Even before Tejay van Garderen (BMC) casually cruised his bike into a hotel ballroom for the final press conference of the 2013 Amgen Tour of California, it was obvious the 24-year-old overall winner had learned to relax and enjoy the moment. Success can do that for a person.
"It's a big relief to finally get my first stage race victory," he said. "I've been close on a number of occasions, and I was starting to get worried I didn't have what it took to win one. Now I've proven I can, it's a big relief, and I can go into every race a little less stressed. Sometimes if you loosen your grip it will come naturally."
Van Garderen's last win in a UCI stage race came in 2009 when he was riding for Rabobank's Continental-ranked development team. He's come close many times since, running second at the Presidential Tour of Turkey in 2010, the Volta ao Algarve in 2011 and the USA Pro Challenge last year, but he hasn't been able to get onto the top step of the podium until this week.
Taking that step has been years in the making for the rider from Bozeman, Montana, said team General manager Jim Ochowicz
"This being his first major stage race victory is an accomplishment," Ochowicz said. "We're proud of him. He learned to manage the team in a high-profile race for a week. That's a big accomplishment for him."
Van Garderen said patience and learning to manage a team throughout the week were the keys to his victory, like when he had to tell former World Champions and Tour de France veterans like Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert that he needed their support at the front of the race.
"That can give you nerves - a 24-year-old telling guys who have been in the sport for a decade what to do," he said. "That comes with the territory being a team leader, and they expect it. I'm getting more comfortable in that, and the guys are getting comfortable with it, and they want me to do that. They are encouraged by that.
"On the first stage when Mancebo and Westra took time on bonus, those are dangerous guys," van Garderen added. "We didn't want them to get time. In the past we might have panicked. Now I was confident in my form and knew we'd take the time back, and we did."
Those lessons of patience and confidence will no doubt come in handy for the new father whose wife Jessica gave birth to their first child, daughter Rylan, on April 7. But they haven't come easy. Van Garderen has been plying this trade for the past 10 years on development teams and now in the WorldTour.
"I first went to Europe when I was 17 years-old as an elite junior with the national team," he said. "These guys [fellow podium riders Carter Jones and Lawson Craddock] can tell you what life's like in Belgium. It was a sacrifice. I had to work a lot in school ahead of time so I could graduate a month early so I could race bikes in Europe. I had to give up my summer vacations to go to Europe and race.
"Racing in Europe is a big culture shock," he added. "There are different hotels, different languages, the roads are tiny. There is no way to prepare for that, you can't train for that. You just have to do it. All those sacrifices I made then are paying off now."
Van Garderen has also now placed himself in a good position for a leadership role with BMC at the Tour de France, where he placed fifth overall last year and came away with the white jersey for best young rider. But with former Tour winner Cadel Evans on the team and currently riding well in the Giro d'Italia, van Garderen could also find himself back in a support role. Ochowicz said the team views van Garderen's development as a long-term effort.
"It's not short-term," he said. "It's not about the next month, six months. It's about the next 10 years. We're taking one race at a time. We just accomplished winning the race, and we're pleased with that.
"He's obviously in good form, he's had a good season," Ochowicz said. "All four stage races he's done [this season], he's placed first, second, third and fourth - those are good results, good conditioning. The Tour is still a couple months away, but I keep saying it's not about the short term, it's a long career he's looking forward to."
Ochowicz was dodgy when asked about whether van Garderen had earned a leadership role at the Tour this year, and if the rider hasn't, when he might be ready.
"We don't know how far away he is," Ochowicz said. "Each year the Tour changes, the time trials play a big part in the Tour, the team time trial, the mountain stages. We can't predict. He obviously has the talent, and it will happen whether it's this year, next or down the road."
But the rider had a much more direct answer about when he thought he would be a contender at the Tour de France.
"Six weeks," van Garderen said.