BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (VN) — On Friday, at 3:22 p.m., 25-year-old American Tejay van Garderen will roll off the start ramp in Vail Village wearing the yellow race leader’s skinsuit at the USA Pro Challenge.
It won’t be the first time this scenario has taken place — the same thing happened in 2011 — but the BMC Racing rider hopes this time around, the outcome will be much different.
In a sense, Friday’s 16-kilometer climbing time trial is symbolic of the uphill path van Garderen has traveled over the past two years.
In 2011, as a 23-year-old, van Garderen watched his 34-second advantage over Levi Leipheimer evaporate in the thin air of Vail Pass. Rather than riding to conserve his lead, van Garderen had ridden to win the stage. He detonated from the effort, and paid dearly.
After his ride, a visually upset van Garderen sat on the ground for minutes, with the look of disgust on his face. “I was pretty emotional that day,” he said. “It was really hard to lose it.”
It would be nearly two years before van Garderen would finally win a major stage race.
A prolific “best young rider” winner — he took that honor at the Amgen Tour of California, USA Pro Challenge, Paris-Nice, and the Tour de France — van Garderen truly opened eyes with his fifth-place finish at the 2012 Tour while riding in support of defending champion Cadel Evans.
Stage-race victory continued to be elusive for van Garderen, though.
He headed into last year’s Pro Challenge with high hopes, and won the second stage in Crested Butte, taking the leader’s jersey.
However, he faltered, surprisingly, on the summit finish atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, where he lives with his wife Jessica. Leipheimer took the jersey that day, but after the final stage time trial in Denver, it was Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde standing on the top step. Van Garderen stood second, one spot higher than he had in 2011, but light years from where he’d hoped to be.
Van Garderen finally sealed the deal in May, at the Amgen Tour of California, where he started the stage 6 time trial in San Jose wearing yellow, and won the stage, securing his overall win. A father for the first time, van Garderen appeared to have matured, and grown stronger, despite the universal toll a newborn takes on new parents.
That result set the stage for his anticipated return to the Tour de France, though his BMC team management continued to back Evans as the team’s protected GC leader heading into the race. It became a moot point, however, when van Garderen faltered on the first climbing stage of the Tour, at Ax-3-Demanes on stage 8, losing 12 minutes, and any chance of a top-10 finish.
Though visibly unhappy with his performance, Van Garderen rebounded in the third week of the Tour, and made a valiant — if ultimately frustrating — attempt at winning stage 18, atop l’Alpe d’Huez. After an attack low on the mountain, van Garderen was eventually caught by Frenchman Christophe Riblon (Ag2r La Mondialer) just 1.5km from the line, and finished a distant second on the stage.
Van Garderen finished the Tour 45th overall, seventh in the best young rider’s competition, more than 90 minutes behind Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. Evans finished the Tour 39th overall, and the team finished without a stage win. The following day, head director John Lelangue left his post.
Van Garderen came into this year’s Pro Challenge an unknown quantity. Which rider would show up — one of the best riders from the 2012 Tour, or one of the biggest disappointments from the 2013 Tour?
It didn’t take long for the answer to reveal itself. On stage 2, van Garderen wisely followed Peter Sagan’s (Cannondale) attack on the steep slopes of Moonstone Road, taking 18 seconds on Garmin’s Tom Danielson, and even more on the rest of his GC rivals.
When asked by VeloNews how he had felt during the opening two days of racing, van Garderen smiled, saying, “I feel good.”
On Thursday, van Garderen took the race lead after riding away from Danielson with stage winner Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman) on the wet, treacherous descent of the Cat. 1 Bachelor Gulch climb. After trading pulls with the Colombian climber on the final pitch into Beaver Creek, van Garderen did not contest the stage win — he had bigger objectives in mind.
“My goal was to distance Tom. Janier’s goal was the stage win. We had different objectives,” van Garderen said. “We worked well together to help each other with each other’s goals.”
A younger van Garderen may have attacked the Colombian, but instead, he patted Acevedo on the back after they crossed the line. As they did in California, the pair finished one-two on a mountain stage in which weather played a role. But, unlike in California, it was van Garderen who took the leader’s jersey and the weight of the race.
Heading into Friday’s time trial, van Garderen leads his teammate, Mathias Frank, by four seconds, Acevedo by 30 seconds, and Danielson by 40 seconds. It’s a solid lead, given that last year’s race was decided by 21 seconds, and the 2011 edition was decided by just 11 seconds.
Still, van Garderen said he would not repeat his previous mistake of being overconfident.
In 2011, he also took the race lead in Aspen after riding away from Leipheimer on the wet, treacherous descent of Independence Pass. After the stage, he said, “All due respect to Levi, he’s not the strongest descender. He sometimes loses his nerve a little bit; that’s one of my strong suits. I can … I have balls. So I just went for it and when I saw we had a gap, we just drove it.”
After Leipheimer smoked him in the Vail TT the following day and reclaimed the race lead, van Garderen acknowledged that he had, perhaps, spoken out of turn.
When asked about the similar circumstances that led to his return to a Vail Pass time trial wearing the leader’s jersey — riding away from a GC rival on a wet descent — van Garderen spoke with a similar level of bravado as he had in 2011, but much more diplomatically.
“I would think Tom might be a little frustrated, that would be understandable,” he said. “It’s important to remember that we are racing on every inch of the road. If you have a weakness in any area, it shows through. If you have the skill set that Janier and I showed on the wet descent, you have to take advantage of it. Vincenzo Nibali has won, or reached the podium, at grand tours based on his descending skills. It’s part of the game.
“I’m confident, but nothing is ever given. I had a 35-second lead in 2011, going into the time trial, and I lost 34 seconds and another 11. The thing I have learned is not be too confident. I’ll just need to pace myself, keep my wits about me, manage the gap, and just go through the motions the way I would approach any other time trial, whether I had the jersey or not. I just need to stay calm, and to be smart with my pacing strategy. I have a good margin on Danielson, I just need to conserve the buffer, rather than trying to go for it.”
Asked how he’d managed to turn his frustration in July into what is shaping up to be a stellar performance in August, van Garderen said it all came down to finding motivation.
“You just have to refocus, and regroup, and find the motivation again,” he said. “I was pretty down in July, but even in the third week [of the Tour] I kind of kicked myself back into shape and started going for it there. I’m definitely happy. Colorado doesn’t necessarily make up for the Tour de France, but it’s special all the same.”