Chris Froome has made clear that he considers Tejay van Garderen as being as serious a threat to his yellow jersey as the three previous Grand Tour winners previously seen as his biggest challengers.
Van Garderen was just ten seconds behind Froome at the end of the Critérium du Dauphiné and, after stage eight to the Mur de Bretagne, he is just 13 seconds back overall.
The American rider has looked sharp and confident since the Tour began. The same also applies to his BMC Racing Team, which has been riding with real purpose.
The American squad won the Tour in 2011 with Cadel Evans and now, four years later, appears to have the same confidence about it.
“I really do think Tejay has ridden a very impressive race until now,” said Froome in his post-race press conference metres from the finish line at Mur de Bretagne. “It wasn’t long ago, it was just in the Dauphiné where we were battling it out for the leader’s jersey there. There really wasn’t much between us there.
“I do believe he is in great condition and time will tell once we get into the high mountains in the Pyrenees, but I definitely expect him to be up there.
“He has ridden a very strong race and he has a good team around him.”
Van Garderen has twice finished fifth overall in the Tour but now, at 26 years of age, the feeling is that he can step things up from that.
This sentiment is heightened by the less than convincing performances thus far from the three other riders considered equal favourites to Froome starting off in the race, namely double Tour winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and 2013 runner-up and 2014 Giro d’Italia victor Nairo Quintana.
Contador has come into the Tour after winning the Giro d’Italia and has seen less than 100 percent thus far. He is seventh overall after stage eight, 36 seconds behind Froome.
Nibali cracked inside the final kilometre of stage eight and conceded time, ending the day one minute 48 seconds back in 13th overall. As for Quintana, he lost time earlier in the week and is a further eight seconds back in 16th place.
Froome believes that van Garderen’s consistency thus far has earned him equal consideration when assessing the race favourites.
“I think we definitely need to include Tejay in that equation,” he said. “From those other three, I do expect Nairo will be very strong in the climbs, but he has already lost quite a substantial amount of time already. He is going to have to try to make that time up again.
“Alberto, I don’t think you can ever write him off. As we have seen time and time again, he doesn’t give up until the race is over. I guess we are going to see how Vincenzo goes up on the long climbs. It hasn’t been a great start for him but things could change.”
Froome will start Sunday’s team time trial looking to further extend his lead, but must watch out for the squads of those other contenders.
Van Garderen’s BMC Racing Team look to be a particularly big danger, both due to the sense of determination about the team this week and also because it took the world championship team time trial last September.
If it delivers Sunday, it could potentially put van Garderen into the yellow jersey of the Tour de France for the first time in his career.
Froome accepted that the nature of the course could lead to big time gaps. “The team time trial tomorrow is going to be a very decisive stage, in terms of the general classification. It is a very tricky team time trial, given that it is very undulating.
“You need five riders to get up that final climb together. That is going to make it quite tough for quite a lot of other teams.
“I do expect there to be quite substantial time differences between the top teams and the teams that don’t coordinate things so well.”