For four of the last five years, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) has taken second place overall but no wins in his opening season stage race - but in 2016, the American has ended that particular statistic in the best way possible, capturing the victory and the overall lead in the time trial stage of the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol.
Second in the Volta ao Algarve in 2011, second in San Luis in 2013, second in the Tour of Oman both in 2014 and 2015, in the 2016 Vuelta a Andalucia’s 21 kilometre time trial on Saturday in Alhaurin de la Torre, van Garderen’s small but sufficient two second advantage over Holland’s Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo) netted the 27-year-old American the earliest ever season win of his career.
Windblasted, technical and with one very tough, if short, climb early on, van Garderen said afterwards that calculating his strength on such a tricky course - starting and finishing in the same town and roughly ovaloid in shape but with numerous changes of direction throughout - had been crucial. What also came very much in useful was a pre-race reconnaissance of the course.
“The pacing strategy was definitely hard to calculate, on the way out there was tailwind, but it was a lot of climbing, so you couldn’t really go easy, and then on the return part there was more downhill but a headwind. So you had to really pace your effort well. We re-conned this course before the race started, we knew what we were up against and I think we got it perfect,” van Garderen said to a small group of reporters after receiving his various trophies as the days’s winner. These included, curiously enough, a minature tower in honour of the stage’s host town name: Alhaurin de la Torre [Alhaurin of the Tower - Ed.]
The final stage of the Vuelta a Andalucia, featuring a 14 kilometre ascent of Alto de Peñas Blancas on Sunday, is now set to be decisive, and given there are 22 riders in the space of less than a minute at the top of the classification, the sparks will surely fly.
However, with three BMC Racing Team riders in the top ten of the stage and now overall - himself, Brent Bookwater in fourth and Samuel Sanchez in seventh, van Garderen argued “if you look at the resutls of today, we have the strongest team here. And that gives me a lot of confidence that I’m not going to be isolated on the climb and then we just have to follow the big names.”
“We’re going to get a lot of attacks from guys like Kelderman, [Alejandro] Valverde (Movistar) and [Wout] Poels (Team Sky) so we just got to be ready.” He does not, unlike some of his rivals, know the Alto de Peñas Blancas first hand, but “we’ll study the route well, try to get a good feel for it. We have Sammy Sanchez here, and he knows every road in Spain so we’ve got a good road captain.”
It remains to be seen whether van Garderen can now become the first ever outright US winner of the Vuelta a Andalucia, one of Spain’s oldest stage races that started way back in 1925. But as van Garderen agreed, his lengthy run of runner’s up spots has now ended in Alhaurin de la Torre: “It seems like every year I come out second place in my first race of the season, in San Luis and two years in Oman, so it’s nice to get a win in here.”
At the same time, as he told Cyclingnews earlier this week, he is more than content to put a difficult 2015 behind him, which, after an abandon whilst in a very strong position in the Tour de France because of illness, ended for good with a bad crash and injuries in the Vuelta a España. “I wouldn’t say I’ve changed much over the winter, I’ve got a bit of an earlier start, so it’s good to put last year behind me and focus on this year.”