Vande Velde, Wiggins form strong bond
ISSOUDUN, France -- Two years ago, if you had walked into a betting parlor in London and wagered that Christian Vande Velde and Bradley Wiggins would be climbing side by side among the top riders during three consecutive Pyrenees stages in the Tour de France, you would have gotten fantastic odds.
When the Tour started in the British capital in 2007, Vande Velde was a low-profile super-domestique, and a good one, for the team then known as CSC. Wiggins, who had won three Olympic medals in track cycling in 2004, was a national sports hero. A swashbuckling figure with a Rod Stewart-style mullet and a hard line on the scourge of doping, Wiggins was widely admired but not expected to be a factor in a three-week stage race anywhere except the time trials.
Yet with the 2009 Tour nearly halfway done, the Garmin-Slipstream teammates are mere seconds apart in the top 10. Wiggins is in seventh place and Vande Velde in eighth, 1:01 and 1:24 off the leader's pace, respectively. Meanwhile, other men thought to be contenders are teetering on the brink of irrelevance.
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On the surface, their personalities appear to be athletic yin and yang. Vande Velde has fought (and by the looks of it, is winning) a nearly career-long battle with his own self-confidence, while Wiggins brims with it. Wiggins doesn't mind telling people off and doesn't take long to do it, in tones that can drip acid. Vande Velde is more prone to internalize, doing a slow burn that may or may not burst into flames. Wiggins' engine runs well on high emotion; Vande Velde's runs best on steady determination.
But it's not surprising that a bond has formed quickly between the reserved, amiable Vande Velde, a product of the Chicago suburbs, and the witty Wiggins, who grew up in inner-city London and is famous in the peloton for his spot-on impersonations. Both married fathers of two, they've undergone parallel career conversions, and they understand what it's like to break old habits and ride into the headwind of past perceptions.
Back in 2007, Vande Velde doubted he was capable of leading a team. He was in his early 30s, comfortable with his role and his surroundings at CSC, before former U.S. Postal Service teammate and friend Jonathan Vaughters persuaded him to sign on with a team bidding for a Tour invitation for the first time.
Wiggins, meanwhile, had no intention of returning to cycling's biggest event. His last trip to the Tour ended abruptly when one of his Cofidis teammates tested positive and was hauled off a mountaintop by police. The French team immediately withdrew from the Tour; officers questioned the other riders and searched their hotel rooms and their bus. No one else on the team was implicated, but a disgusted Wiggins swore off ever coming back.
He had something else to focus on last season: the Beijing Olympics, where he would win two more track cycling medals. But a funny thing happened the month before those Games. Wiggins watched the Tour on television, saw Vande Velde holding his own with the elite in that race and said he was "inspired" by Vande Velde's eventual fourth-place finish -- a strong description from a rider who is not one to gush.
"Just the fact that I knew he was clean, I saw what you can do, really, on bread and water," Wiggins said, using cycling's prosaic term for competing drug-free. "It's complicated. I don't want to get into it, because I'll just get myself in so much bother with this sort of stuff."
The idea that the road to success might be leveling out made Wiggins rethink his path. He decided to put track aside and tap into what he'd always suspected was greater potential on the road. Simultaneously, Wiggins opted to migrate from Team Columbia to Garmin because of what he thought was a more relaxed atmosphere for his self-described "awkward" personality.
It was clear that Vande Velde, who is riding in his seventh Tour, needed more assistance in the mountains if he were to build on his 2008 performance. Few would have nominated Wiggins for that post, but the 29-year-old applied himself with something akin to monastic devotion, shearing off his hair, carving his 6-foot-3-inch frame down to a near-skeletal 156 pounds and training specifically for his new task.
"I always knew I was capable, to be honest," he has said several times during this race, based on his power and cadence on the bike. Characteristically, Wiggins also has moved to pre-empt doubts about his transformation by addressing them head-on. "I know some think I'm on drugs," he said a few days ago.
Vande Velde said Wiggins' presence is a huge difference-maker, especially since Vande Velde is still rounding into top form after a crash in the Tour of Italy in which he fractured five vertebrae, a rib and his pelvis. "He's been so aggressive being at the front that it reminds me, get your ass to the front," Vande Velde said. "It almost reassures me, because I know how good Brad is. Above and beyond that, it's great to have him [ride] up to me and say, 'How you doing, how you feeling?'"
But it's a two-way street. Vande Velde has been able to steer Wiggins the right way as well, partly because the 33-year-old Lemont, Ill., native competed for years on the track himself and understands the mentality of a man used to bulling his way through on the flats.
"At the Giro [Tour of Italy], I was just sort of sitting at the back taking the full brunt of the accelerations," Wiggins said. "And Christian said to me, you've got to fight those guys like it's a sprint. Since I've been at the Tour, I've been trying to stay in the first five all the time just for my own head."
Garmin director Matt White said the two are closely matched athletically, and he is elated at how well they're meshing personally as well. "Brad's very sure of his abilities -- you don't win six Olympic medals without that," White said. "Christian doesn't outwardly show how much ego he has, but he wouldn't be where he is now, either, without that. They're both going somewhere they've never been before, and they can help each other."
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Follow her Twitter feed here or reach her at email@example.com.