On the roads of the Swiss Alps on Wednesday, any remaining questions about BMC Racing’s team leadership hierarchy at the 2016 Tour de France were answered.
Tejay van Garderen was dropped on the penultimate climb of the day, the Category 1 Col de la Forclaz, and lost nearly 20 minutes to the general classification contenders. Richie Porte attacked on the final climb, and the maillot jaune of Chris Froome (Team Sky) was the only GC rider able to follow.
Van Garderen, who has twice finished fifth overall at the Tour, and who abandoned last year due to illness while sitting third overall, offered up no excuses, acknowledging that he simply was unable to compete for a high overall position at this year’s race.
“In other years I’ve crashed or been sick, but this year I don’t know, [my body’s] not responding,” van Garderen said after the stage. “There’s really no excuse, I wish I had one but I don’t know. I guess I’m going to have to sit down with our performance team and see what we did in the build up. I’ve raced against a lot of these guys before in other races and I’ve been able to be there with them, and for some reason this year it’s not happening.”
While van Garderen’s tone after the stage was somber, Porte’s was quite the opposite. The 31-year-old from Tasmania spoke with confidence, pointing out that the Tour is not over until the riders pedal into Paris on Sunday.
“I really want to be on the podium, so they’re the moves that you have to pull,” Porte said of his attack in the final kilometers on Wednesday, which helped him to gain back time on all GC contenders other than Froome. “I felt strong today and I’m happy with how it all went. I’m with BMC Racing Team now and I’m riding for myself so it’s a bit different to the role I’ve had before. But I’m enjoying it, taking it day by day. The team has put some confidence in me and I’m happy with how today went. I know there are three more hard stages to come until Paris. So we’ll just take it day by day.”
BMC Racing entered this year’s Tour with a two-pronged team leader approach with Porte and van Garderen at the helm. The pendulum seemed to swing in van Garderen’s favour when Porte punctured in the run-in on Stage 2 and lost 1:45. The former Sky rider, who helped guide Froome to his two overall titles, has proven to be the better climber on the team, and the second-best climber in the race.
The first true GC shuffling in this year’s Tour came on stage nine in Andorra, atop the hors categorie climb to the Arcalis ski resort. In a torrential hail storm Porte went toe-to-toe with Froome and put in multiple attacks of his own. Van Garderen, on the other hand, was out the back. Porte finished 37 seconds ahead of his teammate that day.
On stage 12 to Mont Ventoux, Porte again attacked repeatedly, and again only Froome was able to follow the initial accelerations. Van Garderen was out the back once more.
Putting aside the drama that ensued with the TV moto bike, Porte finished 19 seconds ahead of van Garderen, but still trailed his teammate by 50 seconds in the overall standings. The early time he lost due to his puncture skewed the results of how he was proving to the be the superior rider on the team.
Van Garderen came back strong and put 18 seconds into Porte in the individual time trial on stage 13. However, when van Garderen was dropped on the Lacets du Colombier on stage 15 into Culoz, the writing was on the wall.
There was no reading between the lines on Wednesday, as van Garderen lost 18 minutes, and any hope for a top-10 finish.
“With 5km to go I was on the limit,” van Garderen said of the moment he was dropped on the Col de la Forclaz on Wednesday. “I’m not going to say that I gave up, but when I realized that clearly I don’t have it, it’s not worth fighting and fighting and fighting for 15th place.
“I was saying ‘Okay, I’m going to try to save my legs as much I can in order to help Richie, or in order to sneak in a break and win a stage,’ because that’s worth more than fighting for the best wheel I can just to finish 15th in Paris. Having finished top-5 in this race twice, I am not interested in that.”
Porte proved to be the strongest on the finishing climb to Finhaut-Emosson. He briefly had Damiano Caruso for support on the final climb on the climb, but mostly he left to judge the race on his own.
“I spoke with the sports directors this morning and they said just use your head and if you feel like it, attack them,” Porte said after the stage. “I have to anyhow. The tempo was not so fast there and it was a good time to get a gap there. They chased hard I suppose so it’s a good sign. I quite like uphill time trials so I think it’s a crucial one tomorrow. I know I need to have a good time trial and take some time. I think I’ve shown today that I’m climbing well so I take confidence out of today.”
While Porte will hope to keep his podium hopes alive in Thursday’s uphill individual time trial, van Garderen looks to take the stage a bit easy and hopefully set himself up to contend for that stage win he’s gunning for now.
“I think I’ll use the TT tomorrow as a recovery day, as much as I can anyway,” the American said. “And then I’ll do what I can to help Richie. Maybe if the legs rebound and I’m down enough on time they might let me sneak into a breakaway and go for a stage win. Richie, from what I heard on the radio, had an amazing ride so we’re really going to put everything behind him.
“It’s definitely tough. You work the whole year and you think you you’re doing all of the right things. Form’s a funny thing. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. I know I have it in me to do this, I just need to get all of the pieces together.
Porte has stamped his authority as team leader of BMC Racing and will shoot for the podium in the final days of the race, will the full backing of his BMC team. A podium finish in Paris would, perhaps, erase the pain of his ill-timed Stage 2 puncture.