Tejay van Garderen said Wednesday that he is currently in better form than he was heading into the Tour de France last year when he finished fifth, and he is confident he can finish on the race's podium for the first time.
The BMC Racing leader spoke with reporters via conference call from his home in Nice after recently returning from an altitude training camp in the Dolomites with teammate Brent Bookwalter.
"Everything seems right on track," van Garderen said. "All the numbers in training, the weight, the health, everything seems to be going perfect. I took a lot of motivation and morale out of the Dauphiné result, so I'm just excited to get things going."
Van Garderen finished second earlier this month at the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he led the race going into the final day before losing by 10 seconds to Chris Froome, Team Sky's 2013 Tour winner. Froome, of course, will be at the Tour this year, along with fellow pre-race favourites Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), the defending champion; Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), recent Giro d'Italia winner and two-time Tour champion; and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), winner of the 2014 Giro d'Italia.
To reach the podium, the 26-year-old American will have to out-ride several of the sport's biggest names over the span of three weeks. Buoyed by his early season success, good form and relatively smooth run up to July, however, van Garderen made no bones about his chances to make the podium when the race concludes July 26 on the Champs-Élysées.
"I believe on any given day I can beat those guys," he said. "I've shown already that I've beaten them before. It's quite another thing to beat them consistently over three weeks. But if you look at past stages of races I've done, just this year at Catalunya when I won the stage to La Molina, Contador was third. On the stage to Pra-Loup this year in the Dauphiné, Bardet won the stage, I was second and Froome third. So it's not like when those guys attack I just say 'Ok, I'll see you later.' I'm getting closer to them."
This year's Tour will be van Garderen's fifth attempt at the race. He rode his first Tour in 2011, working for stage wins for then-teammate Mark Cavendish, who collected five.
"It was a successful Tour, but with zero emphasis on the general classification," he said. "I was doing a lot of work on the flat stages, pulling the front to keep the breakaways in check. Then when I got to the mountains I had nothing."
Van Garderen returned to the race with BMC in 2012, working on behalf of defending champion Cadel Evans. When Evans began to fade in the final week, van Garderen surged forward, eventually finishing fifth overall and winning the white jersey as the best young rider. Talk of Tour de France podiums immediately followed.
"Once that happened I think everyone saw like, 'OK, now you need to follow more of a Tour de France GC rider's template.' Like, this is what Tour de France riders do, so let's do this," van Garderen said.
But that plan didn't work out in 2013, when van Garderen consistently lost time and finished 45th. Since then, he said, there has been a lot of tweaking his preparation to find the right path to success in July. Van Garderen was given full reins of the BMC's Tour team last year when Cadel Evans rode the Giro instead, and he parlayed the opportunity into his second fifth-place result. Van Garderen skipped the Tour of California in May last year, choosing instead to prepare for the Tour by racing in Europe. He's taken a similar route to the Tour this year.
"In 2012 it showed me what I was capable of, and now it's just been a learning process about how do we tap into that and get the most out of it," he said. "Last year, it was kind of rough and tumble with the broken hip in Romandie and all the crashes and everything that happened during the Tour. So this year I really feel like things have gone very smooth. I'm hitting perfect form just at the right time, and if we can avoid all the pitfalls in the dangerous first week, I think we might just have it figured out."
Van Garderen went into Dauphiné just below his top form, he said, after not having raced for nearly six weeks beforehand. He said the week of racing boosted his form heading into the Tour, followed by his altitude camp.
"Now I'm back at sea level at my place in Nice just putting some finishing touches on things, making sure I stay sharp, watching my diet and my weight," he said. "I think I was pretty close to there, but now, heading into the Tour, I think I'll be a good notch and a half higher."
Van Garderen said he is a kilo lighter than when he raced the Dauphiné, and his max power test was at least 10 watts higher than it was at any time last year.
"This is all pointing to good signs, but then again, what you can do in training and what you can do in a racing scenario is completely different," he said. "Guys like Wiggins and the guys on Sky, I now they like to talk a lot about the numbers, and all the VAM and the TSS and all that sort of hocus pocus stuff. There's something to it – numbers don't lie – but they also don't tell the whole truth."
Van Garderen said he is trying not to read too much into his Dauphiné success or his perfectly on-track preparation. The Tour is a three-week race, after all, and he knows as well as anyone that it has a way of dishing up surprises and throwing obstacles into what had previously seemed like a clear path. He said although losing is never easy, over the past five years he's learned to process disappointment more quickly and move on to the next goal. He also knows that at 26, he'll have more opportunities to chase his Tour de France goals if the race doesn't play out the way he'd like it to this year.
"I'm very motivated and I'm very confident," he said. "I'm in a really good place going into this Tour; I think we have a really good team and just all the vibes I'm getting for this Tour are just very good. I really want to make the podium or even higher – anything is possible – but to say I'm putting in all my chips, I'm going to do it this year and it's now or never? It's not now or never. You know, I've got a good six to eight more years of trying to make the podium or win the Tour."