Americans take up support roles at the Tour de France

Nation represented by five riders on the start line in Noirmoutier-En-L'Ïle

When the peloton toes the start line of the 2018 Tour de France in Noirmoutier-En-L'Ïle on Saturday, there will be five American riders representing the US spread across four WorldTour teams.

Tejay van Garderen brings the most experience of the quintet, with 11 Grand Tours under his belt and eight starts at the Tour de France. Once America's next GC hopeful, Van Garderen has now moved into a support role, as will his four compatriots; Taylor Phinney, Lawson Craddock, Ian Boswell and Chad Haga, who will all work tirelessly over the next three weeks in an attempt to help their respective team leaders secure an overall victory come the finish in Paris on July 29.

Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing)

On the heels of Cadel Evans' triumph at the 2011 Tour de France, Tejay van Garderen was once BMC Racing's next hopeful at the French Grand Tour. It all seemed like it was going according to plan when the American went on to place fifth overall in 2012, where he also won the best young rider classification, and then was fifth again in the 2014 edition. In 2015, he was the closest he had ever been to a podium finish but while in third place overall, behind Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana, he dropped out of the race in the final week. Since then, the expectations of him one day standing on the final podium in Paris have drifted further and further away from fruition.

Van Garderen's role on BMC's Tour de France team has shifted to one of support for Richie Porte. Although they co-led the team in 2016, Van Garderen hovered in the top-10 until stage 17 where he lost more than 20 minutes and all hopes of a strong GC place on the roads to Finhaut-Emossonm, while Porte went on to finish fifth.

Skipping the Tour last year in favour of racing the Giro d'Italia seemed like an attempt to rediscover himself, and in some ways, he did with a stage 18 victory in Ortisei. He followed that up with a top-10 at the Vuelta a España.

His recent runner-up place at the Tour of California showed promising form heading into the Tour de France, and that could bode well for any attempts at stage victories. He has raced 11 Grand Tours making him the most experienced of the five Americans in the race. Although the win in Ortisei was his first Grand Tour stage victory, he has previously shown his potential for stage success at the Tour, with multiple top-10 finishes including second on Alpe d'Huez in 2013.

Van Garderen has said that he believes he still has what it takes to contest the GC at a Grand Tour, but when he takes the start line in Noirmoutier-En-L'Ïle on July 7, it will be in full support of Porte. The Australian crashed out of the race in Chambéry last year but will once again attempt to bring BMC its first podium at the Tour de France since Evans' victory seven years ago.

Taylor Phinney (EF Education First-Drapac)

EF Education First-Drapac will field two Americans at this year's Tour de France with Taylor Phinney and Lawson Craddock, and both will ride in support of last year's runner-up Rigoberto Uran. Both are strong time triallists, which will add a boost for Uran in the stage 3 team time trial, while Phinney will prove useful over the cobbles during stage 9 and through the flatter stages, Craddock will be better able to help on the punchy stages and in the mountains.

Phinney's near-career-ending crash, where he suffered a broken lower leg at the US Pro Championships road race in 2014, might never entirely be behind him. It was an injury that some say forever changed the trajectory of his career, yet since then, Phinney has found some successes, particularly at this year's Paris-Roubaix where he finished an inspiring eighth place. That performance shows his potential to help Uran on stage 9, which routes the peloton along 15 of the same cobble sectors, totalling 21.7km of pavé, as the Hell of the North between Arras and Roubaix. And with additional help from cobbles specialist Sep Vanmarcke, Uran will be in good hands.

Although he hasn't had a stellar time trial performance this year, his previous history in races against the clock make him an important addition to the team during the stage 3 team time trial, and those same strengths will be useful on the flatter stages.

While his job is clearly laid out in support of Uran, Phinney said he will take any opportunities for stage wins, should they come his way. This is his second start at the Tour de France after making his debut last year.

"If there's some sort of a window where I can go for something myself, I'll take that opportunity but that's not what I'm going to the Tour to do - but you never know what can happen over three weeks."

Lawson Craddock (EF Education First-Drapac)

Craddock is also making his second appearance at the Tour de France since his debut in 2016, and like Phinney, will play a support role for Uran. Instead of being put to good use on the flatter stages, he will help his Colombian teammate on the more hilly stages. Although he said he still has a lot to learn, he hopes to use his experiences from the Tour de France two years ago and apply them to the parcours this year.

"Racing the Tour in 2016 was a huge learning experience for me," Craddock said. "There's a ton of things that I was able to take away from the race that I can bring to this year's Tour."

Craddock will also be utilizing the publicity surrounding the Tour de France's to raise proceeds for Lawson Craddock Youth Cycling League - the Alkek Velodrome's summer cycling programme by auctioning a pair of Lake Cycling "Houston Strong" shoes to help recoup some of the loss the velodrome experienced after Hurricane Harvey last year.

Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin)

It doesn't seem that long ago that Ian Boswell was making a name for himself while racing for Axel Merckx's Trek-Livestrong team, where Phinney and Craddock also got their starts, at bigger US races like Tour of Utah and Cascade Cycling Classic. Seven or eight years on, and after racing on the WorldTour for five seasons, the American is about to make his long-awaited debut at the Tour de France.

After completing a five-year term with Team Sky, Boswell made the switch to Katusha-Alpecin this season where he had hoped to earn a spot on the Tour roster. The team is divided at this year's Tour with half of the eight-man roster supporting sprinter Marcel Kittel and the other half, including Boswell, supporting overall contender Ilnur Zakarin.

In an interview with Cyclingnews ahead of the Tour de France, Boswell said he had doubts about making the team after what he felt was a sub-par performance at the Tour of California where he finished 20th, but he quickly bounced back at the Critérium du Dauphiné where he proved to be a valuable support rider for Zakarin.

He also said that the Tour de France was the only bike race he was able to watch while growing up as a kid in the US, so when he finally takes the start line in Noirmoutier-En-L'Ïle on Saturday, he plans on making the most of it. Even though the priority will be placed on helping Zakarin in the mountains, he would revel in the chance to help out during the sprint stages for Kittel.

"We'll see how we allocate our resources, but I'm more than happy to do an early job in the first week, even if that's riding on the front for 100km, so I don't have to help in the sprint finales," he told Cyclingnews. "Also, if Marcel wins a stage, I want to be part of it. I don't want to just sit at the back all day."

Chad Haga (Sunweb)

Where Tom Dumoulin goes, Chad Haga goes too. The 29-year-old Texan supported Dumoulin to the overall victory at the Giro d'Italia last year. This year, he's had his work cut out for him at the Sunweb team, once again supporting Dumoulin to a runner-up overall finish at the Giro, and he will play the same role at the upcoming Tour de France.

"I'm really happy with my role right now and I enjoy working for the team leader. I find riders like Tom Dumoulin inspiring and motivating. The fact that he almost always delivers is brilliant," Haga said on the team's website.

Haga has competed in seven Grand Tours during his career; three times at the Vuelta a España (2014, 2016 and 2017) and four times at the Giro d'Italia (2015-2018). Like Boswell, this is Haga's first-ever Tour de France and his abilities will be utilized through the mountains as Sunweb chase the yellow jersey all the way to Paris.

"4 Giros and 3 Vueltas under my belt, time to learn what Le Tour is all about!" Haga posted on Twitter after the team announced their roster for the Tour de France.

Haga will form a support team for Dumoulin in the medium to mountain stages that also includes Laurens ten Dam, Michael Matthews and Simon Geschke, according to director Tom Veelers, although Matthews will also be vying stage wins on the punchy stages, and Edward Theuns and Nikias Arndt will look to the flat stages for success.

Veelers said that the team has never had a major focus on the GC at the French Grand Tour and so together they are approaching new territory.

"Primarily everyone's responsibility is to keep Tom safe during each stage," he said. "We've never been to the Tour de France with a GC focus and it will be a completely new experience for us and a long-term challenge that we are looking forward to.

"We want to get through that process with Tom this year without any pressure on results, creating the foundations to build on in the years to come.

"The parcours provide the perfect platform for an exciting race, and after achieving this year's GC goal of a podium at the Giro, we're very motivated to head to France and look forward to seeing what it brings this year."

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