MUSCAT (VN) — Tejay van Garderen sits easy in the lobby of a sprawling luxury hotel just outside of Muscat on the beach. A team jacket stretches over his thin shoulders. Though this season is still fresh, van Garderen looks lean, and he’s not come to Oman to walk. That much seems clear from the onset.
His long California training days are over now, and with the close of that season begins another: the long, steep road to July. The American makes his debut this week at the Tour of Oman looking for confirmation and confidence. The six-day, hilly race, which sees one very difficult mountaintop finish, began Tuesday.
“It’s a good test, feel out your competitors a little bit to see who’s going good, who’s not going good, you know. With those other WorldTour stage races coming up … it’s good to get a sense of who to keep your eye on and who has had a little too much fun over the winter,” he told VeloNews. “A result is a result; even if there are no points here, it would be a good confidence boost to have go up Green Mountain and see where I’m at.” He said he had just the right amount of fun over the winter, enjoying a bottle in wine country every now and then.
Green Mountain has become what this Middle Eastern stage race is best known for. It’s a hellishly difficult climb (5.7 kilometers, 10.5 percent) early in the season, with an unbridled peloton looking to stretch its legs. The alphas will want to mark their territory. That stage, and what most will be looking toward as a gauge of van Garderen, Chris Froome (Sky), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and others, comes on Saturday, a day before the race ends in Muscat. Froome won the overall here last year, paving the way for a dominant season that ended in an unrelenting Tour de France victory.
For van Garderen, the Omani race offers up an enticing blend of race preparation and experience. It’s but one of three phases to the season. “You take this part of the season … the season is really like three seasons, there is spring, the build up to the Tour, and then there is post-Tour. So this race, as to where I’m going to be at for the Tour, seems pretty irrelevant, so this race for where I’m going to be at for Paris-Nice and [Vuelta a] Catalunya, that’s kind of what the focus is on,” he said.
A bonus: he’s never been to this part of the world.
“This is my first time here and it’s nice to soak up a bit of the culture, going on a ride [Sunday] I was seeing the rural way of life here, there are goats and donkeys running around, it’s pretty cool to be in this part of the world and soak it in,” he said.
More focus, less demand on the stars at BMC Racing
BMC Racing has endured somewhat of a re-working over the past two seasons, adding Allan Peiper as a performance director (he was most recently a sport director at Garmin-Sharp and worked with van Garderen at HTC-Highroad) and parting ways with longtime director John Lelangue. Thus far, it’s played out very well. Taylor Phinney won the overall at the Dubai Tour, and Steve Cummings wrapped up the overall win at Tour Méditerranéen over last weekend. If early season results are any indication, BMC has much to look forward to. An example of some new strategy: van Garderen won’t defend his Amgen Tour of California overall in favor of building toward July.
“[Peiper’s] given everyone a vision for what is expected of them and what their role is and what their goals are. I think that was something we were missing a little bit last year. It was a differently mentality last year in that they tried not to put too much pressure on us and they thought that was the way to get results, by having fun,” van Garderen said. “Allen, he is more like, he sits every rider down and says, ‘at this race, you need to be good here because this is where you’re going to get your results and then here you’re going to be a support rider, so take it seriously here and take it seriously here.’ I think you’ve seen that show through in a few cases already with Down Under, Dubai, and San Luis. People know what’s expected of them and they’re delivering.”
BMC is unquestionably one of the star-studded teams in the peloton. Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Phinney, van Garderen … the list goes on. But there was a feeling the team wasn’t quite delivering on all its promise.
“I think last year they relied on their star riders to try and get results,” van Garderen said. “That kind of isn’t really fair, because you can’t expect someone to be good everywhere they go. So they would send these star riders here, here, and here and say, ‘get all of the results,’ but as soon as they had a bad result they were like, ‘what the hell?’”
Now they’re putting a bit of pressure on everyone in every certain area, and then the star riders might have the pressure in the bigger races but then, with the way its set up now, we’re picking up results here and here and that just builds up momentum and then confidence to really get things moving in the right direction,” he said.
But coaching and philosophy can only go so far, and once Sky goes to the front, for example, and whacks the field over the head with a box of power meters, it’s up to the man on the road to respond. Van Garderen likes having a stated goal — the Tour de France, for example.
“I definitely like having a clear goal, because like I said, last year it seemed like every race I went to, it was like, ‘you’re the GC so it’s for you.’ I had a lot of good results and good races last year, but then if I would randomly have a bad race, say País Basque (Tour of the Basque Country), it would be a case of ‘what went wrong, you were our guy.’ I was then like, ‘I was your guy everywhere, I can’t be good all the time,’” he said. “So we’ve laid out a clear map, clear goals, so everyone has a plan. I like that a lot better.”
From here, van Garderen will focus on major stage races before France, the usual Tour contender spate: Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Critérium du Dauphiné, and then the Tour de France, where he’d like to better last year’s 45th place. He finished fifth in 2012 and won the best young rider’s white jersey.
“It’s hard to hold a winning level all the way from May to the Tour, so if I were to race California, they would say that they would want me to race it just to get some racing kilometers in and sit in the pack and chill. It wouldn’t feel right to go there as defending champion without the fitness to try to win, so. … And if you burn matches too early, you might not have many left in July,” he said.
Life after Lelangue for van Garderen
BMC Racing split with longtime director John Lelangue immediately following last year’s Tour de France. Van Garderen said that though he liked Lelangue, he thought there were perhaps others suited better to the job. The Belgian had taken the helm at the American team in 2008, following a long stint in communications with Tour owner ASO and a controversial assignment as team manager of Phonak during Floyd Landis’ 2006 doping scandal.
“John is a good guy and I liked him as a person, but as the leader of the team I did not think he was the best guy for the job. First of all he had never been a cyclist, so he didn’t really know what it felt like to be in the race, he didn’t have that sort of … I can’t think of what the word is. I think you have to have that feeling in order to know that … like, going back to what I was talking about before, relying too heavily on the stars to get results,” van Garderen said. “There were often times where you would see BMC on the front of the peloton, pulling everything back and being the strongest team taking control of everything, and then we’d lose. We kept pushing that same tactic over and over and over again, and I think that was the call of John.”
The season is young, as is van Garderen, at 25. But moving forward, there’s reason to be excited.
“I think now we have more of an aggressive style, more of a ‘cards close to your chest’ style, and I think we’re getting more results because of that,” van Garderen said.
The American will look to win a hand on Saturday when the Tour of Oman hits the mountains for his first test against the other Tour de France contenders.