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BMC's Tejay van Garderen is reveling in his sole leadership role for the BMC team ahead of the Tour de France start on July 5 in Leeds, Yorkshire. The American rider told Cyclingnews that he's put the finishing touches on his top form, after a disappointing Critérium du Dauphiné, and is ready to lead the team into a yellow-jersey performance.
"I envisioned this and dreamed about this as a kid," the BMC rider said. "It's exciting that it's actually coming true. It's like when a kid shoots hoops in his driveway and he thinks he's Michael Jordan, but it's so surreal when it actually comes true."
It hasn't been a smooth ride for him leading into this year's Tour de France, and his form has been somewhat of a question mark after a mediocre performance three weeks ago at the Dauphiné. He went into that race confident that he could lead the team and garner a top overall placing; however, he lost more than two minutes in the first mountain stage to rivals Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, and placed a disappointing 13th overall.
"To be honest, it was a case of me needing to be a bit more humble," he said, later revealing that he was recovering from a fractured hip sustained in a crash at the Tour of Romandie. "My coach told me not to put emphasis on the Dauphiné and to just use it to build form but I was like, ‘whatever, I'll be fine.'
"I trained well after fracturing my hip and I didn't think that it was going to be a big issue at the Dauphiné. Crunching numbers in training is very different from being in a race scenario and I was missing that top-end rhythm. I needed to get my ass kicked there in order to get in shape for July."
He spent two and a half weeks in the Italian Dolomites training, re-building his form and put the finishing touches on his climbing skills. Some of his teammates joined him including climbers Peter Stetina and Darwin Atapuma. "The Dauphiné was a wake-up call," he said. "I realized that I had to put in the work, it was no time to slouch."
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Van Garderen monitored his weight, and he and his teammates practiced race simulations, pace-lines on the flats, rolling terrain and on longer ascents. "I had them set a really hard tempo and then me and Atapuma would attack each other all the way to the top. I also focused on my diet to make sure I was starting the Tour at a good weight. Two and a half weeks is quite a bit of time, a lot can happen in that time. I feel really good with where I'm at now."
He says he's a more "relaxed" team leader than Evans
Van Garderen is heading into his fourth Tour de France and his first time as the team's only official leader. In 2012, he worked for his teammate and former Tour champion Cadel Evans, and he shared the role with Evans last year but neither were successful in their bids for a top overall place.
This year, BMC put Evans in charge of the team at the Giro d'Italia and rewarded van Garderen with a leadership role at the Tour. He said the decision was partly based on his performance at the 2012 Tour where he placed fifth overall while initially working for Evans, and that his two title victories at the Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge last year help sway the team's decision in his favor.
"I can't speak for Cadel but I was certainly happy with the chance that the team gave me to be the Tour leader," he said "It was based on a growing confidence in me and some of the results that I had in the past. I think they thought it was time."
Van Garderen said that he respects Evans as a Grand Tour champion and that he will take some of what he's learned from the Australian and use it to lead the team in his own way. He noted, however, that he's typically more of a relaxed rider than Evans, a trait that he admits could be two-edged when it comes to the expectations of being an overall leader.
"Cadel was very structured with everything he does," he said. "He never left the top 10 positions in the peloton, which kept him out of trouble but also might have taken a bit more of his energy to be up there in the wind all the time. Obviously, Cadel is a big champion and I have had a lot to learn from him. I'm a bit more relaxed, which could be both good and bad."
He said he's tried to stay calm over the last eight months knowing that had the daunting task of leading a team at the Tour de France. "I tried not to think too much about it because it could be overwhelming, and instead I focused on my day-to-day training," said van Garderen, who found out he would be the Tour leader at a training camp in Grenchen, Switzerland last October.
"I tried to approach the season as I did every other season. I have a trainer who writes my training program and I followed it as close to 100 per cent as I could. There were some changes though, like the Tour of California was left out of my program with the idea of building towards July."
Van Garderen previewed cobbles, Pyrenean stages and the time trial
Tour director Christian Prudhomme added a new twist to the race this year by routing the fifth stage from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut through nine sections of pavé that were used during Paris-Roubaix, a stage the ASO described on its own event website as being riddled with dangers. It put fear into the overall contenders, who can rarely stomach the thought of unpredictability … or cobbles.
Van Garderen, who had some experience racing on the cobbles as a neo pro with Rabobank Continental Team, said that he's confident in the four Classics specialists that BMC selected for the Tour team; Greg Van Avermaet, Daniel Oss, Marcus Burghardt and Micheal Schär, to help get him safely through the stage 5 cobbles sections.
"Having four burly guys around you, who have all been top five or top 10 in Flanders or Roubaix is a pretty good safety net to have under you," he said. "I think those guys will do a good job of shepherding me through those tricky sections.
"It's going to be a challenging stage but we've done our best to prepare in every way possible. We've looked at the tires, tire pressure the bikes and wheels, and we did the course recon."
Van Garderen also put an emphasis on pre-riding stage 8 from Tomblaine to Gérardmer La Mauselaine, stage 9 from Gérardmer to Mulhouse and stage 10 from Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles, which all have some of the smaller climbs before the race heads into the Alps.
"We rode those because they come early in the Tour when everyone's still fresh and a bit nervous," he said. ‘They're going to be pretty decisive, more so than people think. They're tricky and it was good to have a look at them."
He also pre-rode the Pyrenean climbs in stage 16 over Port de Balès, and stage 17 that goes up the Col de Peyresourde and finishes up the Saint-Lary-Soulan Pla d'Adet, along with stage 18 that climbs over the Col du Tourmalet before ending at the ski station in Hautacam.
"The Pyrenean stages will be hard. We skipped the Alps, which are definitely important but we already know those climbs from previous races that we've done and we only had so much time," he said.
The last day in the Pyrenees comes with only three stages to go and right before the penultimate 54km time trial from Bergerac to Périgueux, where he hopes to make his final move to pull on the yellow jersey before the ride into Paris.
"Hopefully I'm within striking distance coming out of the Pyrenean stages, so that I can really make my mark in the time trial," he said. "I saw the time trial stage earlier this year and I think it's one that suits me pretty well."
Van Garderen hopes to have a smooth ride during the three-week Grand Tour but if not all of the 21 stages go according to plan, he hopes to stay confident and keep fighting for the overall goal - the maillot jaune. He says that he will refer back to his 2012 Tour performance when he is in need of some inspiration.
"In 2012, Cadel was the defending champion and I was his main domestique, and the spotlight was completely on him, so I was relaxed and could just take it all in, and in the end, that's what helped me," he said.
"I want to focus on recapturing the whole feeling of having low pressure, a good vibe, having fun and doing well, and not giving up if things go a little bit bad occasionally … because in three weeks you're bound to have one day that's not perfect."