The future is now
August 18, 2012
Tejay van Garderen is thrilled to be home.
After spending a hectic few months traveling the world on the professional cycling circuit, he and wife Jessica, an Aspen native, have been settling into their new digs in Boulder. He’s been recovering, playing with his puppy and catching up with friends.
Life these days is largely carefree, van Garderen asserted.
To a certain extent, it’s also filled with anonymity.
“I might get recognized, get congratulated on the street here and there or in a coffee shop, but it’s by no means out of control,” he said Tuesday. “I’m not getting mobbed or anything. Things really haven’t changed all that much.”
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The hype and praise surrounding van Garderen are intensifying after a breakout 2012 season. He is fast becoming a cornerstone of a star-studded BMC team, whose roster includes George Hincapie, Cadel Evans and Boulder’s Taylor Phinney. Van Garderen is compiling a resume that any rider would envy – and he’s only 24.
Many have deemed the lanky Montana native the future of American cycling, a label that gained merit after a surprise fifth-place finish in July’s Tour de France – the best result by an American since Lance Armstrong in 2009.
“It definitely showed what’s possible,” van Garderen said of his efforts in France, which earned him the Maillot Blanc, awarded to the top young rider. “Before that happened, I had no idea what was possible or what I was capable of. I wasn’t expecting something like this to happen, for sure.
“Now, I’m going to set my sights higher.”
The USA Pro Cycling Challenge – arguably America’s toughest stage race, which this year will feature more lung-searing climbs, more miles and the potential for more late-race drama – kicks off Monday in Durango. Van Garderen made a name for himself here in 2011, showcasing his seemingly boundless potential in front of a spirited, massive crowd of cycling fanatics. This time around, he is one of the favorites.
“It’s an honor that people think so highly of me and believe I have those capabilities,” van Garderen said. “If people consider me a favorite for this race, I think that’s smart of them.”
That confidence has suited the youngster well this year. He was fourth in the Tour of California and fifth in the famed “Race to the Sun,” Paris-Nice, where he again won the best-young-rider classification.
He had planned to spend his three weeks in France pacing Evans – leading his Australian teammate up punishing climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees and positioning the 35-year-old to secure a second consecutive Tour de France title. Van Garderen beat Evans in the first two time trials, however, and then flexed his muscle in the mountains.
After Stage 16, with Evans’ hopes of a repeat all but extinguished, BMC gave van Garderen the green light to attempt to chase down eventual champion Bradley Wiggins, of Great Britain, and contend for the yellow jersey.
“I went in with the goal of helping Cadel,” van Garderen said. “When he was kind of struggling, I was given the freedom to ride my own race. It was a surprise, and I was not expecting that, but I did a lot better.”
Van Garderen also willingly embraced a secondary role in the Summer Olympics, where he helped Phinney secure fourth place in the London road race.
“It was a cool experience, and I worked hard for Taylor,” van Garderen said. “I think it was too bad he was only one place off of a medal. Had other teams played the tactics the way they should’ve, he would’ve won silver. That’s a bit of a disappointment.”
Phinney, who also took fourth in the individual time trial, is poised to return the favor.
“I’ll definitely be in more of a supporting role and be taking care of Tejay,” the 22-year-old said Wednesday. “We work really well together. He sacrificed any chance at a result in the Olympic Games for me – that was the plan – and now I want to give back to him. … The small, selfish goal is to win that time trial, but I want to make sure the team wins the overall. On that last day, hopefully after we’ve gotten Tejay up there in the yellow jersey, I’ll go out and have the best time trial I need to have.”
Van Garderen was well positioned for a win in Colorado last year; while he lost a sprint to the finish line in the Queen Stage to Hincapie, he captured the yellow jersey. Eventual champion Levi Leipheimer recaptured his spot on top of the leaderboard for good with a sterling performance in the Vail time trial, but van Garderen opened eyes with a third-place finish in the general classification.
He’s hoping for more Rocky Mountain highs next week. The task will be daunting: In addition to 2011’s course being lengthened about 150 miles, new challenges await – none bigger than scaling Independence Pass on consecutive days in Stages 3 and 4 and powering to the finish of Stage 6 on Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder.
“I think those are the stages I’m looking at as far as the GC,” van Garderen said. “To win, it takes some luck and staying calm under pressure – and having the legs, really. I know it’s just something I have to be patient with. This is definitely the hardest race in the U.S., but yeah, I feel ready and relaxed and recovered. I’m excited to get going.
“The one thing I’m missing this season is a win. I think the best place to get it would be my home state.”