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.”