Emma, Betsy and Frankie, I am sorry for not speaking up at the time for the three of them,” he said. “They had the courage do what they did, and I wish I had the courage to do the same at the time.”
Several times during our two-hour conversation in Lemont, he apologized to those riders who may have been cheated out of legitimate triumphs, riders who “were strong enough to do what I wasn’t, who did have the heart to do what I couldn’t.
“I’m sorry for what I have done to friends, family, people inside and outside the sport and especially to people who rode clean during those years,” he said.
Vande Velde said Armstrong never had threatened him over the decision to testify to USADA and to the grand jury (which returned no indictment, for reasons that remain baffling and disturbingly unexplained). Several riders have said they received messages or calls from Armstrong and / or his representatives that could politely be described as intimidating attempts to discourage testimony.
But Vande Velde declined to talk about the defrocked 7-time Tour de France champion other than to say, “I’m glad I don’t know what it’s like to be Lance at this point.”
Vande Velde is 36. Like a witness given a degree of immunity in a criminal or civil trial, he received a reduced suspension – six months rather than a minimum two years – from USADA in return for testimony. He cannot compete or train with his team, Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, until next March 1.
Next year is to be his last as a competitor. His team’s owners, Slipstream Sports, said last week they are “100 percent” behind the three team members who have admitted doping and have been committed to Slipstream’s anti-drug philosophy. Vande Velde's top two Tour de France results – fifth in 2008 and 8th in 2009, when he rode with five broken vertebrae – have come since joining Slipstream.
“I think what we (Slipstream) are doing is more profound than divulging the past,” he said. “But I do think we need to look at the past in order to go into the present.”
The shadow of the past will hang over the sport for years, possibly forever. All professions of adhering to a different code, that of clean sport, will justifiably be seen with a jaundiced eye by a public and media that, as the old saying goes, would feel the shame if they are fooled twice.
To the question of why anyone should accept his assertions of having left doping behind, Vande Velde replied, "Why would I go to jail for sport?”
Vande Velde said his attorney used very blunt terms to make him fully aware of the legal ramifications if it were later shown he had lied when he swore under oath to having been clean since early 2006. He said his USADA affidavit (see "Related Items") detailed every instance of doping. He thinks that should be enough to convince skeptics.
Yet he understands not everyone will accept that explanation. Duplicity is a hard image for an individual or sport to shake. And there remains the feeling that no one would have spoken up without the pressure of a subpoena from federal investigators. That was, after all, the only reason track star Marion Jones confessed to her own doping.
“I agree the shadow will be there,” Vande Velde said. “As of right now, I don’t know what I can do to be any more transparent.
“If people don’t want to believe, they are not going to believe. What I am most proud of is giving belief to the people who want to, whether it’s a six-year-old watching the Tour or the 20-year-old (Lachlan David Morton) who rode with me in the (US Pro Challenge) and has the whole world open to him.”
Midway through our conversation, Leah graciously brought coffee and some chocolate chip cookies she and the little girls had made. Uma and Madeline are five and three. Some day, they will find the evidence, in black and white, of the mistakes their father made.
So what will he tell them when they are old enough to understand?
“That’s why I am doing this interview,” he said. “I want them to know I made a mistake, I took responsibility for my mistakes and then I took actions to better our situation in the sport.”
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