On the balance sheet of Tejay van Garderen’s Tour de France, stage 14 to Risoul will surely enter the credit column. Mindful not to bankrupt himself by following yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali’s attack on the final climb, the BMC man broke even with fellow podium contenders Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet and then received an unexpected dividend at close of business when Alejandro Valverde faltered in the finale.
Van Garderen appeared uncomfortable with sharp changes of rhythm, as he had at Chamrousse the previous day, but he had clearly decided that seizing the initiative was his best safeguard against the pure climbers.
After Nibali and Jean-Christophe Peraud leapt away with four kilometres remaining, van Garderen put together a series of long, even-paced turns on the front that only first Valverde, and later Pinot and Bardet, could follow.
"It was hard there in the final again. I feel like I’m not too responsive right now. I don’t have the same kick that guys like Pinot have, but I think that maybe is partially because of the crashes," he told reporters outside the Balcons des Sirus hotel past the finish line.
"I’m generally not the most explosive rider but I think after the rest day I came down with a bit of bronchitis too, that kind of just took away a bit of my top end. After the rest day and into the Pyrenees, I should bounce back a little bit."
The American finished the stage with Bardet and Pinot, 30 seconds down on Nibali and Peraud, but the same distance ahead of Valverde, who blamed a mechanical problem for his failure to follow the pace. Van Garderen remains 5th overall, just under a minute off a podium place and now only 1:12 behind the second-placed Valverde.
"Nibali and Peraud got away and we were trying to attack so that we weren’t just towing guys along. We wanted to drop some people and get solid work going," van Garderen said. "Then it looked like Valverde blew himself up a bit and it ended up being me and Pinot who traded pulls a bit."
Van Garderen warmed down on the rollers after the stage, accepting the compliments of BMC manager Allan Peiper, general manager Jim Ochowicz and directeur sportif Max Sciandri. The smiles were those of men who had enjoyed a good day at the office, and they could even joke about the brief moment of panic when van Garderen was momentarily dropped on the way down the Izoard.
"It was a little bit of mist on the descent and I just drifted back a little bit," he explained. "Guys just started sitting up and the next thing I knew there were really big gaps. I had a few teammates there and it cost them a bit of energy but other than that I tried not to panic."
The only taxing concern, it seems, was Jean-Christophe Peraud’s siphoning of time in the closing kilometres. Of the men vying jostling for position behind Nibali, the former mountain biker is the only man with a time trialling pedigree to match van Garderen’s, and he has now closed to within 18 seconds. "It would have been nice not to lose a little bit of time to Peraud but I’m definitely happy with what happened today," said van Garderen.
Van Garderen showed sound instincts in dosing his efforts over three weeks en route to fifth place overall in 2012, however, and with a 54km time trial on the penultimate day this time around, he at least knows that he needs to limit his losses rather than gain ground on Bardet and Pinot between now and Bergerac.
"I think the smartest thing I can do is stay within my limits. If I can get that time trial pretty close on time, on paper anyways, I think I should be able to jump up a couple of spots," van Garderen said. "My trump card is definitely going to be the time trial. So if I can just stay close enough to them, I’m pretty confident that I can move ahead."
And how close is close enough? "It’s hard to say. But I would say if I’m within a minute of them, I would have a chance."