In a Tour de France that was supposed to be all about the Fab Four, the Fifth Beatle has quietly elevated himself to marquee billing, though Tejay van Garderen (BMC) reached for a more recent cultural reference during his rest day press conference in Pau.
“The Backstreet Boys have five guys. It seemed a little incomplete,” van Garderen joked. The list of pre-race favourites began and ended with the names Froome, Quintana, Contador and Nibali, though van Garderen’s display thus far has been enough to add him to the reckoning.
“Those guys have all won Grand Tours and I have not, I haven’t even been on the podium of one, so it’s logical those guys were the five star favourites,” he said. “It was nice to fly under the radar a little bit but I was not at all offended. But it doesn’t matter what their names are or what they’ve done, the clock was at zero in Utrecht and we’ve raced here to win.”
After nine days of racing, the clock shows that van Garderen is just 12 seconds down on Froome, but almost a minute ahead of Contador, almost two minutes clear of Quintana and more than two up on Nibali. Van Garderen demurred when asked if he would settle now for second place overall in Paris.
“Right now if you put it on the table, I would say no,” van Garderen said. “I value more the process of how it happens. I would rather live through the process of getting 5th place and knowing I’d given 100 percent rather than signing a piece of paper guaranteeing me second place.”
Van Garderen’s status at this point in the Tour is thanks in no small part to the ability of his backing band at BMC. Victory in the team time trial in Plumelec on Sunday was the high note, but all through the first week his teammates performed a very passable cover version of Cadel Evans’ cohort at his victorious 2011 Tour.
“Right now I feel we’re riding this Tour the same way that Cadel rode in 2011, we’ve got strong guys on the front in the first week making sure we’re ahead of any splits,” van Garderen said. “We wanted to end first week a step ahead, not a step behind and it’s gone perfectly. We’ve taken that mould and applied it to this Tour de France and so far it’s working out very well.”
Like Evans, van Garderen is unlikely to go on the offensive when the Tour enters the Pyrenees on Tuesday with a summit finish at La Pierre Saint-Martin, which is followed by demanding days to Cauterets and Plateau de Beille. While his head-to-head with Froome on the way to second place the Dauphiné last month suggested a leap in quality this season, the American is conscious of where his aptitudes lie.
“I don’t think my strength is going to be flying up the road and dropping people like Quintana and Contador, my strength is going to be my consistency,” he said. “I’m realistic that way. In the Pyrenees I’m going to have to mark the guys who are important and take the opportunity if it’s there, but we’ll let the other guys wear each other down because the real race will happen in the third week. It’s not a sprint race, it’s a marathon and it’s going to be won either on La Toussuire or on Alpe d’Huez.”
Into the Pyrenees
Twelve months ago, van Garderen effectively lost his hopes of a podium finish in Paris when he struggled on the road to Bagnères-de-Luchon on the stage immediately after the race’s second rest day. He is mindful of the pitfalls that await on Tuesday’s opening day in the mountains, which follows a long transfer south and a rest day.
“Some people have difficulties with rest days and especially with the first mountain stage coming up you never know how your body will respond so you have to get out and ride as if it was a normal day’s racing only you ride a bit less and try to rest up,” van Garderen said.
“When I had a bad day on the Tour last year, the first thing I thought was: ‘Why?’ It was the day after the rest day, and I thought back to what I did on that rest day, and figured that maybe I rode too hard and didn’t eat enough, so I was going to make sure to correct that mistake.”
On the road and on the results sheet, van Garderen has been, as he is wont to say, in a good place since the Tour left Utrecht ten days ago. Whether he remains so after the next three days will be, as he pointed out himself, up to him.
“The Pyrenees is where the race is really going to start. Up to now we’ve been able to hide a little bit in the peloton and use mostly our teams to be up there, but now it’s coming to a time where we can’t hide behind our teams, we have to do it on our own,” he said. “But I feel ready for it.”