On a gloomy Belgian evening in 2010, Tejay van Garderen strides into the lobby of the Auberge du Pecheur hotel. Twenty-one at the time, the American is in his first season as a professional with HTC-Highroad. The team with a proven track record for signing young talent has created a production line that has already seen Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Matt Goss taste major success and there’s every chance that van Garderen could be next.
He can time trial and he can climb but beneath his talent is a dogged level of confidence not displayed by the majority of neo pros.
Instrumental in bringing the American rider to the team was Allan Peiper, who scouted him during van Garderen’s stint with the Rabobank under 23 team. Three years have since passed and the pair have been reunited at BMC with van Garderen a more polished rider and Peiper the team’s Performance Director.
“We were following him a few years before he came to Highroad and we were looking at what he could do in the races that he won,” Peiper tells Cyclingnews.
“I think it was Circuito Montañés in Spain and we saw back then that he could do well in the mountain stages and he could do a decent time trial. He stood out as a real potential stage race. I had contact with him and them I went though his manager. We were an American team and we wanted to make a big push for Tejay.”
A contract was signed and van Garderen threw himself into the challenging life of a first-year professional. When Cyclingnews first met him on that typically chilly night and on the eve of Het Nieuwsblad he talked confidently and extensively about his dreams and aspirations. Het Newisblad wasn’t a race he could be successful in but he’d requested that that team throw him in at the deep end.
"I don't think I'm the type of rider for these Belgian races but you never know when these skills can come in handy,” he told Cyclingnews at the time.
“Guys that have experience in that have the advantage over some of those 50 kilo Spanish climbers who have no idea what to do."
Since his debut season van Garderen has cut his cloth in week-long stage races, picking up significant places in the Dauphiné, Volta ao Algarve and the US Pro Challenge. Last season saw the significant breakthrough with fifth place at the Tour de France and America’s first white jersey since Andy Hampsten in 1986.
“Him riding to fifth in the Tour last year was a major step forward,” Peiper says.
“To do that in a three week race, in a team with Cadel, and the way he rode the final time trial, it was impressive. It showed the potential he has for the future.”
In most other WorldTour teams, van Garderen’s result would have signified complete backing for the 2013 edition of the Tour. However, Cadel Evans, despite his injury-affected 2012 result, has bounced back this year. It remains to be seen as to whether the veteran can replicate his 2011 form, or if he can recover from a demanding Giro, but his third place in Italy has done enough to reassure the BMC management that he can lead the team. Van Garderen may have outshone his teammate at Paris-Nice and Critérium International but BMC have shown faith in experience, a card they have routinely played in the Classics too.
Peiper is certainly wise enough to recognise van Garderen’s ambition and that Evans can not go on forever, and alludes that van Garderen will step into Evans’ shoes should the Australian falter sooner than planned.
“I think that the whole dynamic actually within out team is going through a phase simultaneously with Cadel and Tejay. It’s somewhat a changing of the guard. I think that Tejay riding in the shadow of Cadel last year and not having the pressure of being the designated leader and not having the stress of recon or carrying the team, brought him into the perfect situation where everything was ideal and he finished fifth. That’s to his merit because he deserved that,” adds Peiper.
“At any point the management has to make decisions and you need to be prepared for those scenarios. You can never read what’s going to happen in a race but both of the riders will be aware of the long-term plan.”
Evans has been pigeonholed as BMC’s team leader once again for the Tour. It’s an understandable move. No rider has even gone from winning the Tour of California to claiming success at the Tour de France [Floyd Landis aside] and Evans' stock remains relatively high after May’s Giro. On top of that, BMC have appeared to give Evans a level of stability that previous teams have been unable to provide. Indeed, they managed to cajole him into riding the Giro, which Lotto miserably failed to do so some years before and ended up with Evans leaving the team.
“The A plan is that we go to the Tour and Cadel is the leader. That’s been clear all year, much to disbelief of some journalists and those who have tried to imply differently. That has been the plan and both Cadel and Tejay have accepted that. We’re fully aware that Cadel has ridden the Giro and it was a really hard race. How he turns that around and comes into the Tour is a different question and it’s difficult not to take that into consideration.”
“I think it was a masterstroke of John Lelangue to put Cadel into the Giro and getting him to believe in doing the Giro. Cadel was in a bit of a difficult place back in March, and things weren’t going as he hoped. There was still some doubt in his mind over whether he was at the level still. Taking him to the Giro was a chance and it paid off. Depending on how he recovers the most important thing is that he has confidence that he can do it still.”
This leaves van Garderen as Evans’ chief support for the Tour. Whether that will still be the case by the time the race enters the mountains remains to be seen but the replication of last year’s Tour hierarchy should suit both riders, creating a structure for Evans and any fragility, while also providing van Garderen with a deflector shield to hold up against the media.
“Cadel of course realises that his expiry date is coming around,” Peiper says.
“He realises that and he knows that this is probably the last time he’ll lead the Tour team and after that the baton will be handed over to Tejay. That’s going to be the big telling point. So if Tejay slips a couple of places this year that’s what happens, I think the job at hand is to support Cadel and of course that still means we have Tejay in the back pocket. Tejay can still learn a hell of a lot from Cadel.”
With the Tour mobilising on its way to Corsica and with van Garderen and Evans putting the finishing touches to their Tour de France preparations, only time will tell if the baton of leadership at BMC is handed over this year or next.