Vande Velde is the class of the field
BEIJING -- During almost 40 years as a sports writer, I have never had an experience interviewing an athlete like the one I had Wednesday with cyclist Christian Vande Velde, who is from the Chicago suburb of Lemont.
Vande Velde was very upset with a column about doping that I had written during the Tour de France, in which I said that his performance also was raising questions because it was a significant improvement over his previous results in the race.
Most athletes feeling that way would have chosen never to talk again to the author of such a story.
But Vande Velde was far more gracious and open-minded than that.
Not only had he agreed to an interview, he cycled across the Olympic Village to meet me on a street because I had inadvertently not followed the proper procedure to get into the area where athletes and journalists normally get together.
Then, since there were no seats around, he willingly perched on a concrete block holding up some of the security fencing. Eventually, a U.S. Olympic Committee staffer found us a van to sit in.
My first question was about the Beijing air, but Vande Velde broke in with: "Let's talk about the Tour.''
I knew immediately he did not want to discuss his fifth-place finish in the race.
Vande Velde said I had written the column without giving him enough of a chance to explain how his improvement had occurred, or the serious efforts his new team, Garmin-Chipotle, has been making to assure that its riders remain drug free in a sport riddled with doping.
He also was disappointed that I had lumped his team together with Saunier Duval, whose leadership also said it was committed to the fight against doping -- only to have its leading rider, Riccardo Ricco, test positive for EPO in the Tour.
I explained how no explanation would have erased all my skepticism, given cycling's recent history, and that I had sought balance by including a quote in an email from him that said, "Many people have asked me for comment on the recent doping charges here. So, here goes: Bear with us. Believe in us. What we're doing on this team is changing the sport and what you saw today is necessary for change. It shows that the system is working. And that talent—true talent—will rise to the top."
Five uncomfortable minutes of calm disagreement passed (not only because of the cement block), with no resolution apparent. So I told Vande Velde that if he did not want to do the actual interview about Saturday's Olympic road race, I would understand.
He stayed to talk for 20 minutes, responding to everything I asked.
I left thinking this was an uncommon man who had earned my unquestioned respect as a person – and more than the benefit of the doubt as an athlete.
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Christian Vande Velde, center, during the 2008 Tour de France. Credit: Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images