It’s been five years since Tyler Farrar stood atop the podium as a stage winner — on the Fourth of July, no less — the last time an American claimed a stage at the Tour de France.
The following year, Tejay van Garderen placed fifth overall, and stood on the podium on the Champs-Élysées in the white jersey of Best Young Rider. In 2014, Van Garderen again placed fifth, and those results have been the lone bright spot in what has been a troubling drought of American success at the Tour.
On Saturday, five Americans will clip in along the shores of Mont-Saint-Michel to begin the 103rd edition of the Grand Boucle. The quintet all come from the three U.S. based teams at the WorldTour level — BMC Racing, Cannondale, and Trek-Segafredo. Joining van Garderen at the Grand Depart will be Brent Bookwalter, Peter Stetina, Alex Howes, and Lawson Craddock.
(Among those U.S. WorldTour riders not competing are Farrar, Andrew Talansky, Ben King, Taylor Phinney, Ian Boswell, Joe Dombrowski, Nathan Brown, Larry Warbasse, and Kiel Reijnen, as well as Canadians Ryder Hesjedal and Mike Woods.)
With an average age of 27.2-years among the five of them, the riders from this year’s American Tour contingent seem to be entering their prime, but an average of three Tour starts among them shows a relative lack of experience. Still, each comes to the Tour with a plethora of goals, duties, and ambitions.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing)
Tour Starts: 5
Role: Co-leader, GC contender
Highlights: 5th (2012, 2014), Best Young Rider (2012)
Van Garderen comes to the 2016 Tour looking for redemption after getting sick on the second rest day last year and pulling out of the race on stage 17 while sitting third overall. This edition will be drastically different however, with van Garderen sharing leadership on the BMC Tour squad with Tasmanian Richie Porte.
“Richie and I work together just fine,” van Garderen said of the shared Tour leadership. “Obviously hindsight is 20/20. If Richie and I pull a Quintana and Valverde, and both end up on the podium, that’d be awesome. Or if I get sick in the final week, and can’t finish, it’s good to have a Plan B.
“But if you’re stuck with a Froome/Wiggins situation, that can be not as good. Fortunately I get along really well with Richie. We turned pro in the same year, we have always gotten along. We’ve done some long training rides together in Nice, we’ve raced together. There hasn’t been a single issue. We get along just great, so I don’t expect any issues.”
Porte recently finished fourth overall at the Criterium du Dauphine and looked superb on the climbs, one of few to follow Chris Froome’s accelerations. Van Garderen meanwhile, tackled the Tour de Suisse as his final tune-up race. The race was a mixed bag for him. He lost considerable time on one of the mountain stages due to cold temperatures, but bounced back the next day to take the queen stage on a summit finish.
“I’m taking confidence out of the Tour de Suisse heading into the Tour de France, especially with the team that we are taking,” van Garderen said. “I’ve already raced the Tour de France a couple of times with most of these guys, so I couldn’t be happier to line up with them once again. I’m in great shape, I’m really motivated, and I’m looking forward to rolling out in a little over a week.”
Van Garderen has a history of having one bad day at the Tour. Time will tell if he can overcome this and demonstrate that last year’s success, prior to his illness, was no fluke.
Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing)
Tour Starts: 3
Role: Super domestique
There’s no lack of confidence for Bookwalter, who begins his fourth Tour on Saturday after recently being selected to the U.S. Olympic men’s road team.
“It really buoys my confidence to get this good news before the Tour and to know that I’m going to have this amazing, possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity after the Tour,” Bookwalter said. “I’m going into the Tour now in really good spirits.”
The Tour will be Bookwalter’s eighth Grand Tour, and the all-rounder knows what it takes to win cycling’s greatest race. He was part of the nine-rider BMC squad that helped Cadel Evans to victory in 2011.
“I’m without a doubt there in a support role for Richie [Porte] and Tejay [van Garderen], whether that is a mountain stage or a flatter stage in the opening week, I’m there in their service,” Bookwalter said. “Looking at the Tour route this year, there’s definitely more mountainous and hilly stages than there are flat stages and I think the team our team selected for the Tour reflects that. I don’t really have a very specific role like I’m needed for this stage or this phase or this climb.
“The goal is to protect Richie and Tejay, keep them fresh, keep them out of trouble, and have numbers around them in crucial moments in the race. I’m looking forward to being a part of that.”
Bookwalter, 32, is a veteran of the sport, so look for him to always be near van Garderen or Porte when the times get stressful during the stage. He may even sneak into a breakaway or two when the race hits the mountains to support his leaders later in the stage if and when the day’s breakaway is caught.
Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo)
Tour Starts: 1
Role: Climbing domestique
The road back to the Tour has not been an easy one for Stetina, who suffered a gruesome leg injury last at the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco when several riders plowed into poorly marked bollards in the final kilometre of a stage when the pace was full gas. The months that followed saw him walk with a cane, and leave his spot at BMC Racing, but come Saturday, he’ll roll up to the start line of the sport’s biggest race.
“It feels like a confirmation that my comeback is becoming successful and I’m back to the level and the athlete that I was before the accident,” Stetina said. “The Tour, it’s the big show, it’s the pinnacle of our sport, so to be nominated to the team means they see the value in you being able to ride strong enough to race the Tour.
“I mean, you have to be at a certain level, and the fact that I’ve made it back to that in just over a year, it’s really gratifying. You can’t just get complacent lining up, and I know that, but still, it means a little something extra to me to be able to return, considering last year I was watching the Tour on the couch and wasn’t even riding yet.”
Stetina brings a fair amount of experience when it comes to tasting success at the Grand Tour level. He helped Ryder Hesjedal become the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia in 2012, with Garmin-Barracuda, and guided van Garderen to fifth overall in 2014 when they rode together at BMC.
“My role in Trek-Segafredo is that in smaller and U.S.-based races, I lead the team, and in the big WorldTour races, especially the Tour, I’m the mountain domestique for Bauke [Mollema],” Stetina said. “That’s why the team brought me on and that’s a role I am comfortable in and I’ve done before with Ryder in the Giro and Tejay in the Tour. It’s going to be all for [Mollema] at this race and I think he is definitely capable of a top-5 or a podium if all the cards fall right. We have to all rally around him in order to get that result, because it’s pretty cutthroat.”
Stetina captured an emotional second place on Gibraltar Road at the Amgen Tour of California to show his climbing prowess had returned. The lanky climber may also have the opportunity to go in the breakaway during the race in the high-mountains to help to pressure off of Mollema, or to chase a result for himself.
Alex Howes (Cannondale)
Tour Starts: 2
Role: Medium-mountain domestigue, breakaways
Howes comes to the Tour with a fire in his belly after missing out on a coveted Olympic selection; he looks to make a mark on the race, while helping Cannondale to a high GC placing.
“Help Pierre. Hunt breaks when given the opportunity. Look good,” Howes told CyclingTips of his role on the team for the Tour.
Howes’ performances in the Ardennes Classics make him a good candidate to hunt stages in the opening week of the Tour, with multiple stages featuring punchy finales. He finished an impressive 21st alongside the likes of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) in a snowy edition of Liege-Bastonge-Liege in April, and was top American at the world road championship in Richmond, Virginia, finishing 12th.
Howes also goes to the Tour in support Cannondale’s GC ambitions with Pierre Rolland. His style of riding, and skill over tough, relentless terrain will come in handy over the medium-mountain stages and also help to save Craddock and Rolland, the pure climbers on the team, for the finales on the summit finish stages.
Asked his goals for his second Tour participation, Howes answered, “High GC placing for Pierre. Ride a break to the line. Ride like the wind. Get deep into the finales of some big mountain stages.”
Lawson Craddock (Cannondale)
Tour Starts: 1
Role: Climbing domestique
The 2016 Tour will be the first time Lawson Craddock will experience racing in France in July and it comes as no surprise that the he is in high spirits heading into the race.
“I really feel like I have worked towards this my entire life,” Craddock said, speaking to CyclingTips on Tuesday. “I started racing when I was 10 years old, but I was watching the Tour long before that, and It was always my dream to get here. Just the fact that I’m boarding a flight to France and lining up on Saturday is just really incredible to me.”
Craddock had a long, tough spring, scoring impressive results with ninth overall at the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco and fifth overall in California. He enters the Tour without taking the characteristic tune-up route, having raced neither the Criterium du Dauphine nor the Tour de Suisse.
The Texan moved to Cannondale for 2016 after riding for Giant-Alpecin the last two years. He rode in support of Tom Dumoulin at the Vuelta a España last year, and believes the experience of defending the leader’s jersey will help him at the Tour.
“I had maybe one sour day at the Vuelta last year, but other than that I was racing at a really high level for three weeks straight and also it really prepared me for the mental stresses of every day lining up with a goal — and at that point in the race it was more than just trying to make it to the finish every day,” Craddock said.
Craddock looks to escort Cannondale’s GC contender, Pierre Rolland, through the mountains — especially in the third week, when the races gets tough.
“What I showed last year in the Vuelta is that I can be relied on once the race gets hard,” Craddock said. “I was able to do that for Tom Dumoulin while we were defending the red jersey last year in the Vuelta. I’d love to carry that on to the Tour this year and be there for Pierre. We were just training up in Andorra, and he is flying.
“It will be a really cool experience to be able to ride for him, but also at the same time I’ve shown I can take some opportunities for myself. It’s the Tour de France, and if the opportunity is there, then you have to take it.”