For many, last year’s Tour will always have an element of What If? about it. Defending champion Chris Froome and another former winner, Alberto Contador, both crashed out of the race; in addition to that, Nairo Quintana didn’t take part at all, aiming instead for a Giro d’Italia/Vuelta a España double programme.
In their absence, a different general classification unfolded than might have been the case. By the conclusion of the race in Paris, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) finished ahead of Jean Christophe Péraud (Ag2r la Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ). American rider Tejay van Garderen placed fifth, finishing 11 minutes 24 seconds off yellow.
Whether or not you believe that some or all of those riders would have been shunted three places downwards if Froome, Contador and Quintana had completed the Tour, van Garderen has no such thoughts.
As far as he’s concerned, last year’s result was last year’s result and, twelve months on, he is clear when asked if he believes he can finish top three or higher this time around.
“Absolutely,” he insisted during a pre-Tour conference call on Wednesday. “Yes I do. I believe on any given day I can beat those guys [Froome, Contador, Quintana and Nibali – ed].
“I have shown already that I have beaten them before. It is quite another thing to beat them consistently over three weeks, but if you look at past stages of races I have done…this year in Catalunya on the stage I won to La Molina, Contador was third.
“And the stage to Pra Loup this year in the Dauphine, Bardet won the stage, I was second, Froome third. So it is not that when those guys attack I just say, ‘okay, see you later.’ I am getting closer to them.”
While he believes he’s closing the gap, though, it’s evident that he’s not regarded by analysts as having the same chances of success.
Most assessments of the lineup put Froome, Contador, Nibali and Quintana at the top of the list of favourites. Van Garderen may have finished just ten seconds behind Froome in the Dauphiné, but he’s not currently mentioned in the same regard in pre-race assessments.
No matter. He understands it, he accepts it, but he won’t be dissuaded by it.
“Those four have all won Grand Tours and have podiums in Grand Tours, have won stages in Grand Tours. Some of them have won all three Grand Tours, and multiple times,” he said, recognising the logic. “There is a reason that they are put in that five star favourite status.
“After this year’s Tour I hope to be put in the round with those guys. But no, I am not offended in any way that I am not mentioned with them.”
In fact, he sees a benefit. While he believes his Dauphiné result and other showings will have earned him respect in the bunch and will make it easier for him to move around the peloton during the race, he also recognises that not being foremost on the radar takes some pressure off.
It could also mean that he won’t be as closely marked as the big four.
The big question, though, is can he beat two of the quartet to finish on the podium? He’ll be fifth for a third time in his career if he simply slots in behind them in Paris; to place top three he has to beat two of those, and also to finish ahead of any other contenders who emerge over the three week race.
On paper some may see it as a very difficult task, but he’s clear that it can be done.
His first justification for that is the chaotic nature of the race. “The Tour de France is something that you can never predict,” he pointed out. “In that first week there are going to be crosswinds in Holland. There is the team time trial, in which BMC is the world champion. We have the cobblestones and a lot of hectic stages where anything can happen.
“Every year it seems like a couple of hot contenders just end up going home after the first week. So we could see that again this year.”
His second point is that at least one of the four big guns hasn’t been firing as yet this season. “Nibali is the one of the four who kind of seems to be a bit more on the back foot. He hasn’t really had any results really at all yet this year.”
The inference is clear; van Garderen finished four minutes 22 seconds ahead of the Italian in the Critérium du Dauphiné and while the American accepts that June form doesn’t necessarily translate into July success, he believes that he’s in a good place with respect to his rival.
What’s more, he believes that he can step up another level by the time the Tour hits the mountains. That, too, is part of his optimism.
“Everything is going perfect”
Van Garderen spoke to the cluster of journalists partaking in the conference call from his apartment in Nice. He explained that he did a week of altitude training with BMC Racing team-mate Brent Bookwalter in the Dolomites after the Dauphiné, spending a week there.
Having returned to sea level and a few days with his family, he said that he’s pleased with his sensations and also the data he’s seeing.
“Everything seems right on track,” he revealed. “All the numbers in training, the weight, the health, everything. Everything seems to be going perfect. I took a lot of motivation and morale out of the Dauphine result so I am excited to get things going.”
When prompted by CyclingTips, he elaborated on some of the data.
“I am about a kilo lighter than when I started the Dauphiné,” he said. “All the numbers that I have had in training show pretty much the same power. I did set my 20 minutes max power just before the Dauphiné, a good ten watts higher than I saw at any point in time last year.
“So this is all pointing towards good things.”
He acknowledged that training and race scenarios are different and thus there is an element of unpredictability. Riders are not machines, after all. But it’s clear that he’s feeling very good and he’s motivated to get going.
“[Before the Dauphiné] I was in really good form after doing some altitude back home in Aspen,” he said, talking about his form then and why he believes he’ll be better in July.
“We did some Tour recon where there was a good week of just big, long days of climbing. I did three days in the Pyrenees and three days in the Alps. Then there were a couple of days back in Nice where I did some intensity.
“So I know that I ticked all the boxes and my form was good. But I definitely wasn’t in top form as I didn’t really have any race fitness going into the Dauphine as I hadn’t raced since Liege Bastogne Liege, which was the end of April. That was almost a month and a half without racing. I could definitely feel that in the first couple of days. The rhythm changes, the speed and the accelerations – you notice that when you haven’t raced in a while.”
He’s now got a good block of racing in and he’s convinced that it will make a difference.
“I think the Dauphine gave me a boost in form heading into the Tour. I then had another little stint at altitude, now I am back at sea level in my place in Nice. I am just putting the finishing touches on things, making sure I am staying sharp, watching my diet and my weight.
“I think I was pretty close to strong form there and now, heading into the Tour, I will be a good notch and a half higher.”
Training with Armstrong: ‘Does it send the right message? I don’t think it sends the wrong message’
Four months after his fifth place in the 2014 Tour, Van Garderen found himself in the headlines for a different reason when it emerged that he had been training with the disqualified seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong.
The Texan told Rouleur magazine last November that he had driven the scooter when van Garderen was motor pacing. As he has a lifetime ban from the sport plus a very negative image as a result of his long-term doping, Armstrong’s involvement prompted a recurring question about van Garderen: just what the heck was he thinking?
The latter defended himself at the time and, many months later, does so again. His voice is a little hesitant, reflecting his knowledge that the situation is a sensitive one, but he doesn’t see the decision as an error.
“We are basically two top level cyclists, former and current, and we live in a very small town. When we are there it is hard to avoid each other,” he said. “To avoid an awkward situation we chat and we go for a ride every now and again.
“He offered to motorpace me when I needed it in training. My current motorpacer was out of town, and I didn’t see any harm in it.
“He told me that there was a camera crew coming and I could duck out if I needed to, but I was more interested in my day of training than anything else. I had two hours of motorpacing on my training schedule and I was like, no, let’s get it in.”
And that, he says, is that. “As far as what I think on the matter, in terms of if it sends the right message? I don’t think it sends the wrong message as there are plenty of people currently in the sport who have admitted to dodgy pasts,” he said.
“If you want to take away every single person who has every done anything in the past, then you are basically getting rid of everyone. Vinokourov has a team, there are lots of sport directors out there, George Hincapie has his Gran Fondo and he has his development team, Jonathan Vaughters runs a team.”
He describes the different scenarios between those riders and Armstrong as a double standard. “I don’t think it is very fair,” he said. “So I didn’t think anything of it. Just because Lance was the most successful cyclist I don’t think means what he did is any more wrong than what any other of those guys did.”
There is one difference, though; Armstrong is the only one of those examples with a lifetime ban. He was handed that partially because USADA decided that he was more than just a user of banned products, but also someone who coerced others into doing it and also who provided them with doping substances.
Seven months after the news broke, van Garderen says he has had only limited contact with the Texan since then.
“I have not really done any motorpacing or really seen him much since. It’s not because of any worry about what people might think, it is just because he has kids and they go to school in Texas,” he said. “So usually most of the time throughout the year he is at his other residence in Austin. Then when he comes back I am usually in Europe.
“We happen to run into each other now and then when we are both in town but it is pretty rare.”
Future Tour winner?
Spend more than a couple of minutes speaking to van Garderen and you can pick up on another of his strengths: his confidence. Third overall in the Dauphiné at 21 years of age, fifth in the Tour at 23 and a past winner of the Tour of California and two editions of the USA Pro Challenge, he has a self-belief and determination that lend weight to the feeling that he can win a Tour.
That has only been boosted by his stages in yellow in the Dauphiné plus his second place overall.
He’s convinced that he’s still improving, and also that he will continue to do so for some time yet. When asked if the 2015 race is a make or break scenario for him, he is quick to shoot down such a suggestion.
“I am 26 years old, I will be 27 in August. I think I am certainly not young but that is not even hitting the peak by cycling standards,” he said, perhaps thinking of Bradley Wiggins and former team-mate Cadel Evans, who won their Tours at 32 and 34 respectively.
“I am very motivated and I am feeling very confident. I am in a really good place going into this Tour. I think I have a really good team and all the vibes I am getting for this Tour are very good.
“I really want to make the podium or even higher…anything is possible.”
Even if that doesn’t happen this time around, he’s clear that time is on his side. “To say putting in all my chips, I have to do it this year, it is now or never…it is not now or never.
“I think I have got a good six to eight more years of trying to make the podium or win the Tour.”
That may be the case, but you get the feeling he wants to achieve those goals sooner rather than later. He’s hungry for success and his self-belief is rising after his close battle with Froome this month in France.
He says his figures are good, but there is something else too: a gut feeling on his part that something big is on the way.
There’s also an acknowledgement that time was unnecessarily lost in 2014.
“Last year it was kind of a rough and tumble with the broken hip in Romandie and all the crashes and everything that happened during the Tour,” he said, explaining how things weren’t as straightforward as they might have been.
“There were a lot of mistakes…just taking a look at last year’s Tour with the crashes, I had the one day when I had a hunger flat, I bonked. That was a pretty easily avoidable and highly-costly mistake. Also just staying healthy, getting sleep at night. All these little things add up.
“This year I really feel that things have gotten really smooth. I feel that I am hitting perfect form at the right time.
“If we can avoid all the pitfalls in the dangerous first week, we might just have it figured out…”