Tejay van Garderen: America's next Tour de France icon?

BMC rider talks to Cyclingnews about the responsibility of being the best rider in the USA

He is arguably the USA’s best chance of success at the Tour de France in over a decade but as he tells Cyclingnews, Tejay van Garderen doesn’t see himself as a national cycling icon. Not yet, anyway.

Atop Mount Etna in early spring, van Garderen makes his final checks as he plans for the day’s training with several BMC teammates. A quick espresso and he’ll soon be out the door. It’s just another day at altitude camp for the American flyer.

This year, just as in the previous four seasons, van Garderen is plotting a path to success at the Tour. Having finished fifth twice, and won the white jersey in 2012, he is part of elite group of riders capable of finishing on the Tour de France podium. It’s a realistic aim for the 27-year-old from Washington, and who knows, with the rub of the green, healthier lungs than he had in 2015, a step or two higher on the podium is possible.

How important success at the Tour de France would be for cycling in the USA is hard to quantify. The nation and its fans have seen the gloss taken off their previous accomplishments. The USA’s official Tour de France record stripped back from ten to three in a blink of an eye following Lance Armstrong’s disqualification and suspension. Now a generation of new riders trying to emerge and remedy a healing sport and van Garderen is very much front and centre in that story.

“You know, I read that article Jonathan Vaughters wrote for CN the other day,” van Garderen casually tells Cyclingnews before is morning training ride.

“He had some interesting things to say about how the sport in the US always pointed towards an icon.”

“In other countries there are more general fans of the sport and I thought that was an interesting point Jonathan said. We don’t have a Lance Armstrong or a Greg LeMond, or one of those big icons, so maybe people in the US, who grew up with those icons move onto another sport of they don’t find them nowadays.”

Labeling van Garderen as a current icon of US cycling would be unfair, not to mention misleading.

Despite consistency in stage races he is 29th in the UCI’s WorldTour rankings. He is the USA’s highest ranked rider with Lawson Craddock the next run on the ladder in 58th spot. There’s a collective of talented US riders but there’s not one star that fans and sponsors can gravitate to. 

“It’s a pretty big ask to make me out to be an icon. I’m not that. It would be cool if I could become that one day but I want people to be fans of the sport, not just an individual. That’s got to be what it’s about, right?” van Garderen suggests.

He’s right. Short termism would dictate the need for an icon and it’s not always a path that has worked out for the best [ed. see that ten to three stat once more]. For van Garderen, the desire is to give US cycling fans something to cheer about - whether that’s at the Tour de France, this summer’s Rio Olympics or at the other races he’ll ride in the build up to July.

“Of course I want to please the fans and give them something to cheer for. The thing is…” he says before pausing, “…I can only do my best and if it doesn’t happen then will the fans in the US be disappointed? I’m out there riding and training my hardest so there’s not much more than they can expect of me. That said, yeah, I’d like to give them something to cheer for. I hope I can deliver for them.”

Like 7-Eleven in the eighties

The US’s current position regarding talent was perhaps best demonstrated by their gusty ride in last year’s elite men’s race at the world championships in Richmond. They had numbers in every effective move bar Peter Sagan’s final attack and young riders rode out of their skins to animate the race. The US team lacked someone to truly finish off the job but each rider competed with their head held high and with their reputations enhanced. When you can’t win, at least do your team and your jersey proud. At the finish in Richmond it almost felt like a cathartic experience for the men’s US elite scene – after a period of disgrace, retributive language and then reflection, a new dawn had begun.

“I was never in those other eras,” van Garderen says when talking about the years of LeMond and Armstrong.

“But if I think about it, the generation we have now, they’re probably closer to the 7-Eleven era from the 80s. I guess they had Greg back then but I look at how 7-Eleven operated with these young guys coming into the sport and who popped off a few big results and made the best of what they had. I wouldn’t compare myself to Greg or Lance but maybe Taylor Phinney is like Steve Bauer and I could be like an Andy Hampsten. I see us as the underdogs riding together, being strong friends, being excited to be here but also capable of taking on the best.”

The best for such a long period was of course Armstrong. He dominated and even eclipsed the sport for many a season. His hold on the sport has been severed with his life-time ban but his presence is still felt. Only Armstrong could take attention away from the Tour de France as he did last year when he showed up for a charity ride, and only he could remain such a divisive figure – a human hand-grenade for the current US riders to chuck between each other in the press, all fearful that each comment they make could blow up in their face at any moment.

Van Garderen has suffered that fate probably more than most. When he was pictured being motor-paced by Armstrong he was castigated on social media and burned as a result. Van Garderen is resolute and smart enough to know that Twitter and public popularity are not indicators as to whom one should associate, even if the outcome of a former doper offering you a pacing favour is somewhat predictable.

“A lot of people would say no comment [when asked about Lance] and I might have taken some bad press but I don’t know. Even to this day I have trouble coming up with the words for it. Lance is a very intelligent guy and despite everything I still have respect for him and there’s still much you can learn from a guy like that. The fact is we both have homes in Aspen and we’re going to run into each other. I try to soak up knowledge from anywhere and that’s what I was doing. I wanted to get his advice and one of those times he motor-paced me. There’s nothing to justify, it’s just a neighbour helping a neighbour out.”

“We need to move on from that era but you have to learn from the past, what was good and what was bad, because that’s how you forge forward.”

This summer van Garderen will be focused on forging his own path on the roads of France. He may not yet have icon status, and perhaps never will but if he does his best and is a true role model for cycling in the USA, isn’t that better than an icon built on falsehood?

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