The Greatest Dane of Greenville

By Marisa Vande Velde | Photography By Steve West
Walk the streets of Greenville, South Carolina, and you’re likely to see 46-year-old Christian Vande Velde out for a bicycle ride with his 145-pound Great Dane, Lucy. Her glistening silver coat shimmers in the sunlight, and her head sits at the same height as the handlebars as she trots alongside her owner.

“She’s definitely a local celebrity,” Christian says. “I’ve gotten used to being referred to as ‘the guy that lives in Lucy’s house.’” As jovial and popular as Lucy is, she refuses to go riding with anyone other than Christian, and it’s not hard to understand why.

From 1997 to 2013, Christian was a professional cyclist who helped secure some of the biggest wins in the sport’s history; he stood atop the podium with his teammates at the Tour de France, donned the Giro d’Italia’s maglia rosa, competed in two Olympic Games, and toed the starting line on six continents. During his career, his role was mainly that of domestique, a cycling-specific term for the ultimate teammate; he put the priorities of his team in front of his own, and during races, he was everywhere at once, distributing cold drinks to teammates and pushing the pace to thin out the pack before checking in with the team leader. Christian was that rare racer capable of leading a team while also possessing the power to win it.

However, crisscrossing the globe for the better part of the year also means precious time away from family, and thousands of miles of training in preparation for races that, in some instances, result in painful outcomes. Cyclists traveling at high speed can encounter any number of obstacles: other riders, slick roads, wandering fans, and the oft-overlooked train tracks. To be a professional cyclist is to become all too familiar with a revolving door of injuries and the ensuing recovery. With 20 screws and a slew of metal plates in his body, Christian eventually made the hard decision to step away from the sport he had practiced for most of his life.

For some, retirement means stretches of relaxed days, new hobbies, or leisurely travel, but for pro athletes retiring in their mid-30s, stepping into the “good life” and away from the structured existence of the past brings a new set of challenges. “It was — still is sometimes — hard to stay grounded and not spin out of control with the lack of structure,” Christian admits, Lucy’s ample head resting on his lap. Taking the next step was hard, but fortunately, a new opportunity presented itself.

The producers at NBC Sports — the go-to network for American cycling fans thirsting for race coverage — were on the hunt for new on-air talent, preferably someone with existing clout within the sport who could also communicate the significance of what is transpiring on screen. All the better if they demonstrated some charisma and natural rapport with the rest of the broadcasting team.

With French terms peppered throughout, and the “how” and “why” of race tactics tricky to explain, this has proven to be a tall order for many, but for Christian, it was only natural. He aims to deliver more digestible, enjoyable content, serving up post-race analysis in his relaxed, jocular tone. With plenty of street cred still to his name, he easily secures boots-on-the-ground interviews and gives viewers an insider’s perspective of the sport. Typically, exhausted racers who often come across as abrasive or avoidant instead find themselves in a loose conversation with an old friend.

The shift from professional athlete to on-air personality was relatively smooth, but not without some challenges. During his first few years broadcasting, Christian found himself relocating to France for the duration of July, greatly missing the domestic life that he so craved, and his family felt the same. Then, in a power move, the Vande Velde ladies — wife Leah, and daughters Uma and Madeline — made an executive decision, informing Christian via FaceTime that there was a new member of the family. “We got a dog. Her name is Lucy, and she’s gonna be big,” they said, adding, “She’s not a replacement, but an addition.” It was an easy sell, with Vande Velde visibly melting the first time he saw the silvery blue pup, and their relationship was solidified upon the realization that Lucy loves anything with wheels.

Lucy remained knee high for only a matter of days, and the family watched in astonishment as she grew exponentially. Going from wrinkles and folds to a majestic, muscular animal takes great care. Leah remembers, “We fed her about a pound of chicken a day. She went from small puppy to the dog version of a six-foot-tall middle-schooler in about three months. The neighborhood kids were terrified.” It’s easy to imagine how the sight of Lucy, all long limbs and exuberant playfulness, could be frightening. However, she soon found her place within the family and community. Living up to her breed’s reputation, Lucy shifted organically into a most devoted companion. She continues to enjoy watching the wheels spin, whether it’s her daily cruise around the neighborhood or ensuring the garbage bins make it to the curb. When necessary, she’ll emit a protective bark that is not easily forgotten. But she rarely meets a dog that she doesn’t like and has become a faithful bestie to an English mastiff who lives around the corner. “Stop by if you’ve ever wondered what 300 pounds of dog playing tug-of-war looks like,” Christian says, wide-eyed.

The Dane brings some specific challenges as well. “Yeah, I definitely won’t be bringing her into the studio again,” Christian admits, recalling a failed “Bring Your Dog to Work Day.” “Thank goodness for the ‘cough button.’ Everyone watching the Tour came close to hearing her greet a stranger live on air.” Leah chimes in with anecdotes about Lucy’s impressive counter sweeps, leaving no trace of bad behavior — aside from a line of drool.

The countertop provides excellent ergonomics for Lucy’s favorite post-bike-ride activity: meal prep. Lower jaw resting comfortably on the cool stone slab, she carefully observes Leah, a private chef, as she whips up something fantastic. Busy teenagers come and go, giving Lucy hugs with each passing. Amidst it all, Christian prepares to cover the next day’s race, inspecting course descriptions, mining his own memories of competing on the same course, gauging favorites, and practicing the pronunciation of everything from rider’s surnames to the tiny French towns the race passes through. After the broadcast, it’s time for another afternoon ride with Lucy.

Navigating the paradigm shift from professional athlete to civilian can be a bumpy road, and it can be a jarring change to many. “The wheels can come off surprisingly quickly,” Christian says wistfully. Luckily for Christian and the Vande Veldes, they have had Lucy’s steadfast support — and counter presence — to assist in keeping grounded and letting the wheels turn.



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