Six years ago, Tejay van Garderen won the Tour de France’s white jersey as best young rider, and finished fifth overall. Amid ups and downs, he’s yet to fully deliver on that early potential. But he – and his team – are convinced that more is to come.
For anyone who has ever raced a bike, the thought of turning pro and immediately making an impression is a dream scenario. What could be better than stepping up a level, and then showing right away that you can excel?
Tejay van Garderen found himself in precisely this position when he turned pro with HTC-Columbia. In his first stage race with the team, the 2010 Volta ao Algarve, he finished fifth on the Alto do Malhão climbing stage and ninth overall.
As a 21-year-old neo-pro, the performance turned heads.
Four months later, he stunned Alberto Contador and others when he almost beat the Spaniard in the prologue in the Critérium du Dauphiné. He continued strongly throughout the race and ended up a superb third overall. Comparisons were made with a young Greg LeMond, who had also finished third on GC in the race in his debut pro season.
How far could van Garderen go?
A hint as to the answer appeared to come two years later. Riding his second Tour, the Tacoma native finished fifth overall. The performance earned him a dominant victory in the best young rider classification, over six minutes clear of Thibaut Pinot.
It seemed US cycling had found its next Grand Tour giant.
And yet, fast forward to the present day, and those expectations have been tempered.
Van Garderen has undoubtedly had other standouts, such as fifth in the 2014 Tour and second in the 2015 Dauphiné, as well as overall victories in the Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge. He has also landed stage wins in both of those races, in the Tour de Suisse and in last year’s Giro d’Italia.
Still, his career has had difficulties, too. He abandoned the 2015 Tour with illness while in third place overall. He was also a non-finisher in the 2015 and 2016 Vueltas.
Tenth overall in last year’s Vuelta, 20th in the Giro and 29th in the 2016 Tour de France are his best Grand Tour rides in the past two years. They are solid performances, but far off his best. And that’s why, at 29, he’s regarded as a rider who is yet to fully deliver on his early promise.
But how does van Garderen view his own career?
‘I can’t point to any year and say that’s been a bad year’
It’s the countdown to the start of stage five of the recent Volta a Catalunya, and van Garderen is about to go to sign on. The race start in Llívia is quieter than you might expect, and on this day there are no crowds outside the team bus. Things are calm and he chats for several minutes, both about his season thus far and also about his early results.
We talk about his two fifth places in the Tour as a young rider, and the weight of expectation they generated.
In retrospect, does he feel that performing so well early on ultimately made things more difficult for his career?
“I wouldn’t trade that white jersey for anything,” van Garderen says, pushing back at any suggestions that riding so well, so young put too much pressure on his shoulders. “I mean, it is still on my wall, I am still very proud of it.
“Sure, I’ve had ups and downs, but I can’t point to any year and say, ‘that’s been a bad year.’ It has been a ‘bad year’ just because of the expectation that has been placed on me. But if you take last season, for example, I got a top ten in a Grand Tour and a stage win in a Grand Tour.
“Take the season before that. I won a stage in the Tour de Suisse, and I finished on the podium in other races. There has never been a bad season. There have just been bad races.”
It’s not the first time van Garderen has been asked about the trajectory of his career, about how he’s handled the ups and downs. Perhaps because of that, he appears defensive. For much of the interview he has his arms folded, his body language suggesting he’d rather be doing anything else than looking back on past races and dissecting his performances.
That’s understandable, of course. As humans we want to be remembered for our successes, for the times that things went right rather than the other occasions when bad luck, injury or illness sent things astray.
And yet ups and downs are part of cycling, perhaps more than any other sport. It’s cruel and demanding and tough and even Eddy Merckx, the most successful rider of all time, lost far more races than he ever won.
Setbacks are part of cycling, and coping with them well is the hallmark of a successful career.
Van Garderen’s 2018 season started on a high note with third overall in the Volta ao Algarve. He headed into Paris-Nice with growing confidence but then crashed twice on the first day. Neck sprain saw him exit the race before the end of that stage.
He set the Volta a Catalunya as his next target, but again had bad luck. He fell while training with a teammate in Girona the week before the race and fractured a rib. While he was able to start Catalunya, his ability to go deep was affected.
So how does he keep his morale up at such times?
“Obviously I trained well in the off season,” he replies. “I had a good start. I think it was important to show that the form is there and I have done the work. Sometimes bad luck happens; you have to deal with it and move forward.”
The day before the interview, van Garderen finished 14th on the summit finish to La Molina. He was further back than he might have liked to be, but could still see the upside.
“I think that I showed that to be up there, given the circumstances, the form is still there. I just need to get the body back in check,” he says. “Everything has to be perfectly in line in order to be up there in the WorldTour races. And in any races, for that matter. We just have to get everything sorted out.”
Valerio Piva is one of the BMC Racing Team’s directeur sportifs, and was alongside van Garderen at the Volta a Catalunya. He also worked with him back in the HTC Highroad days, and knows him well.
“He is okay, he feels good, but of course breathing is a little bit of a problem,” he tells CyclingTips, referring to the rib facture. “But he is improving every day. I think he is on a good way back.”
‘I’ve plenty of chances to show the rider I am’
Cycling history is full of riders who shone early on, then faded. Every era has such stories. Conversely, every era also has successful riders who experienced hardships, yet battled through. Coming back from adversity is part of the job.
Van Garderen says that keeping a cool head is vital. “The thing is, if something bad happens, you can’t let it snowball and have other things go wrong too,” he explains. “You still have to focus on your diet, you still have to do the training. You still have to stay mentally focussed. And then, I know that once the rib heals, I will be right back to where I was.
“But it is easy to get down, drink beers and eat fries, and that is the wrong path to go down. I haven’t gone down that path. I race Pays Basques after this, hopefully I will be right on track. And the season is still young. I have plenty of races left on the calendar, so plenty of chances to show the form and show the rider I am.”
Van Garderen ultimately missed the Basque race; his team said that his schedule was rejigged. He is next due to ride the Tour du Finistère on Saturday, a French single-day event.
After that, he’ll do the Tour de Romandie, the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France.
Several years ago he would have been the BMC Racing Team leader for the latter event, but times have changed. After van Garderen’s withdrawal in 2015, the squad signed Richie Porte before the start of 2016. The Australian is now its leader for the French Grand Tour.
Van Garderen will play a supporting role, helping Porte try to take the final yellow jersey in Paris.
“On paper, the leader of BMC in the Tour is Richie,” says Piva. “We have not decided every detail, every thing about the selection yet, but riders like Tejay, when he is good shape, he is the best that we can have to support Richie.”
Riding shotgun for another rider seems an unlikely outcome for a rider who won the best young rider award in the Tour, and twice finished fifth overall before the age of 26. And yet that’s where things stand at this point in his career. Does Piva believe it has been difficult for van Garderen to accept riding for Porte?
“I don’t think so,” he answers. “Already he was riding with Richie [in the past]. In the team, you know if you have the chance to win, okay, you are there. If you feel good and you have a leader that is good, helping each other is important in a team. So I think he doesn’t have a problem with that.
“We need to find the best way to have success as a team. Richie has shown he has the chance to do a good result. He had bad luck last year, but before that crash he was there. We will build the best team that we can for the Tour around him.”
Following the Tour, van Garderen is set to ride the Vuelta a Espana. The hierarchy of the team is yet to be determined, but if Porte is in the battle for the final yellow jersey in the Tour, there is a chance that he could be fatigued come August.
Asking van Garderen if he believe he may have team leadership in the Vuelta, he insists that he always has the possibility to do something.
“I get my chance in any race I line up at,” he says, referring to his whole calendar. “You can never discount an opportunity if it comes up. So that is how I am going to take the season.”
Piva seems to echo this, and particularly in relation to the Spanish event. “To speak about the Vuelta now is difficult, of course,” he says. “He is in the planning. It is up to every rider to take the chance when they have the good condition. So why not be the leader in the Vuelta?”
Time will tell if van Garderen will be the number one or number two BMC Racing Team rider starting that race. But, longer term, does Piva believe he can return to the level which saw him finish fifth in the Tour on two occasions in the past?
“I hope. I hope” he says. “We believe in Tejay. This is why he is in the team. We support him the maximum every year.
“I think he is a good rider, he is motivated. He needs to have a little bit of luck. That is not the case for the moment, here in Catalunya, but it is a long season. We are positive about the future.”
So too is van Garderen. “Like I said before, every race you line up at is an opportunity,” he says. “That is just how you have to look at it.”