Catching up with Christian Vande Velde
By Jeffrey S. Levine
It would be impossible to count the miles Christian Vande Velde has pedaled on his journey from the suburbs of Chicago to Spain and back. During his 16-year career as a professional bike racer, Vande Velde took home first place at the 2006 Tour de Luxembourg, first at the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, was the first American since 1988 to don the Maglia Rosa at the Giro d’Italia and placed fourth at the Tour de France in 2008. He rode for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Track Team in Sydney and for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Road Team in Beijing.
Retirement has been just as busy for Vande Velde with charity races, bike clinics, color commentary on the Tour de France and raising two young daughters with his wife, Leah. Vande Velde, 38, lives in the southwest suburban community of Lemont, where he grew up. We recently caught up with Vande Velde to talk about all things cycling.
Active Transportation Alliance: What was it like to grow up with a dad who was a professional bike racer and two-time Olympian?
Christian Vande Velde: My dad was a big guy and was very protective of me, especially when we were out for a bike ride. As you can imagine, back then there were quite a few altercations when we got on the road, but biking was a way of life with us. We’d go on family bike rides when I was young and later on we’d do 30, 40, 50-mile rides. When I was older I’d go out after school and do the rides again on my own.
Active Trans: Did you realize from the time that you were young that you wanted to be a professional biker?
CVV: I knew when I was 7. It wasn’t something that I actively considered. I just thought that if my dad did it that it couldn’t be so hard. Boy was I wrong. Ignorance is bliss, but biking was all I knew at the time and it’s all I wanted to be growing up. All of my dad’s friends were bike riders and Olympians and that’s who’d come to the house and I’d hang out with. They were my heroes.
Active Trans: Once you did find out how difficult racing is, was there ever a time you thought about stepping away?
CVV: It’s not the most gallant lifestyle for sure. I almost retired a few times. In mid-2005 I pretty much stopped riding because of back problems. I actually called my current employer and told him I’d come in and become a director and he made me promise to wait a few weeks because he didn’t want to be the one to take me out of racing. It’s a hard sport, and when you have a string of injuries and are living in a foreign country, you start asking yourself what you’re doing and why you’re doing it for so little money. It’s my passion and I’m really glad I followed through.
Active Trans: Now that you’re retired, what are you setting your sights on?
CVV: I’ve been busy doing charity rides and training camp, but I told myself I wouldn’t say no to anything this year. Commentating was something I really enjoyed and I’m looking forward to doing more next year. I would never say it’s anywhere near as hard as racing, though.
Active Trans: After racing on some of the most prestigious courses in the most scenic parts of the world, what’s it like to bike on city streets in and around Chicago?
CVV: The protected bike lanes are awesome. It doesn’t get much better than that. Even with a bike lane you can still have scary moments, but the protected lane is a game changer. And when you add the [bike traffic] lights, wow. What the city has done is definitely next level. If we can continue to do things like this, it would be amazing.
Active Trans: Growing up in the suburbs, did you ever think that Chicago’s bike infrastructure would look like it does now?
CVV: Not in a million years did I expect that we’d have such great bike lanes now, in 2014, as well as more on the way in the future. There’s definitely a smile on my face when I go downtown and see everyone enjoying themselves biking and on Divvys. As far as bike progress goes, Chicago is No. 1. When you think about where we were six years ago, we’ve made huge strides. But compared to Amsterdam and some of the other major European cities we have a ways to go. When I was young, my dad told me a story about nuns he saw in a paceline in Rotterdam. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re certainly progressing quickly.
Active Trans: What would you say to people who are interested in biking on the street but haven’t taken the plunge yet?
CVV: We’re blessed with a flat city and it doesn’t get much better for commuting. Take the first step, ride a Divvy for a few hours, take it to your favorite bar or on a date. It’s an eye-opening experience to realize how much fun it is and how liberating to not be confined and worry about parking and so many other things. When you look at the Dutch they don’t think about it, it just becomes a part of their life. It’ll be a lot better for everyone taking those cars off the road. I’m not saying that we don’t want people to own cars, but I just lose my mind sitting in traffic, and if I can get there faster and without frustration, I’m a happy person.
Active Trans: Have you been doing a lot of riding with your daughters?
CVV: We haven’t lived in the best places to ride — in Spain we were on a 13 percent grade hill. But as we're househunting, we’re looking at places that have a bike lane right out the door so the girls can go to school or go shopping and not have to worry. It’s the kind of lifestyle we want to have for our family.