Tejay van Garderen (BMC) has steadily built palmares replete with young rider classification titles at professional cycling's highest level, such as this year's Tour de France, and numerous high stage and general classification placings. But victories have been few and far between for the 24-year-old American. Until Tuesday's victory at the USA Pro Challenge in Mt. Crested Butte, where he overpowered Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) at the conclusion of a steep, leg-sapping finale, van Garderen's road stage tally as a professional stood at zero.
"Last year at the Tour of Utah in the time trial was my first and to this day my only professional victory and since it's a time trial I didn't get to put my hands in the air," said van Garderen. "So this is my first road stage win as a professional. I've been counting, and I think I'm up to eight second places in my career and a lot of thirds and fourths. It's only the second first place, but it's a good one."
Not only did van Garderen win the stage, he moved into the USA Pro Challenge leader's jersey, albeit tied on time with Vande Velde. Van Garderen was quick to point out that the race is far from decided.
"Right now there's really not big time gaps, Christian and I are still on the same time," said van Garderen. "All it would take would be a little bit of a gap in a bunch sprint, and for me to be on the wrong side of it, and Christian takes the jersey.
"I think if I can just hold him (Vande Velde), not let him get away, that I can beat him in the time trial. I'm confident in saying that. But then again there's guys like Ivan Rovny (third overall at six seconds) and there's [Levi] Leipheimer (fourth overall at eight seconds) and [Chris] Horner (eighth overall at 12 seconds). There's two more summit finishes to go as well as the Aspen stage which is not easy.
"Even the day into Colorado Springs, it starts straightaway with a climb which means the breakaway is not going to be a weak breakaway, it's going to be a strong breakaway. Only guys with the legs are going to be up there, there's no sneaking into it. It's far from over."
Tuesday’s result was a bit of a reversal from the proceedings in last year's Mt. Crested Butte finish where Leipheimer prevailed in a show of force on the final climb and opened small time gaps on his rivals, including Tejay van Garderen, who finished sixth at seven seconds. Van Garderen took the jersey back the following day into Aspen only to lose it the next day to Leipheimer. This year, van Garderen is in the driver's seat, while USA Pro Challenge defending champion holds fourth overall at eight seconds.
Van Garderen faces the exact same queen stage on Wednesday, covering 210km from Gunnison to Aspen, in which he earned the leader's jersey last year.
"Tomorrow is a really hard stage," said van Garderen. "The dirt road climb (Cottonwood Pass), we kind of rode it easy last year but there could be some big drama if they go hard up that thing. And then Independence Pass, we get up to 12,000 feet and kind of a hairy run into the finish.
"Every day is going to be a battle."