Tejay van Garderen is one step closer to an unprecedented American stage racing double after winning the Vail time trial on Friday at the USA Pro Challenge. With an overall Amgen Tour of California victory in the books in May, van Garderen is on the verge of adding the USA Pro Challenge title to his palmares - a sweep of the USA's two premier stage races, both ranked 2.HC, and heretofore never won by one rider in the same year.
Prior to 2013 van Garderen had never won a stage race as a professional, but the 25-year-old American has showed maturity, tactical acumen and confidence this season which culminated first with overall victory at the Amgen Tour of California.
Van Garderen made a critical split on the fifth stage to Avila Beach that earned the BMC rider the leader's jersey, and the following day a time trial victory further consolidated his hold on the general classification.
Three months later at Colorado's USA Pro Challenge, van Garderen withstood an assault by Garmin-Sharp up the Bachelor Gulch ascent in the finale of stage 4, then escaped with Janier Acevedo to both put time into his biggest rival, Tom Danielson, and remove the yellow leader's jersey from the back of Danielson's teammate Lachlan Morton.
The following day on a Vail time trial course which delivered heartbreak for van Garderen in 2011, the BMC American again scored a decisive victory against the clock, this time with an effort that set a new course record of 25:01.94. Van Garderen dished out his own heartbreak to Garmin-Sharp's Andrew Talansky, who was ignominiously booted from the hot seat after a scorching 25:05.70 time of his own, and added more than one minute to Danielson's GC deficit, third place finisher on the day but 1:02 in arrears.
Van Garderen had previously placed fifth, then fourth at the Amgen Tour of California preceding his victory there this season. In Colorado van Garderen has made similar forward progress with a third, then second place GC result in 2011 and 2012 respectively, with victory two days away in Denver.
"I've grown up a lot. I just have a lot more experience," said van Garderen. "I now have four Grand Tours in my legs. I think I'm a lot smarter, a lot calmer and I can stay more relaxed."
Van Garderen has learned from his mistakes, citing the example of losing the yellow jersey to Levi Leipheimer in Colorado in 2011 on the same Vail time trial route.
"I got a full night's sleep last night whereas in 2011, when I was in the jersey and I made that stupid balls comment in the media about Levi, I kind of lost a little sleep about that.
"I was texting him, trying to apologize to him and say 'No, no, no - I didn't really mean it that way.' I never heard back and I was kind of getting the cold shoulder from him that day. I think that kind of stressed me out.
"I can stay a bit more calm and be confident that I can just pull it out when I need to."
Van Garderen indeed pulled it out when he needed to today in Vail as he went through the intermediate time check 32 seconds faster than the previous mark set by Talansky, but overcame a painful finale to hang on for the win by four seconds.
"I was actually trying to be conservative on the way out but I think I still got the pacing wrong because I died a little bit in the last 2km," said van Garderen. "Luckily I had enough of a buffer to hold onto the win."
While van Garderen has felt the weight of expectations on his shoulders, such as his disappointing 2013 Tour de France, he has nonetheless learned how to better manage the pressure.
"There's always expectations. We're paid to do this job and if you're a leader of a team there are certain expectations that go with that. Sometimes I've been my own worst enemy in that regard but I've definitely done a lot to work on myself - just trying to stay relaxed. At the end of the day we have a fun job. We're riding bikes out there and it's not a bad gig."
With Sunday's closing stage expected to be a day for the sprinters, van Garderen enters tomorrow's stage from Loveland to Fort Collins knowing its his rivals' final chance to wrest yellow from his shoulders.
"I'm expecting an aggressive race from Garmin going up to Estes Park," said van Garderen. "Things could get out of hand and Tom [Danielson] could slip up the road with 20 guys and my team kind of falls apart then I can get in trouble. That being said I have full confidence in my team and I think we're strong enough to control anything.
"I think we're ready to take this to Denver."