Vande Velde: I thought doping was the only way

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Christian Valde Velde and Lance Armstrong after the final stage of the 1999 Tour de France.  (Laurent Rebours / Special to the Tribune)

Christian Valde Velde and Lance Armstrong after the final stage of the 1999 Tour de France. (Laurent Rebours / Special to the Tribune / July 25, 1999)

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.”

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter@olyphil

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