A delicate situation. A challenge. Time to reassess. Time to start from scratch.
These are among the phrases used at the Vuelta a España, by BMC Racing directors as well as peloton insiders, to describe American Tejay van Garderen, who abandoned the Spanish race on Stage 17 after riding in support of Samuel Sánchez.
It was an anonymous exit for a rider who has finished fifth at the Tour de France on two occasions, who was runner-up to Chris Froome at the 2015 Criterium du Dauphine, and who has been crowned overall winner at the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge.
Van Garderen, 28, has also won mountaintop stage finishes at two of the hardest weeklong stage races in the sport, the Volta Cyclista a Catalunya and the Tour de Suisse. Yet it appears that Grand Tours have become his Achilles’ heel.
BMC’s Tour de France leader since 2013 — he finished fifth overall in 2012 riding in support of Cadel Evans — van Garderen has fallen apart on the 17th stage in his last three Grand Tour attempts.
He abandoned the 2015 Tour de France during Stage 17 while sitting third overall, citing illness. Shortly after, BMC Racing announced it had signed Australian Richie Porte, from Team Sky, to co-lead the team at the 2016 Tour.
On Stage 17 of this year’s Tour, Van Garderen tumbled down the general classification, from eighth overall to 17th, when he lost contact on the penultimate climb, the Col de la Forclaz, before hemorrhaging time on the summit finish at Finault-Emosson. Prior to that he’d already slipped behind Porte on the classification, losing team leadership, though Porte had lost 1:45 to a Stage 2 puncture. Van Garderen finished the Tour 29th overall; Porte finished in fifth place.
At the time, he owned up to his poor performance, without offering up excuses.
“In other years I’ve crashed or been sick, but this year I don’t know, it’s not responding,” he said. “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… It’s 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.”
By the time van Garderen left the Vuelta on September 7 he was sitting 95th overall, three hours behind the leaders. Stage 17 began with the climb of Alto del Desierto de Las Palmas, and the fast pace of multiple breakaway attempts was too much for the American.
Once again, he’d abandoned in the mountains after the second rest day of a Grand Tour.
In a BMC Racing press release, the team shed little light on the subject, saying only that he’d abandoned “due to fatigue,” leaving the team with seven riders in the race. Sánchez was forced to abandon the race two days later, after crashing in the Stage 19 time trial while sitting seventh overall. BMC still managed to win the Vuelta’s team classification, finishing with just six riders.
Time to reassess?
Van Garderen headed to the Vuelta for the second year in a row after a disappointing Tour de France, also for the second year in a row. At the 2015 race, he was one of many riders to go down in a massive Stage 8 pileup, leaving with a broken shoulder.
From the start of this year’s Vuelta it was clear van Garderen’s presence would be downplayed. At the pre-race press conference in Orense, he spoke of taking the race “as it comes,” with no real ambitions for the GC, marking perhaps the only time in his career that he arrived at a major stage race without aiming for a high GC finish.
“Overcooked” is how van Garderen described his condition to CyclingTips contributor Fran Reyes at the start of the race. “I overdid it in my training, and diet, pushing too far before the Tour,” he admitted.
For two weeks at the Vuelta, van Garderen performed different roles, from domestique to attacker, depending on his team’s needs.
And for a while, riding in a new role seemed to be working for van Garderen. At the start of Stage 12, in Los Corrales de Buelna, he said he found “satisfaction” in working for the team.
“It’s been different and interesting, even funny, but still hard,” he told CyclingTips with a smile. “There is some satisfaction in working for the team. It’s different from the satisfaction you get from getting a result, but it’s still gratifying to help another rider.
“I certainly haven’t given up on going for GC in certain races. I took on this role in this particular race because I was pretty tired after the Tour and I didn’t have proper preparation. To come here and ask the team to work for me would have been selfish and unproductive. So I said I wanted to come here to help the other guys, to go into the offseason in good condition. I still have ambition to ride for the GC in the future.”
Prior to abandoning the race, Sánchez lauded van Garderen’s performance. “He may lack a bit of maturity, but he is getting some at this Vuelta,” the Spaniard said. “He is learning a lot by racing in a different role. This Vuelta will improve his mindset and will help him compete with more composure in the future.”
But behind the scenes, van Garderen was struggling. He was able to ride at the front, in defense of Darwin Atapuma’s GC lead during the first week, but as the race wore on he had trouble escaping into breakaways, and when he did, he was unable to challenge for stage wins.
“Tejay came in with low-key expectations, in a day-by-day situation. And that’s what he is doing,” Max Sciandri, BMC Racing director, said to CyclingTips. “He rode at the front of the peloton when Atapuma was wearing the leader’s jersey. Other days he is going in the attacks. That’s what he is doing right now, and is more or less what we expected from him.”
At the Vuelta, those around van Garderen spoke in different tones, depending on whether there was an audio recorder in front of them. When a recorder was on, they spoke in short sentences, making an effort to sound upbeat. When the recorder was off, their words revealed a level of concern.
His failure to finish, and his mood during the race — described by some as “absent” — cast new doubts on how his Grand Tour performances will impact his future.
Klaas Lodewyck, a pro until he was forced to retire last year because of a heart condition, is a director of the BMC Development Team, and was at the Vuelta as an assistant director for BMC Racing. He and van Garderen raced together at the Rabobank Development Team in 2008, and at BMC for four years, from 2012-2015.
Lodewyck’s opinion of the situation was that van Garderen “needs to start from scratch,” suggesting that van Garderen consider switching his focus to one-week stage races.
Others in Spain suggested that van Garderen leave his current European base, in Nice, France, and return to Aspen, Colorado, where his wife and daughter reside, and where they’re expecting a second child in October.
“Things don’t always happen how they were planned,” Sciandri said. “The last couple of Tours didn’t finish for [van Garderen] as we expected. We came here to reassess his head. We wanted him to race without pressure. Afterwards he will go home, have a baby, form a family… and reassess. We’ll plan his winter, his race program to the Tour next year. That’s something that we will have to work on.”
In a post-Vuelta interview with Cyclingnews, BMC Racing manager Jim Ochowicz described van Garderen’s condition as “a slump.”
“He is in a slump, but that happens to people in sport all the time,” Ochowicz said. “He’s got to work himself out of that slump, and we’re all there to help in whatever way we can. He’s just in a slump. I’m not going to describe what that means. He’s not performing. That’s obvious.”
Asked if van Garderen’s mindset was a weakness, Sciandri declined to comment. “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s something I’m not going to answer.”
Sciandri was, however, firm that van Garderen will not be taking on a super-domestique role — at least not at BMC, where he is contracted through 2017.
“No,” he replied promptly. “He is not paid as a domestique in this team. He is paid as a leader. It is a matter of re-planning and trying to get Tejay back as a leader. At this team he won’t become a domestique. In the future, down the road, maybe. But in this team, at least for next year, he will be a leader.”
Over prepared at the Tour, under prepared at the Vuelta
If it’s for Tejay van Garderen time to “reassess,” or to “start from scratch,” it’s news to him.
In an exclusive interview with CyclingTips, van Garderen acknowledged he’d made mistakes this year — he over prepared for the Tour, and under prepared for the Vuelta — but said that stage wins this year, including a time trial at Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol and a summit finish at Tour de Suisse, confirm that he’s still among the top riders in the sport.
“A lot of people are kind of freaking out. I’m not as quick to jump to conclusions,” he said. “I’m not as reactive as others are. Maybe there are some things that need to be tweaked, to be altered, but it’s not like I am ‘starting from scratch,’ or that I need to ‘rewrite the playbook,’ or whatever other cliche term you want to use.
“If I had sucked all year long, if there was something so obviously wrong, then yes, you would have to take a long, hard look. But I was up there with the best riders in most races, and even at the Tour de France, up until Stage 17.”
Van Garderen said he’d overtrained for the Tour de France, adding that racing at the Tour de Suisse — which finished on June 19, a week later than the Criterium du Dauphine — also played a role. And the statistics back up that theory: None of the top 10 riders at the Tour de France rode the Tour de Suisse. The top finisher at the Tour to have ridden Suisse was Geraint Thomas (Sky), who finished 15th overall in July.
“The Tour de Suisse was a hard race, and maybe a bit too close to the Tour,” van Garderen said. “There was not a lot of recovery time in the middle. I like the Tour de Suisse, I enjoy that race, I enjoyed being there, and it was a nice victory this season. But every day it was raining, we had four massive mountain stages, and it finished nine days before the Tour de France. That may not have given me enough recuperation time.”
If van Garderen was over prepared for the Tour, he took the opposite approach heading into the Vuelta.
“After the Tour de France, where I didn’t finish strong, my first reaction was to take time off the bike,” he said. “I came home, and although I was on the bike, I was not really training. I wasn’t just laying around, I was riding, but the motivation was a bit low. I had just done six months away from home. I didn’t want to look at the SRM, I didn’t want to look at TrainingPeaks. Maybe I was being a little whiny.”
Van Garderen said he’d thought he could ride himself into condition at the Vuelta. However, at a race many were calling the hardest Grand Tour they’d ever done, that was not possible.
“At the Vuelta, it was a big wakeup call,” he said. “I was very unprepared. I thought I could use the first week to get the race rhythm back, help out Samuel, get water bottles, and once I got the race rhythm in my legs, I could jump in breakaways, and race in the style that [Robert] Gesink raced this year.
“But I learned that when you show up that unprepared, you can’t really rely on talent without doing the work, especially as hard as the Vuelta was this year — it was really hard, one of hardest Grand Tours I’ve ever done. I learned that when you show up unprepared, you don’t gain fitness; there’s only one way to go, and that’s down. I would have liked to have finished, but it would have been anonymously. I didn’t have the legs to do anything.”
“I don’t see cause for alarm”
Asked what he’d say to those who have questioned whether or not he’s cut out to be a Grand Tour contender, van Garderen said he could understand why, but said it’s a shortsighted view.
“If I had become a completely different rider, I would see cause for alarm, but I won a time trial this year, I won a summit finish on a steep climb,” he said. “Maybe I shouldn’t put so much pressure on the Tour de France, but to say that I don’t deserve to be a leader, I think that’s just being reactive. I think some people have a hard time seeing further than what is right in front of their face.
“I know that no one is here to do anyone any favors, but I haven’t given up on it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. If people think I can’t do it anymore, then maybe come contract time things will look a little differently for me, but I’m not giving up on it.
“And really, I’m guilty of the same thing. I watch the NFL. When your team is kicking ass, they are doing awesome. Then they lose one game, and you’re like, ‘What happened? These guys are lazy. They’re probably getting drunk during the bye week.’ In sports, two plus two doesn’t always equal four. And really, what do I know about football? I just watch on Sundays.”
Back home in Aspen, van Garderen is resting, enjoying the fall colors — alongside Jelly Belly’s Lachlan Morton, this weekend he’ll take part in a 50-mile mountain-bike race organized by Lance Armstrong — and, he said, not really thinking about the past, or the future. After six months spent racing and residing in Europe, and with a second child on the way, this is the time of year to shut it all down.
But when it does come time to start training for 2017, what will be his motivation? At 28, he still has several good years ahead of him. But his team for the past years has essentially replaced him as its Tour leader, and he hasn’t had a solid Grand Tour result since July 2014. What will be it be that gets him out on his bike, suffering alone in the off-season?
“Thinking long term, before I retire, my dream has always been to win the Tour de France. Whether or not I’m capable of it, I don’t know, but I will continue trying,” he said.
“In the short term, I love riding my bike. It doesn’t take a long hard look in mirror to get me out on the bike. The Tour de France is my goal, but I like getting out the door just to get out the door. My off season has started, and I will ride my mountain bike today, just because I enjoy riding my bike.
“As for next year, I will talk to the team. There are different ideas being thrown around. Some people are reactive to certain things. Some people are saying that it’s obvious Richie will be the leader next year, so where does that leave me? Do I go as a backup plan? Do I go to the Giro, and then to the Tour in a support role? Do I do the Giro and Vuelta, and skip the Tour altogether?
“Right now I am not even thinking about it, it doesn’t change what I do day to day. I will still ride my mountain bike today, and until it changes my day to day, I’m not going to think about it. I probably won’t come up with it until I see the [Grand Tour] courses for next year, and see what suits me, what’s better for me, and then go from there. That will be at the end of October, so then I’ll have a better idea what my future will look like.”
“Marginal gains is the most bullshit term that’s ever been coined”
Part of the reason a rider such as van Garderen is already being viewed as a disappointment at Grand Tours is due to his age. Though he’s only 28, he’s been viewed as a Tour contender for half a decade now. He’s had four Tours to improve on his fifth-place finish from 2012, and though he’s equaled it once, he’s yet to improve. In cycling years, four years without an improvement is an eternity — particularly when younger riders such as Nairo Quintana and Esteban Chaves, both 26, are consistently fighting for Grand Tour victories.
And while it takes a lot of factors to reach a Grand Tour podium — fitness, team strength, experience, and a bit of luck — van Garderen has failed to live up to the lofty expectations set upon his shoulders after standing on the Tour podium in Paris wearing the white jersey of best young rider. To some, van Garderen’s prime has already come and gone.
Have their been unrealistic expectations placed on van Garderen, as a result of that fifth-place finish at age 23?
“There are good things and bad things about having good results when you are very young,” he said. “It gets you a good contract, it gets you team leadership, and you expect that it will be a linear progression. But sometimes it’s not, and a lot of time, people with the best intentions tell you certain things to do, to try to keep progressing, try this, or try this.
“I think the whole marginal gains thing… that’s the most bullshit term that’s ever been coined. I think the whole thing was made up to get into people’s heads — ‘I wonder if we can get guys to try this?’ — and some people took the bait.”
Asked to elaborate on who told him to tweak his training methods, van Garderen was succinct, “Mostly people within the team.”
“Now, I’m thinking more along the lines of ‘what did I do back when I was younger?’” he added. “I remember, a few years back, I went and did training a camp with Taylor Phinney, and my wife, and a few of our friends. We weren’t just playing around, we were focused, we were regimented, we were motor-pacing. But in the evenings, even though we were wrecked from training, we had a good time. We went out to dinners every night. One night we went to the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil show. Nowadays, if you told someone you were training in Vegas, they’d say, ‘a Grand Tour rider shouldn’t be training in Las Vegas.’
“Looking back at it, I used to do the Amgen Tour of California ever year before the Tour de France. And all of a sudden it was pulled from my schedule. That’s a race I had a good time at, I have good memories of that race. People tweak things with the best of intentions, but maybe we should just do what we know worked. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“I’ve given all of this some thought, but I’m also trying not to overthink it — that’s also been a problem for me in the past, overthinking things. Really, there are no secrets or tricks or gimmicks. You work hard, and if you enjoy what you are doing, and if you want to kick ass… if I can put all those things together, I should be just fine.”
“I’m not scared of the Tour de France”
And that, perhaps, is the main question — does Tejay van Garderen still want to kick ass?
“I work really hard at what I do,” he said. “And sometimes in this sport, you’re not rewarded for hard work. If things don’t go the way I want them to, it’s disappointing, and you start questioning the work that you did. But the work is always worth it. You should never regret the journey, you should be proud of what you did to get where you are, even if you made mistakes. You should own up to your mistakes, and maybe even be proud of your mistakes.
“People might see that I get down, and think that I am unmotivated, but that’s because they only see what’s right in front of their face. It’s ‘what have you done for me lately?’ They might think I was ‘lackadaisical Tejay’ at the Vuelta, but they forget the other times when I wasn’t. At the 2014 Tour de France, I crashed five times, I got bronchitis, I bonked badly one day and had a horrible day. I lost all hope of the podium, but I fought tough every single day to get fifth place by just two seconds [over Romain Bardet].
“This year, I had a bad day at Suisse, and it could have been easy to get down, but I won the next day. I bounced back from that adversity. At Catalunya a few years ago, I crashed hard, over a guardrail. I lost all hope for GC, and I could have just been in the gruppetto, but I won the next day, on a summit finish, ahead of Porte and Contador.
“People think I give up, and sometimes I do, but not all the time. People only remember what’s in right in front of their face. And I can’t blame people for doing that, I do the same thing sometimes. You have to just stop listening to people. You can’t scroll down and read the comments or forums. You don’t look at your Twitter notifications. If you don’t want to hear it, then you just don’t look at it.”
Striking a defiant tone, van Garderen said he still belongs at the Tour de France, as a GC contender.
“I’m not scared of the Tour de France. I’m not thinking I need a break, that I’ve had a couple of rough years, and that I need to recover from it. It’s not like that. Yes, I’ve had a rough couple of years, but I’m a professional athlete. People take hard hits, they get up, and they go forward.
“Do I want to do the Tour de France? Hell yeah, I want to. If the team doesn’t want me to, or if the Giro route is perfect for me, then okay, let’s do the Giro. But my long-term goal is to win the Tour de France, and I’m not going to stop trying.”
CyclingTips contributor Fran Reyes initiated this article, from the Vuelta a España.