Tejay van Garderen (BMC) joined Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) on the final podium at he Tour of Oman, happy to have completed his first stage race of the season with a good performance. It was a display that suggests he is starting arguably the biggest season of his career in excellent form and proves to himself that he is on track for his gradual build-up for the Tour de France.
The talented 25-year-old American has yet finish on a Grand Tour podium but his fifth place in the 2012 Tour de France and victories at the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Procycling Challenge in 2013 rightly earned him team leadership at BMC for this year's Grand Boucle. We are still five months from knowing who will stand on the Tour de France podium in Paris but van Garderen acknowledges he was in the good company on the Tour of Oman rostrum.
"I'm between two pretty big names in cycling: a Tour de France winner and a Giro d'Italia podium finisher. I'm honoured to be next to these guys," van Garderen told journalists present at the race.
"If you look at the names here, there are definitely some big contenders, so I'm happy to be in the mix with these guys. But I'm also trying to not get too high or not get too low. I'm trying to see this race as a good indicator for form and of things to come.
"We're a long way from July. You can't put too much emphasis on Green Mountain, that was a five kilometre climb. We're going to be tackling much longer, much harder and much steeper climbs than that.
"I wasn't really out to prove any points. I just go and do my best. Having had a good ride perhaps makes me a marked man for Paris-Nice but that would have been the case anyway. It's just nice to add another result to the resume and keep moving forward."
Responding to Team Sky untraditional tactics
Van Garderen got a taste of Team Sky's new aggressive race tactics during the Tour of Oman. Froome produced an attack on each of the three hilly stages and Team Sky opted to send Sergio Henao up the road in the final two kilometres of the stage to Green Mountain and early on during stage six to test their rivals' reactions. Last year Team Sky seemed to use a near robotic, power-metre inspired style of racing.
Under the watchful eye of Tour de France directeur sportif Nicolas Portal and team manager Dave Brailsford, however, the riders in Oman tried out several different race strategies and tested the riders in its roster including new signing Mikel Nieve and expert teammates such as Henao, Danny Pate, Dario Cataldo, David Lopez and Kanstantsin Siutsou.
"They've definitely been adopting a more aggressive style of racing. It makes it interesting," van Garderen revealed.
"Henao was jumping in breaks today, which makes some other GC guys jump too because if he gets up the road, then we have to ride. They're following an untraditional tactic, which makes it a bit more stressful for us but more exciting."
Racing is often compared to chess for its multiple strategic options. Van Garderen made it clear he and BMC had been ready to counter any specific end-game strategy Team Sky may try and devise.
"It almost didn't play out in their favour," he warned. "When Henao jumped, me and Kreuziger were careful too and so we jumped with him. The next thing you knew, there was a 15-rider breakaway and even Uran was in there. But Froome was back (in the peloton) and if we'd been more organised, it could have cost him the race. Tactics are tactics, they don't always play out as you plan."
Next goal: Paris-Nice
Van Garderen heads home to his new base in Nice after the Tour of Oman, to rest up and prepare for his next race and his next goal: Paris-Nice.
"I'll talk to my coaches and my (sports) directors and just get settled, try to be pretty low key and get in a few blocks of good training in, put the finishing touches on the form. I'm happy where I am right now," he said of his plans for the next two weeks.
Van Garderen is a strong time trialist and a strong climber, but this year's Paris-Nice route has no time trial or high mountains, making it wide open.
"I'd have liked to have a time trial or a mountain top finish to try to separate things out a bit. It seems like going there, there could be 80 guys lining up thinking they have a chance to win. It'll be interesting," he predicted.