On the bad days, and there have been several on this Giro d'Italia, Tejay van Garderen's eyes seem only to see the ground beneath his feet. After a fruitless day in the break on the road to Canazei on Wednesday, for instance, he drifted through the finish area without so much as a word.
On the good days, van Garderen sees the world in sharper colours. When he sat down for his press conference after beating Mikel Landa (Sky) to win stage 18 in Ortisei, he immediately spotted a man in a Denver Broncos cap and broke into a broad smile, a rarity during this most trying Giro.
"Broncos! Broncos!" van Garderen called out, before inquiring where his fellow devotee of the American football team hailed from. "From Italy? And you have a Denver Broncos hat," van Garderen marvelled, as though this, and not winning a stage of the Giro, had been the highlight of his day in the Dolomites. It will, in any case, be an anecdote to tell his friend Eric Studesville, the Broncos running backs coach, who will visit the Giro d'Italia on its final day in Milan.
Up to this point, it had appeared a conclusive sort of a Giro for van Garderen, who was deployed to ride the corsa rosa as means of rediscovering himself after his past two tilts at the Tour de France had ended in disappointment. When disappointment on the Blockaus on stage 9 was followed by disaster in the Montefalco time trial two days later, it seemed van Garderen's days as a Grand Tour leader were numbered.
Nothing illustrated his torment better than the account BMC directeur sportif Max Sciandri gave to Il Corriere della Sera of the long drive back to the team hotel after that time trial stage. "For an hour he didn't say a word, and then he asked me to stop the car at an Autogrill," Sciandri said. "He drank a beer. He looked at me and he said: 'And now what do I tell the team?'"
Victory in Ortisei appears, temporarily at least, to have lightened van Garderen's dark night of the soul. Though van Garderen is now three seasons removed from his last consistent performance over an entire three weeks – his 5th place at the 2014 Tour – the American is still more than a year shy of his 30th birthday.
"I still think I'm capable of doing GC in a Grand Tour in the future, I'm not going to give up trying for that," van Garderen said. "Things might change as far as getting the full support of a team. I know that I'm not going to be up there with [Nairo] Quintana on Blockhaus, but I see myself as a similar rider to someone like [Tom] Dumoulin. I just need to eliminate these bad days and learn myself a bit more. But no, I'm not giving up on general classification."
Van Garderen remains at a loss to explain quite why his overall challenge at this Giro failed to materialise. After emerging unscathed from the first week in Italy's deep south, he was scrubbed out of the general classification picture even before it had begun to be defined on the Blockhaus.
"I don't know, something just didn't feel right last week and I had a bad couple of days. In a Grand Tour you can't have any bad days," van Garderen said. "I'm happy I was able to bounce back and show the form I have. It's disappointing the GC was a failure, but you have to salvage what you can on a stage like today, and I think that shows I rebounded very well."
Divorced from the general classification – he now lies 21st overall, almost 40 minutes down on Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) – van Garderen was able to ride with freedom on Thursday, infiltrating the sizable early move on the Passo Pordoi, and surviving the hardship meted out by the Valparola, Gardena and Passo di Pinei. Come the final haul of Pontives, only he and Landa remained out in front.
"When GC is no longer an option, you have to change your goals and change your focus," said van Garderen, who was riding in friendly confines on stage 18. "I've done altitude training camps in a hotel just up the road on Passo Gardena called Chalet Gerard. I knew every inch of the road today."
The two-up sprint with Landa came after a downhill run along the cobbled main street of Ortisei. It was not a finale for the faint-hearted, but van Garderen timed his effort well to see off Landa and claim the win. "Coming to that last corner, I knew it was downhill and you just had to hit it in first position," he said. "I was coming in on the inside and I just had to close it a little bit. I thought, 'If we crash, we crash, but I'm not braking.'"
Van Garderen confirmed that he is not part of BMC's plans for the Tour, where the team will be built around Richie Porte, though he suggested that the Vuelta a España might yet feature on his programme. His longer-term future has yet to be resolved, but this victory provides solace to the man and a bargaining chip for the rider.
"For some reason these past few years haven't gone my way, but I'm going to try and get it back on track and fight again another day," van Garderen said. "This is definitely a good feeling, but I know I can do GC in a Grand Tour. I've done it before, there's no reason I can't do it again."