Van Garderen: Ready for the fight at Vuelta debut

HTC-Columbia star takes on first grand tour

It’s been an exciting season so far. Full of highs and lows, but luckily in my case it’s been mostly highs. I feel like I’ve aged a lot over these past eight months. Everything used to be so easy for me, living in a cycling house in Belgium where everything was taken care of for me, or with family in Holland where they to would take care of everything for me.

Now my situation is different and I’ve had to grow up a lot. I found my own apartment in Lucca, Italy, bought my own furniture (I have a love hate relationship with Ikea, mostly hate), and getting internet set up (which still actually doesn't work). All in a foreign country and in a language I don't speak. I remember being stressed out, barely having time to train some days, cold at night because we couldn't figure out how to turn on the heat/hot water, and taking cold showers after a riding in zero degree temperatures. I remember wanting to go home. Luckily my girlfriend was a trooper and helped me with everything. And we had some friends in town that helped us learn the system.

I knew I had a good base of training from the winter and from the team training camps, but with all these other factors I was going into the first part of the year thinking I couldn't be disappointed if things didn't go well. It may take a bit of time to get things sorted out before the success on the bike comes. It didn't take long before I found my groove in the Vuelta Algarve where I rode to a top 10 finish and a 5th place on the summit of the Milhao, a stage won my Alberto Contador. I just found that even though I was pretty lost as far as my personal life went, I still knew how to race my bike.

I remember telling the team directors last October that I was interested in racing the Vuelta. In my mind the Vuelta is the best 'Grandy, as in what all my Aussie friends call a grand tour for a neo-pro. It’s more relaxed than the Giro or Tour; the stages are shorter; roads wider and a lot of guys come here with Worlds on their mind and not necessarily the need to be going full gas at the moment.

I had a lot of mixed reactions from both riders and staff over my participation in the Spanish Tour. First of all there was a ton of rider who wanted to race, both for GC and for Worlds prep. So I was up against some heavy hitters for a slot. Then is was the fact that I'm a neo-pro and the fear that three weeks of racing is just too much for my 22-year-old body to handle. This was the position taken by Michel Rogers, who told me to wait until next year, while other riders from the team were telling me to "just go for it". I took all the advice to heart, but I knew that if given the chance there was no way I would turn it down.

It wasn't until the last day of the Dauphine, right before I was about to head to the start line, that Allen Peiper took me aside and told me, ‘you got the nod, we're pulling you out of the Tour of Austria so you can rest, train, and prepare properly for the Vuelta’. That was the perfect morale boost to propel me through the last stage.

After the Dauphine I took nine days to completely unwind, and in that time I didn't even touch my bike. I flew my 16-year-old sister, Chaney, to Italy. We had a much needed and well deserved break. I needed a break from racing, and she needed one after her sophomore year of high school. We went to some beaches, went out to dinners, drank a lot of wine (perfectly legal for her in Italy) and went sightseeing in Florence and Cinque Terra.

As a bike racers we spend most of the year in Europe but rarely get the chance to do the tourist thing, so we were taking full advantage in the short time we had. Hopefully it opened my sister’s eyes a bit to the world beyond that of Fort Collins, Colorado.

Once vacation time was over it was back to business. I packed up the car with my girlfriend, Jessica Phillips, and we headed to the Dolomites for an altitude training camp. My team wanted me to come into the Vuelta fresh so they gave me a pretty light race schedule leading into it. I only eight days of racing, but that also meant I needed to train more. I was getting good quality training hours, and weaned myself back into the 'regime' (what cyclists say when they are getting serious about training, diet, and sleep).

It’s a hard thing to do after a break, having the taste and smell of off-season pleasure in the air, but given the chance to race a grandy was motivation enough. We had a great time riding together in the Dolomites. I'm lucky to have a super talented (two-time national champion) girlfriend, so we are able to do a lot of rides together.

My first race back was San Sebastian, a super hard one day classic in Basque country which gave me a much needed kick in the ass after not racing for six weeks. That was followed up by Tour de l'Ain, a four-day race in France with short intense stages and a fair bit of climbing.

It was a good morale boost and I placed fourth, picking up the best young rider’s jersey. Then I had a few one day races in Italy just to sharpen up the form.

Now here in Sevilla, I’m just waiting until Saturday, or Sunday depending what time out team starts (first team off at 10pm). I wish I could say with all confidence that I'm ready to go, but I have no idea what it really takes, having never done one these before. But as I'm sure you guys can tell by reading this, I'm not a guy lacking in self-confidence and I will just go ahead and say it: I'M READY!!!

As far as my goals for the race, first and foremost I want to make it to Madrid. There are some hard stages early on and I plan to fight to stay high up on GC for as long as possible. If one day I see I am completely out of contention then I will just wait for the gruppetto and start looking for breaks.

However the team is being great in giving me a 'free roll' so I don't have to do too much work on the flat stages for the sprint, so I want to honor that by giving it a good honest fight.


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