Arguably the revelation of the 2010 stage-race season, HTC-Highroad starlet Tejay Van Garderen is aiming to score his team’s second straight victory at the Amgen Tour of California in 2011 before targeting a Tour de France debut two months later.
With defending Tour of California champion Michael Rogers having departed for Team Sky, the HTC-Highroad management have decided to railroad the 22-year-old Van Garderen towards the American one-week race rather than the Giro d’Italia.
The team’s owner, Bob Stapleton, recently predicted that Van Garderen could vie for top honours in California in only his second year as a pro.
Curiously, since the race’s inception in 2006, no rider under the age of 30 has taken the overall title in the Golden State.
"My view is that it's entirely realistic for Tejay to target the podium and be a major factor in the race," Stapleton told Cyclingnews. "He's got the right qualities and this race lines up really well with his abilities. In terms of his rivals, we'll have to see who shows up. Levi Leipheimer and Cadel Evans, if he rides, could both be major contenders."
Van Garderen had expressed an interest in riding what looks set to be a brutal Giro d'Italia but will now focus on California before competing for a Tour berth in July. With Mark Cavendish's sprint train sure to account for at least half of the US outfit's nine-man Tour lineup, and Peter Velits and Tony Martin also among Stapleton's bankers, Van Garderen knows that he faces a tough battle to make the cut.
Eleventh overall in the Vuelta a Espana heading into the final week last September, Van Garderen endured two tough days before finishing his maiden grand tour in 35th position. "I came out of it pretty positive because the legs started to come back in the last few days," he told Cyclingnews recently. "Hopefully next year if you take out those two bad days and turn them into consistency, maybe I can net myself a top ten in one of the grand tours."
Speaking to Cyclingnews at his team's first training camp of the winter in Morgan Hill, home to HTC-Highroad's new bike sponsor Specialized, Van Garderen admitted that his rookie season in the pro ranks had exceeded expectations.
Having finished fifth atop the Alto do Malhao in his first stage race in HTC colours - the Volta ao Algarve in February - he continued to impress both on the climbs and in time trials throughout the spring and summer. A second place overall at the Tour of Turkey in April was followed by some strong displays in the Tour of California, where he helped teammate Rogers to overall success, before securing a hugely impressive third position at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.
"I exceeded my expectations on a lot of levels," Van Garderen said. "I took away a lot of things. The big difference between a team like this and a development team is that everyone on a development team is trying to figure themselves out, because they haven't really seen and done everything. Here, you're with guys like Bert Grabsch and Bernie Eisel, who really know the ropes, and you're able to take away a lot of advice, about diet and training and even just being away from home."
Now well settled in Tuscany, Italy, Van Garderen believes that his instant adaptation to pro racing owes in large part to his maturity. Having moved to Holland to ride for the Rabobank Under 23 team while still a teenager, he made an early start on the learning curve which awaits most riders on the signature of their first pro deal. It was notable that last year, while Van Garderen thrived, his former Rabobank U23 teammate Dennis Van Winden, for one, struggled to make the transition to senior racing.
"I think a lot of the guys I rode with as an Under 23 lived at home last year, whereas my home was in the States, which meant that I was already forced to integrate into a different lifestyle from the start," Van Garderen explained in December. "Once those guys are making a decent salary, they want to move away from Holland because it's too flat, so they go to Girona and come up against a lot of stresses they haven't dealt with before. So whereas I'd dealt with that right from when I was a junior, I think it was a bit of a shock to those guys' system."
Van Garderen also revealed in December that he will aim for victory in the inaugural Quiznos Pro Challenge stage-race in August. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Van Garderen now spends much of his time in Colorado when back in the United States.
"I definitely want to do the Colorado race in August," he said. "It's going to be my home race and it's at high altitude, which I think will benefit me, so that'll be a race I want to win. I have high hopes for myself there."