American Tejay van Garderen returns to competition for the first time since dropping out of the Tour de Romandie at the start of May. He is confident, however, that his reduced racing schedule - cut back due to illness and injury - will not impact his ability to shine as a team leader for BMC Racing at the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de France.
The 25-year-old began the season with a strong showing in the Tour of Oman, where he was second to Chris Froome, before illness caused him to withdraw from Paris-Nice on stage 1. He rebounded with a stage win and third place overall in the Volta a Catalunya in March, and a sixth overall in País Vasco in April before a crash during the prologue at Romandie sent him packing on the third stage.
He now believes that his time spent home in Aspen, Colorado, training at altitude and a recent return to Europe to preview the Tour de France mountain stages was a sufficient replacement for racing days, and is looking for a strong showing in the Critérium du Dauphiné next week.
"We want to treat it as a dress rehearsal for the Tour de France," Van Garderen said ahead of the race this week. "I'll definitely be going for as high a GC place as possible, try to test my limits a little bit, and make sure the team is all working well together."
It's Van Garderen's first time as the undisputed team leader for the Tour de France, and he is hoping to put the bad luck of last year's Tour, where he shared leadership with Cadel Evans, behind him.
"I'm confident in my ability to be a Tour de France contender," he said, but a series of misfortunes last year prevented him from showing his abilities. "Last year things just started falling apart. I didn't have any trouble all season, I was always on the podium in every race I did, then all of a sudden, everything unravelled at the Tour at the worst time to have that happen."
Van Garderen's race started out on track, but came undone on the first mountain stage to Ax 3 Domaines - where he was dropped early and lost an unrecoverable 12:15.
He switched his focus to winning stages, and entered into the breakaway on the stage to Alpe d'Huez only to be out-climbed by Christophe Riblon for the stage win.
"I still live with that," Van Garderen lamented, "because your name goes into the history books if you win on Alpe d'Huez, and I may never get another opportunity like that again, [to win] on such a famed climb. But - you have to put that behind you and move forward and use it as motivation."
Up and down in the spring
His motivation was boosted this year by his first mountain stage victory at the WorldTour level - in the Volta a Catalunya stage to Vallter 2000, he jumped clear of a group with Froome, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Nairo Quintana to win the stage. It was a rare moment of aggression from the normally defensive rider.
"That stage was a big confidence boost for me and the team. I've shown that I can fight hard in the mountains, and I have a good time trial to back it up. But it was always me being on the tail end of things trying not to lose time, then making my move in the time trial... now they saw maybe I can climb with those guys. It also shows I've progressed as a rider and am a more complete rider. I think that bodes well for the confidence the team's going to have working for me in July."
That confidence has not been shaken by the DNFs beside his name from earlier in the season. Despite his setbacks earlier in the year, Van Garderen is banking on a solid off-season of training to get him through to top form for the Tour de France.
"I've put the spring behind me. I've had some good results that I'm proud of, and a couple races that didn't go so well, but if you look at everyone's spring, they always have a little up and down. It's like two separate seasons - the spring and then the build up to the Tour. I don't think any of those setbacks from the spring are going to have any effect on how the Tour de France is going to be raced.
"You can come back from just about everything if you put in the work during the winter. You saw that, from Oman, I had a good winter so was able to have a good race, then things went a little south in Paris-Nice, but since I had the solid base and I'd done the work already, I was able to come back up for Catalunya and hold that for Pais Vasco. The solid foundation is done. It's a matter of not having any bad luck."
One very important stage in the Tour de France for the GC riders to break out every good luck charm and voodoo spell will be stage 5 from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, a day packed with nine sectors of Paris-Roubaix cobblestones. Van Garderen previewed the course in April, and said "it's definitely a stage that's going to cause a lot of carnage".
"I'm feeling confident for it. I have a different goal than if I was lining up at Paris-Roubaix. My goal on that stage is to not lose any time. I'm not racing against Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara, I'm racing against Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, and I think my chances on a stage like that are not any worse than theirs. Perhaps, even better since we have such a strong Classics team and we're bringing Greg Van Avermaet, Michael Schar and Marcus Burghardt, they've raced plenty of Paris-Roubaixs. They'll be keen to protect me and get me in a good position that day."
One rider who will not be on the Tour team is Van Garderen's close friend and teammate Taylor Phinney, who broke his leg while racing in the national championships in May.
"It was upsetting news about Taylor. Seeing the form he was on in California and at nationals, I was texting with him saying he's punching his ticket for the Tour de France, and I was excited to have him there. He's one of my best friends, I thought, 'great, we'll have another American there, he'll probably be my roommate, and we'll have a clown at the table to make us all laugh and raise the team spirit. Then to get that news, it was a pretty big blow. I've been in touch with Taylor and his family, it sounds like he's doing well and he's motivated. He's not going to let this beat him."