Finding peace amid the storm

LEMONT, Ill. -- Christian Vande Velde has done things on his own terms for the past five years, and he has a lot to show for it. He and his wife, Leah, who grew up together in this suburb southwest of Chicago, have two winsome, beautiful daughters and a home set on a swath of quiet, wooded acreage. In August, Vande Velde narrowly won the U.S. Pro Challenge in Colorado, perhaps the most satisfying result of a long career spent largely in the service of other riders.

The last thing he could have wished for himself was to be dragged back in memory to his early years on the road with the U.S. Postal Service team led by Lance Armstrong. Then a raw, congenial but insecure young talent, Vande Velde, like many of his peers, gradually accepted the notion that doping was simply part of being a professional cyclist. After racing clean for the better part of two seasons, he used performance-enhancing substances on and off from 2000 to '03 at Postal, an injury-marred stretch he calls "the worst time of my career.''

Now 36 and a key witness in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's case against Armstrong, Vande Velde said he takes responsibility for those actions and offers no excuses -- only concern that the avalanche of revelations from the past could obscure the efforts he and other riders have made to prove it's possible to compete clean.

"Everyone always has a choice,'' Vande Velde said in a recent interview. "I made the wrong choice, and I'm sorry.''

Thursday evening, Vande Velde was to appear at a public event for his team's longtime title sponsor, Garmin. Based on the "overwhelmingly positive" feedback he's received in the past 24 hours, Vande Velde said he was looking forward to mingling with fans.

He said the fact that a slew of riders have told the truth en masse made a painful process easier. "It does feel better that we're not being singled out,'' he said. "Most of the [rider-witnesses] who are still in the sport are the guys who have been fighting the good fight and have come such a long way over the years. There are people out there who are still trying to push the boundaries and we're the ones who are flying the flag.''

Vande Velde was interviewed by federal investigators in Los Angeles in August 2010 while authorities were gathering evidence in a criminal probe abruptly terminated without explanation by U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. last February. He found the experience excruciating but also rather straightforward.

"There was no hemming and hawing and no guessing of 'What should I say?' -- you just said it all,'' Vande Velde said of his two-day interview. He detailed his own use of banned substances, including EPO, testosterone and human growth hormone, along with his observations of drug use within the Postal team and the roles of Armstrong and team director Johan Bruyneel.

Armstrong has denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs or techniques but chose not to contest USADA's charges against him. Bruyneel also has denied involvement.

Vande Velde repeated his account to USADA this spring and also admitted to sporadic doping violations in the three seasons after he left Postal, the last being the use of testosterone in 2006 when he was riding for the CSC team. He was asked to withdraw his name from consideration from the U.S. Olympic team and is serving a six-month suspension that began last month.

A fan-friendly rider widely admired for his comebacks from several serious crashes, Vande Velde knew his statements would become public eventually, and worried that he would squander that goodwill. "That scared me, yeah, of course,'' he said. "Everything I worked so hard to obtain, the vision of what people saw me as, just being washed away ... I guess the hardest part is that I have been showing by example how hard it is and what we can do in a clean sport, already.''

Vande Velde was already a top U.S. track cyclist at age 21 when he signed with Postal before the 1998 season, the same year Armstrong returned to professional racing after his cancer treatment. The neo-pro rode in support of Armstrong's first Tour de France victory in 1999, wearing the best young (under 25) rider's white jersey for several days en route.

Midway through that race, Vande Velde was offered testosterone by team physician Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral and took it without dwelling much on the larger implications. "I would have loved to say in hindsight that I did the '99 Tour 100 percent clean,'' he said. "But at the time, you're already doing 'recovery' every day, all the [injectable] vitamins. It was just kind of like that slow progression. Maybe if I hadn't been doing all those other things, it would have been a bigger step.''

Yet much as Tyler Hamilton and Frankie Andreu have said before him, Vande Velde said he regards that Tour and its camaraderie fondly despite a clear demarcation within the team. While Armstrong and his mountain helpers Hamilton and Kevin Livingston received EPO injections in their exclusive camper van, according to USADA, Vande Velde and the other domestiques gorged on junk food and a fan's homemade chocolate truffles in a separate trailer.

Vande Velde said he assumed the "A team" riders were doping but learned the details -- including the EPO deliveries made by motorcycle courier -- only when he read Hamilton's book, "The Secret Race,'' last month. Nor did he have any idea at the time that the "A team" switched to blood doping by transfusion the following year after an EPO test was introduced. "I thought that [transfusing] was something that happened in the '70s and '80s,'' Vande Velde said.

As a younger rider, Vande Velde's natural hematocrit skewed on the high side, frequently around 50 (and still is, episodically, today), so he wasn't encouraged to take blood-boosting EPO in his early years with Postal, but he did use other banned substances early in the 2000 season. For the record, he said the infamous infected spider bite on his posterior that caused him to be dropped from the 2000 Tour de France roster at the last minute was not an alibi for any doping-related incident, although it may have been caused by an ingrown hair rather than a spider.

When Vande Velde began working with Armstrong's trainer Michele Ferrari before the 2001 season at the team's behest, the doctor upped the ante on both training and doping. Vande Velde lost 10 pounds, and his hematocrit dropped as well, yet he still felt ambivalent -- and sometimes highly anxious -- about doping. "I was not a model patient,'' he noted dryly in his affidavit. He said he would open a box containing multiple vials of EPO but diverge from Ferrari's recommendations by not finishing the course.

"I bought a lot that I didn't inject,'' Vande Velde said. "But at the same time, you can go bankrupt with $1 or 10 million. Whether it helped me or not, I was still doing it.

"I questioned it all the time just because of fear, being scared of getting caught. Did I question my whole life? No. I was just doing this to keep my head above water, and keep within the good graces of everyone.''

Vande Velde struggled to keep his place on the depth chart, however, and was left off the 2002 Tour squad -- a snub he was later told was because he was not blood doping via transfusion like other Postal riders.

In a meeting with Armstrong and Ferrari that summer, he said he was told in no uncertain terms that he needed to follow Ferrari's regime, which he did in training for that year's Vuelta d'Espana. He was a major factor in the podium finish by Postal's Roberto Heras, but still agreed to take a substantial pay cut to stay on the team the following year.

"Looking back, I was depressed,'' Vande Velde said. "Not living up to my own expectations, not racing, not comfortable with my team because they weren't happy with me.''

After a chaotic season with the Spanish Liberty Seguros team, Vande Velde righted himself at CSC. While Hamilton has said CSC team owner and director Bjarne Riis was his conduit to a blood doping operation in Madrid -- a connection Riis denies -- Vande Velde said he felt no pressure to dope in his three years on the team and credits Riis for helping resuscitate his confidence.

When former Postal teammate Jonathan Vaughters offered Vande Velde a job with a new team publicly committed to taking doping out of the equation, he jumped at it. Since then, he has moved between the roles of team leader and super-domestique, finishing fourth in the 2008 Tour de France, shepherding Bradley Wiggins to the same spot in 2009 and working for 2012 Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal.

As Vande Velde stood atop the podium in Colorado in August, he considered quitting while he was ahead. But he felt he had one more season left in him, and didn't want it to seem as if he were fleeing from the USADA case revelations. "I want to enjoy next season, look around, sign every autograph, say goodbye,'' he said.

He has been at peace for some time now. This week seals it.

"There's absolutely nothing more I can do to be more credible or transparent,'' Vande Velde said.