Tejay van Garderen's trajectory to the Tour de France has followed a similar path to last year, with the American impressing in several early season races, but as he tells Cyclingnews, the Tour remains the main objective.
Having finished second overall in the Ruta del Sol and backing that up with fifth in the Volta a Catalunya, the 27-year-old American is understandably optimistic about his Tour chances. The signing of Richie Porte from Team Sky, he says is an advantage, and with his tail up, van Garderen heads into this week's Tour of Romandie full of confidence.
"I think I'm where I need to be. The first part of the season was pretty successful, and starting at Ruta del Sol I had some positive things to take from there, including a victory in the TT."
Perhaps the only blemish on van Garderen's 2016 CV came at Tirreno-Adriatico, where an untimely mechanical and the cancellation of the queen stage saw him lose any chance of finishing near the top of the overall standings.
"Tirreno was a bit of a hiccup, but that was mainly down to circumstances rather than luck. I bounced back at Catalunya, and now I'm just going to keep on trucking along towards Romandie, the Dauphine and then the Tour. I've stayed healthy too, and I've not really missed a beat in terms of training days. If you look around about 90 per cent of the peloton has got sick this spring, and I've avoided that. I've got to be happy with that."
Van Garderen's career has been dotted with both highs and lows at the Tour de France. Twice in the last four years, he has cracked the top five, but twice he has fallen apart through a combination of illness and dipping form. Should the pattern continue, he should once again muster a healthy overall challenge in July but with another stellar field including Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Fabio Aru and Alberto Contador all set to race, there will be little margin for error.
Although van Garderen abandoned last year's Tour in the mountains, he was, to the surprise of many, Froome's closest challenger after the opening skirmishes. That fact offers little in the way of consolation but does suggest that van Garderen has the potential to mount a more serious challenge if he can remain healthy and competitive.
"There was the fab four last year," he says, pointing to the pre-race list of favourites that included Froome, Contador, Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali.
"I didn't make that list. Then part of the way through the Tour I was on the list, but then a few days later I was off it again. All those guys have won grand tours, and I've not finished on a podium in one yet so it makes sense if I'm not on the forefront of their minds, but that can only be an advantage, right? I've raced them enough, and I've beaten them enough on a few occasions. Maybe I'm a four star instead of a five star.
"You'd have to ask some of the other contenders about how seriously they take me a threat," van Garderen adds.
"I'm going into the race thinking that I'm a GC contender, and maybe it's a good thing if some people underestimate me. I'm going into the Tour though with high hopes and high expectations."
At the start of the season van Garderen was peppered with questions regarding the signing of Richie Porte from Team Sky. It was seen in some quarters that his team had lost faith in their leader and that Porte, for so long Froome's right-hand man, was being brought in to finish the job and step onto the Tour podium. The pair's opening season form and the fact that van Garderen has signed a new contract with the team went some way to squashing that speculation.
Both van Garderen and Porte have similar riding traits, and they will spearhead BMC Racing's Tour challenge together. They raced Catalunya this spring – their first race together with Porte finished one place above the American in fourth. That experience silenced a portion of questions relating to how they would work together, and like he did earlier in the season, van Garderen stressed that the pair's working relationship was an advantage.
"It was really the best thing for me and Richie. I noticed in Catalunya we were both racing aggressively but working together. I think that was something missing from the past because this team has a huge emphasis on WorldTour points that it almost feels like if you're sitting there in third or fourth place, then you're better off sitting there and not necessarily attacking and going for the victory. It's a plan of don't risk losing, just sit there and make sure you get those points.
"Now that we have two guys up there we can fall back on one another. If I attack then at least, we have Richie back there and vice versa. It means that we can take a bit more of a risk and not just follow the wheels. That's more fun to race that way. We enjoyed racing together like that in Catalunya. We live close by, he's in Monaco, and I'm in Nice, and those six-hour rides mean you get to know each other really well. We've only done one race, but I hope we can get more in and solidify our relationship."