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Tejay van Garderen is the most scrutinized American cyclist of his generation. He’s also the most inscrutable, and probably the most talented.
But for some reason, whatever he wins or almost wins, and he does both a lot more than most American pros, it never seems to be enough.
As the 2020 season looms, he is eyeing the Giro d’Italia, with possibly the Tour to follow. Will he pull off that big Grand Tour result he’s been hunting for so long? Who knows. But maybe it’s about time he gets some credit for being the only American even dreaming about it right now.
And yet, van Garderen is easily the most successful American WorldTour racer of the past several years. He counts a Giro stage win and a Vuelta top 10 on his palmares as recently as 2017. In 2018, he won a stage in California and was only beaten to the GC win by the rider we now know is the world’s best climber, Egan Bernal. He was second at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné.
Few riders with his stage racing track record by age 31 would generate the same level of negative hubbub for noting that they are aiming for GC as Tejay van Garderen. Just ask Bauke Mollema or Dan Martin, who have targeted Grand Tour podiums for years without anyone seeming to mind. Yet when van Garderen does the same, a chorus rises: “Not again, he’ll never do it.”
When Van Garderen sat down with CyclingTips at EF’s California training camp last month, he spoke about his 2020 plans with a combination of youthful optimism and a cagey awareness that whatever he says could show up in a headline. And can you blame him?
He’s going to the Giro. Will he race for GC? Probably. Maybe.
“If I go in there and I say, ‘You know what, I’m not doing GC,’ and I just sit up on the flat stages and lose 30 minutes, you’re taking an option off the table,” he said. “If something happens where I have a bad day and lose a lot of time on the GC and it looks like it’s out of the picture, then we reassess and we say, “Okay, let’s just go for stage wins.’ But if I start with the mentality of, ‘I’m just going for stage wins, I’m going to sit up and lose time and live my best life and not worry about that stuff,’ you’re limiting your opportunity.”
On the one hand, van Garderen still has that optimism that has permeated his aspirations for years. Given the way some fans rush to point out all the times he has come up short of his goals whenever he gives interviews like this, it’s impressive that he continues to aim high.
At the same time, he’s hedging his bets, which makes perfect sense. He knows how this works, and how people might respond to whatever he says. After all, as he embarks on his 11th year as a WorldTour racer this season, he’s a seasoned pro these days, even if he is still getting used to that role surrounded by a relatively young EF team
“A lot of the younger guys see me as the veteran which is weird because I’ve always been the young guy,” van Garderen said. “It’s different. I’m enjoying it.”
Indeed, van Garderen is embracing the fact that he has accrued years of knowledge as he works his way into form for the upcoming 2020 campaign: He has decided to give the veteran in the mirror a chance to guide his training program this season.
“I’m coaching myself this year,” he said. “I still have people advising me. I’ve been speaking a lot to Jonathan Vaughters about his training philosophies, but also incorporating that into what I’ve drawn from other coaches that I’ve had and workouts that I’ve liked and the way I’ve liked to structure things. I’m writing everything myself and having people look over it.”
Van Garderen has relied on the coaching of a few different names over the years. Jim Miller and then Max Testa oversaw his training in earlier seasons. Allen Lim coached him in 2019. Van Garderen hopes that combining the insights he has gleaned from various coaching pros with his own knowledge of his form and his schedule will bear fruit moving forward.
“I find that it makes me really think about what am I really trying to do with this period, what do I feel like I need,” he said.
“I feel like coaching might be something I’d be interested in later on. Writing it out, for me, it helps. And it makes things less stressful because I know what I have in my normal life, what my travel days are, what this and that are.”
Any potential future coaching career, however, is still way down the road for van Garderen. He may be on the other side of 30 now, but he remains younger than, say, Geraint Thomas when he won his first Tour, or Greg Van Avermaet when he won his first Monument. Van Garderen is focused on his racing goals for now.
This year, those objectives include a second career start at the Giro d’Italia, a race that should suit his skill set with its three individual time trials this year.
He won a stage in his only other participation there in 2017, but has generally opted to race the Tour of California in May. That won’t be an option in 2020, and so instead, he will head to the Giro as part of an EF squad that will likely also include Hugh Carthy as a potential GC contender along with a collection of stagehunters.
For van Garderen, the multi-pronged approach that EF typically espouses just makes sense.
“I like that a little bit more than the way we did it on BMC, which was basically we go to a race with one goal, everyone is circled around one guy, and often times I was that guy,” he said.
“It’s not necessarily that it added too much pressure on me that I didn’t like. It was like, say in Paris-Nice in 2014 I was fourth. It’s not a bad result, but the entire team worked all week for that fourth place. And I was like, it probably wouldn’t have made that big a difference if someone went for a stage victory or if someone else wanted to do GC. Would that really have taken away from me getting fourth?”
Dedicated GC squad or not, van Garderen nevertheless says that a GC run at the Giro is not something he is going to rule out. And why should he? Sure, those Twitter trolls and commenters will talk, but that’s not going to stop him from keeping his options open.
Van Garderen’s quest for opportunities could extend past the Giro. If everything goes his way, van Garderen will race not only the Italian Grand Tour this season, but also the Tour de France, depending on EF’s roster selection later in the year.
“I’ll start with the Giro being a target and then after that assess if I’m good enough, if I feel fresh, if I wasn’t finishing the Giro on my knees in the third week, then I’m ready to stay motivated for another couple months and do the Tour,” he said.
Beyond the WorldTour stage races on his calendar, van Garderen also says he’s warming up to the possibility of joining in on EF’s alternative racing endeavors this year. Although he is not yet sure what events will fit into his schedule, he is looking forward to possibly “carving out a little room” in his program to have some fun off-road.
Soaking in that enjoyment of racing his bike is a big part of what keeps van Garderen focused on his career generally.
“People ask, ‘How do you stay motivated?’ but it’s like, we just did this four-hour ride in the beautiful sunshine in an amazing place,” van Garderen said, having returned from a spin on a sunny Southern California day shortly before the interview. “It doesn’t take much motivation to do that. It’s a pretty awesome job. You have to not take that for granted.”
That perspective helps van Garderen enjoy the training he does during the offseason, positioning himself to be in good shape as the racing heats up.
With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why hope springs eternal at this time of year. And at this point, what does van Garderen have to lose by being optimistic about the season ahead? It’s not as if he is telling people he expects to win the Giro and the Tour this year. He is just going to see what happens, hoping that he catches a few lucky breaks here and there. Sure, he’s said that before, but what’s wrong with keeping at it?
“I think physically I still have a lot left in the tank,” he said. “I’m producing the same numbers and all of that as five years ago or whatever. Some of it has even improved. I didn’t think there’s any physical thing. Sometimes you just have to have things go your way.”