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Top Lance Armstrong? Christian Vande Velde knows how hard it is

December 2, 2008 |  5:17 pm

Christian Vande Velde, center, during the 10th stage of the 2008 Tour de France cycling race.

Imagine Christian Vande Velde sitting down with his old teammate, Lance Armstrong, for a game of "can you top this?"

And Vande Velde will be able to ask one question for which the seven-time Tour de France champion will have to answer no: "Have you ever ridden the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France in the same season?"

Armstrong can say only that he hopes to do that in 2009, when his announced plans include a debut in the Giro, a.k.a the Tour of Italy.

Vande Velde not only did it in 2008, but rode extremely well in the sport's two toughest stage races, a pair of three-week endurance tests separated by less than a month.

It's a risky business, especially if the goal is to win both (which seven men have done in the same year), and Vande Velde can't imagine Armstrong being content to use the Tour of Italy simply as preparation for the Tour de France -- a strategy many cyclists adopt.

"Both races are so hard," Vande Velde said in a phone conversation from his home in suburban Chicago following Armstrong's Monday announcement that he's added the Tour de France to his comeback schedule.

"There is the possibility of great reward, but there is also great risk -- the risk of  crashing or getting sick in the Tour of Italy,'' Vande Velde said.

In 2008, he wore the Tour of Italy's maglia rosa -- the pink leader's jersey -- for one stage and was within a second of the leader after the next four stages. Becoming only the second U.S. rider ever to wear the pink jersey (the other was winner Andy Hampsten in 1988) led VandeVelde to push himself longer than he originally planned.

"I didn't go full gas the whole way, but I spent the first week trying to get the jersey back and rode hard until the first rest day (after the ninth of 21 stages)," he said. "But I still knew I wasn't going for (a high finish) in the overall."

After losing nine minutes on the sixth stage, Vande Velde pulled himself back to just 2 minutes, 54 seconds behind going into the 15th, a killer mountain stage.  He eased off at that point and wound up 52nd, finishing strong by placing fifth in the final stage time trial.

Then he went on to the Tour de France, crashed, yet took fourth, close enough to the podium that Vande Velde kicked himself for not grinding a little harder on the final big mountain stage in France.

"By that time, a lot of people have already sacrificed so much of their body they get content with being third or fourth or fifth and don't want to gamble on losing it all,''  Vande Velde said.

That is why some people think the penultimate stage of the 2009 Tour, which includes the legendary climb of Mont Ventoux, may not provide the drama race organizers expected when they created this year's course.

The chance of coming completely apart -- bonking, in bike racing terms -- is great enough to factor into any decision about a  big attack on the mountain.

"But it could come down to who has the biggest [guts],'' Vande Velde said.

Anyone who races all 4,300 miles of the two grand Tours in the same season already has passed a pretty big gut check.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Christian Vande Velde, center, during the 10th stage of the 2008 Tour de France cycling race. Credit: Patrick Hertzog  AFP / Getty Images