While most of his peers have enjoyed success this season, American Tejay van Garderen (BMC) has yet to show himself as one of the top contenders for the Tour de France, but is looking for results at the Tour de Suisse -which begins on Saturday, to demonstrate that he is a podium favourite.
"I think I've shown consistency and solid form. My level is high, but I just haven't had that outstanding result," van Garderen said from a training camp in Andorra last week. "I think now is the time the form really needs to be there, and start ratcheting it up that one extra level. From what I've seen in training I'm there, we just have to test it in these next races."
In 2015, the BMC rider was rarely mentioned in the list of favourites behind the 'fab four' Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana, but forced himself into the mix with a strong first week and a team time trial that put him in second place overall. Riding in a position for the final podium, he fell ill and then dropped out on stage 17, just days from Paris.
Other Tour de France rivals like Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) have enjoyed more success - Pinot won two stages and the GC in Criterium International, won the time trial in Romandie and took second overall. Van Garderen has only a single victory - the time trial in Ruta del Sol - and second place overall there so far, in contrast to last season, where he finished second overall at Tour of Oman and the Criterium du Dauphine, and won a stage in Cataluyna.
The Ruta del Sol was a highlight for his spring and van Garderen says he is on track since then.
"It's too bad it didn't snowball from there with more victories but I've had some solid results since then. I'll take another chance at Tour de Suisse, try to get another win - either a stage win or a high GC place, then it's full gas for the Tour."
Van Garderen says the relative lack of results was more circumstance than absence of fitness.
"I've definitely had some positive results so far, especially in Ruta del Sol. Tirreno-Adriatico was a bit of an odd race with the stage cancellation changing the dynamic, but I didn't lack for form," he said.
"Catalunya was good, I was mixing it up with some of the best. Tour de Romandie was a mixed bag. There was this weird situation - I crashed into the medical car coming back from a nature break on stage 2. It had a sensor on it that braked automatically when it got too close to the car in front of it. That's an odd thing to have on when you're driving in a caravan one metre apart from each other. This car just braked in front of us, and three of us - all from BMC - went down. That kind of screwed me up for that final. I think I showed solid form there, but you always have to ask 'what if'."
"The spring is behind me now. There was some good and some bad there. As far as fitness, I'm healthy, I'm strong. I've ticked all the boxes. I'm going into Switzerland with a lot of confidence. That will be more of a test of where I'm at."
A different programme
Van Garderen's build up for the season has been different from previous years: instead of racing in Oman as he has for the past two years, or Paris-Nice as he's done every year since 2011, he chose a programme in Spain, racing Murcia, Almeria, and Ruta del Sol before Tirreno-Adriatico, Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie.
"I wouldn't say there was an earth-shattering difference in my build up to the Tour as opposed to other years. It's been nice to stay on one Continent, and not do any time changes or extra travel. We swapped out Paris-Nice for Tirreno-Adriatico, that was a good experience. Then I did Ruta del Sol instead of Oman, which was nice to not have the burden of jet lag. It's been nice to do some new races, see some new scenery."
Van Garderen's start to the season has been a bit more intensive than defending Tour de France champion Froome, though he has fewer race days than Quintana or Contador. Still, he thinks Froome is the odds-on favourite for the Tour.
"He just had his first child this winter, so I'm sure that affected a few things. He has a history of getting sick in the bad weather part of the season, so I think he tried to avoid that. I don't think the lack of racing slows him down, he's right where he needs to be. Then guys like Contador race a lot. Everyone has their method and what works for them. I don't think too much about that, I just try to find what works for me."
Quintana, the overall winner in Catalunya and Romandie, he says, has had the strongest spring, and Contador has not been far behind.
"But you don't learn much from the spring. I feel like the season is two different parts, the spring and the summer. We'll learn a lot more form the June races than from anything that's happened before. Even then, if you're flying in the June races you could come in too hot into the Tour and burn out a bit. Everyone's clock at the Tour starts at zero. They put a lot of emphasis on what the build-up was, but once you get into the third week, everyone forgets about any victories before, what they did in Romandie or Dauphine, and it's only what they're doing now. Everything else just falls away."
Tour de Suisse versus Dauphine
Van Garderen will race the Tour de France as a co-leader with BMC teammate Richie Porte. The pair raced together in Romandie and Catalunya, but chose to take separate paths to the Tour de France this month, with Porte racing in the Dauphine while van Garderen heads to Switzerland.
"It was kind of my call to do Tour de Suisse, just to branch out from my normal routine a little bit. I like the course, it has a time trial and a prologue, whereas the Dauphine only has one uphill prologue, so it was good to get another couple tests in the TT bike. There are some solid summit finishes in Tour de Suisse, while the Dauphine doesn't seem to have as many mountains."
"I also felt like it gave me a little space and breathing room. We just came from a recon camp, then it's Dauphine, then another camp and then the Tour. This was my chance to step back and do my own thing, then do Tour de Suisse, then show up at camp a little later. Being sucked along with the group, sometimes I need my own space to focus and do what I need to do."
Van Garderen is eyeing a few stages at the Tour de Suisse to show himself aside from the time trial, one in particular on stage 7.
"There are four mountain stages, three summit finishes, and I looked at the profiles - none of them look easy. The climb to Sölden looks the most demanding. If you're going to win the race it's going to be either on that climb or on the time trial."
Nibali's Giro d'Italia ride 'inspiring'
Van Garderen established himself as a Tour de France contender by winning the best young rider's jersey in 2012, but the years since have been a struggle. In 2013, he crashed in the first week and had two terrible days in the mountains. In 2014, he crashed again but rallied.
Watching Nibali's come from behind Giro d'Italia victory, the American said, shows that in Grand Tours you can never give up fighting.
"I think I showed that in 2014. I crashed and was haemorrhaging time. I bonked on one day, and it seemed everything was against me. I kept fighting and i ended up fifth place. It's obviously not the comeback of Vincenzo Nibali, but certainly it means you should never stop fighting. It was an inspiring ride by Nibali, in those last two days he pulled off something I don't think anyone expected."
Contrast that to 2015, where van Garderen had no choice but to surrender to an illness that sapped his body of all its strength.
"Last year's Tour was a different story. My body just completely shut down. I don't think the two are comparable. It started as a cold that I picked up after the stage to Plateau de Beille. I was nursing that and hoping to survive to the rest day and hope it would clear up. Then I came down with a fever on the rest day. It felt like I was OK the morning of the next stage, but once the race started the body wasn't working. The legs weren't turning over. It was pitiful. I just couldn't pedal. The headache came back, it felt more like a migraine - it was obvious that something was wrong."
The devastating DNF while sitting in a podium position has not deterred van Garderen from declaring his intentions for this year's Tour de France.
"I'm still going in with the hope of a podium. I'm not afraid to admit that," he said with a show of confidence.
Vuelta over the Olympics
Van Garderen was the first American athlete to declare that he will not compete in the Olympic Games due to the outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil, out of concern for his wife's pregnancy with their second child. Instead, he will compete in the Vuelta a España with the aim of using back-to-back Grand Tours to add a level to his performance.
"They say that once you complete a Grand Tour it changes you as a rider. If you can complete back to back Grand Tours, I think it's something that can give you more depth," he explained.
"Maybe that's the next logical progression. I'll be 28 in August. I'm old enough and mature enough that maybe I can handle it. Technically last year I did two, but I made it to stage 17 of the Tour and only stage 8 of the Vuelta before I crashed and broke my arm. If I were to complete it this year, it would be the first time."
The Vuelta will be the end to his season since his wife is due to give birth around the time of the world championships.
"That's another part of the programme I'm going to have to skip. When I say it like this, it sounds like my season's almost over - all I have is Tour de Suisse, the Tour de France and the Vuelta. Only three more races, three pretty big ones, but that will be it for the season."