Cyclist Tejay van Garderen calls it a career after 12 seasons on the World Tour stage
The next phase of Tejay van Garderen’s life is about to begin. The past few weeks, however, he’s simply been able to enjoy not being a professional athlete for the first time since his teens.
“I’d say I’m still in that honeymoon phase of, ‘Yeah, let’s have fun and I don’t really have responsibilities,’” Van Garderen told The Aspen Times last week, “but I’m going to start working again with the team, being a coach and being a director. That’s going to pick up here pretty soon. It will probably be back to reality in a little bit.”
Van Garderen has long been one of the country’s top professional cyclists, having spent 12 seasons on the World Tour with various teams. His wife, Jessica Phillips, is a former pro herself and grew up in Aspen, which is why Van Garderen has called the Roaring Fork Valley home from time to time throughout his career.
That career, which included nine starts in the Tour de France and a spot in the 2012 London Olympics, came to an end this summer when the 32-year-old Van Garderen announced his retirement. His final race came at the U.S. road national championships in Knoxville, Tennessee, in June, only a month after his final Grand Tour start, that being May’s Giro d’Italia.
“The results that I’d been accustomed to getting early in my career kind of started coming fewer and further between,” Van Garderen said of his decision to retire. “I would still be capable of one maybe really good race in the season, but then the rest of the races were just kind of average to below average, especially for my standards.”
Van Garderen was born in Washington but grew up in Montana and emerged early on as one of the top up-and-coming cyclists in the country. He earned his first Grand Tour start in the 2010 Spanish Vuelta and started his first Tour de France a year later. In 2012, in only his second Tour start, he finished fifth in the general classification — he had been 82nd the year prior — and won the white jersey for being the race’s top young rider.
Van Garderen also finished fifth in the general classification at the Tour in 2014 and was 10th in the 2017 Vuelta, the highlights among the 17 Grand Tour starts he had over his career.
“I was able to get fifth place twice in the Tour. But the first time, that was when I won the white jersey, that was really unexpected,” Van Garderen said. “But I would say the best race I’ve ever raced was the 2015 Dauphine. I didn’t win it, but I came really close and it was a super tight battle with Chris Froome, who was obviously the standard of cyclists in that time period.”
Van Garderen twice finished runner-up in the Criterium du Dauphine, a smaller yet incredibly prestigious stage race in France that is often seen as a warm-up to the Tour. In that 2015 race, the first time he finished second, he held the race leader’s yellow jersey entering the final stage before Froome, the eventual seven-time Grand Tour winner who rides for Britain, edged him late for the overall win.
“I’d like to say a win is my greatest accomplishment, because I’ve had a few nice victories. But that race just stands out in my mind as one of the best races I’ve raced all around,” Van Garderen said. “I was in the yellow jersey for the last stage and he ended up getting the stage win, getting the time bonus and putting just enough distance into me to take the overall win by 10 seconds. It was just a really exciting race all around and I think it was the best race I’ve ever raced.”
Van Garderen hasn’t seen as much sustained success this side of turning 30. He spent the heart of his career racing for what was then the powerhouse BMC Racing Team before joining the U.S.-based EF Education-Nippo team in 2019.
A GC rider throughout his career, he tried to reinvent himself the past few seasons, focusing on being a solid support rider and teammate, but found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the stronger, younger athletes on his team.
“I started the past few Grand Tours with that mentality. It just didn’t seem I was able to climb with any sort of elite group to be able to help those guys,” he said. “I’m definitely not one of the Cobbled Classics riders who can just punch their face into the wind and shepherd the guys through the tricky sprint finishes or nervous, hectic sections. I just sat there thinking, ‘What really is my purpose as a bike racer anymore?’ And I kind of realized it’s my experience and my knowledge, and not necessarily my legs anymore.”
Van Garderen certainly isn’t leaving the cycling world. His days as a racer may be over, but he’ll stay on with EF Education-Nippo as a coach and director. He won’t necessarily coach the pro athletes themselves, but will largely be part of the team’s coaching business that allows anyone to hire someone like Van Garderen to guide them through races and training.
He’s lived in California the past few years — Van Garderen has lived a fairly nomadic life over his career — but has plans to soon relocate to the Denver area. While not a Colorado native like his wife, it’s a state that’s been home more than any for Van Garderen and a place with the most friends and family and seems like the ideal spot to return.
“I’m curious what it’s going to be like diving into this director job. I think it’s going to be almost as much traveling as I did when I was a racer. But I think the main difference is going to be once I’m home, I’m home,” said Van Garderen, who has two daughters, ages 8 and 5. “This time I’ve had with the girls, it’s been really different because I feel like I have more time, more energy and just more patience with them when I’m not entirely focused on how I feel and I’m not constantly hungry or fatigued.”
Van Garderen feels he is leaving USA Cycling in a good place. While the Americans haven’t been particularly strong in recent years on the international level, there is plenty to be excited about. This includes Durango’s Sepp Kuss, who last month became the first American since Tyler Farrar in 2011 to win a stage of the Tour de France, and Arizona’s Brandon McNulty, who recently had a top-10 finish in the men’s road race at the Tokyo Olympics.
Van Garderen is especially excited about the future of one of his EF Education-Nippo teammates, Neilson Powless, who he sees as a potential American star in the making. Powless has been slowed by illness, including a scary bout with COVID-19, over the past few seasons.
“I just hope he can get a chance to get a clear runway to have some uninterrupted racing and training, because I think he’s going to be a big talent,” Van Garderen said. “With these new guys coming up, I think we are in for some exciting times with USA Cycling.”
Considering his new role with EF Education-Nippo, Van Garderen could still have a say in the future of American cycling, although it may not be from the saddle.
As arguably the country’s top GC rider the past decade, Van Garderen is content with his career. Like any athlete, there are moments he may wish would have gone differently, but he also wouldn’t change much and said he would eagerly do it all over again.
“Obviously I had goals throughout my career, but looking back now it’s like, I did pretty well and I’m proud of what I accomplished,” Van Garderen said. “I’m certainly proud of every accomplishment that I had. I look back and I realize how lucky I am to be able to have competed at the highest level for 12 seasons on the World Tour. If I had to do it all over again, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. I hope the next generation can one up what I was able to do, and I think they are well on their way.”
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