Have BMC solved their leadership dilemma?
Team holds big expectations for Porte and van Garderen in 2017
Unless a WorldTour squad is blessed with a Chris Froome, a Nairo Quintana or an Alberto Contador, then leadership selections can be somewhat of a headache when it comes to the Grand Tours. BMC Racing is no exception to the rule with Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen both holding legitimate claims to lead the line.
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For 2017, the American team have set themselves the lofty ambitions of winning the Tour de France, finishing in the top three in the team WorldTour rankings, succeeding in the Classics, and claiming back the team time trial crown at the Worlds.
In a poorly lit room in a sparsely populated hotel at their December training camp, general manager Jim Ochowicz stands front and centre, delivering his lines before adding in that the team's new motto - linked to the new partner Tag Heuer - 'don't crack under pressure'.
Both Porte and van Garderen stand awkwardly in the wings, each rider well aware that although they will divide up duties in 2017 there is now at least more certainty over their roles.
This time last year the team outlined that, although Porte had signed from Team Sky, both riders would share responsibility at the Tour de France. The road would decide was the old adage that tripped off the tongue but as the new season unfolded the situation altered.
Van Garderen by no means had a poor spring, with second overall at Ruta del Sol followed up by fifth in Catalunya and 10th in Romandie. There was the 25th place at Tirreno, of course, but with the key mountain stage cancelled van Garderen was certainly not the only stage racer to lose out on vital WorldTour points.
Porte, meanwhile, hit the ground running with a stage and second overall at the Tour Down Under. He followed that up with a quiet display in Oman before taking third in Paris-Nice and fourth in Catalunya. He pulled out of Romandie but rallied at the Dauphine to take fourth, while van Garderen had a tougher time in Suisse but nonetheless claimed a morale-boosting stage win.
However, roughly a month out from the Tour de France van Garderen was told in no uncertain terms that Porte would lead the team and that he would be the squad's 'Plan B.' With some degree of hindsight the writing had been on the wall ever since van Garderen cracked in the 2015 Tour and Andy Rihs put the call – and the funds – out for Porte to be signed.
"It was just too much in my head about Richie being in the team, the new dynamic and how that was going to be implemented at the Tour," van Garderen told Cyclingnews this week.
"I don't think that I dealt with things very well. That has nothing to do with Richie, because we're good friends and we live close to each other in Monaco and Nice. It was an adjustment and in hindsight I just wish I'd stayed a bit more relaxed about things and not tried to overthink things.
"I understood why they told me I was plan B, because Richie was in the middle of a spectacular season, still to hear that a month before the Tour wasn't particularly motivating for me. It was almost like a slap in the face. I don't think I dealt with it very well but in hindsight I should have seen it as a great opportunity. I had another really great Tour in 2012 when I wasn't the leader at all. I didn't have any pressure or expectation and I could have taken the Tour in that way but like I said I didn't deal with it well and if could do it again I would have taken it with a different approach."
Quite why BMC went into the Tour de France trying to persuade the public and the media that they had two leaders rather than one is still unclear; it certainly put van Garderen in a difficult position, with the rider having to answer daily questions regarding his overall aspirations even after he cracked in the mountains.
"I don't know what their logic was in telling me I was Plan B but it made perfect sense in that if you looked at the WorldTour rankings," Van Garderen says. "Richie was top three in the world and I was inconsistent and down in around 20th. He looked like the safer bet and I fully understood that but at the same time it was an adjustment."
Porte's impressive fifth place at this year's Tour de France, coupled by his growing confidence has ensured that he will travel to the race next year as BMC's sole leader. Whether he can deliver on Ochowicz's desire of wining the Tour remains to be seen, but there's little doubt that the Australian finally has the opportunity he has craved for so long.
"There's more pressure, of course there is, but I've got the support from the team and they totally believe in me and I'll give all that I've got come July," he tells Cyclingnews.
Divide and conquer
In splitting Porte and van Garderen up, BMC have spread their recourses logically. If WorldTour points act as a safety net in terms of goals then pointing two riders towards the GC in two Grand Tours makes more sense that having them both charge towards the same finish in Paris. For example, where would Porte have finished if his entire team had sat up and waited for him when he punctured in the opening week of this year's race?
Van Garderen has never raced the Giro d'Italia and no American has won the race since Andy Hampsten memorable victory in 1988 yet the Aspen-based athlete appears genuinely motivated by the challenge. This is not like 2012 when Johan Bruyneel effectively forced Frank Schleck onto an Italian bound flight just to prove a point.
"All the work that I've done until now is knowledge in the bank and all the training I've done, that doesn't just disappear," van Garderen says. "Nothing I've done, I'd consider a setback, and sure there have been some disappointing results but it's all part of the process and I'm still 28 years old. I've got a number of years ahead of me to get it right.
"This year I think I was just over trained. I had too much of an extreme diet and the Tour de Suisse was maybe too hard of a race that was too close to the Tour. There wasn't a lot of recovery time there."
With a new race programme van Garderen will look to rekindle the legs and the mind that saw him finish fifth in the 2012 Tour and win the white jersey. It's a back-to-basics approach that he believes has been a long-time coming.
"Even 2016, which was one of my worst seasons, I can still point to certain times and say 'that rider was still there'. I can still do these things and I know how to do the work. That's been an easy part for me because I can do the training and all that's involved. It's just a matter of getting everything right and going back to the basics.
"The whole 'marginal gains' phrase that's been coined and become really popular, and I just think that a lot of the things that come out of that are rumours as things you can do, and they don't really work.
"The results I got when I was really young, what was I doing then, well why don't I just keep it simple and go back to that? Rather than changing coaches, changing diets and overtraining."
If van Garderen's stripped down, no complications version of training and racing is going to succeed then it will need the complete back of the team. Ochowicz has managed stars spanning several decades with Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Philippe Gilbert, and Thor Hushovd all on his books at one time or another. He is well aware that each rider is an individual and that they all need to be motivated and managed in different ways.
"You know Tejay seems good here," he tells us. "He had a good break in Aspen and he's trained well. He's motivated and he's got goals for next year that we support. He's an incredible athlete who can climb, time trial, and sit in the peloton.
"He's a team leader and he can get the job done. We're going to give him a lot of responsibility next year in order to fulfil his career. We want to give him all the chances in the world to do that and we're going to put a lot of energy into doing that.
"Tejay has his own ideas and has his own personality. Every rider is different and you can't treat everyone in the same way. You have general rules and a general platform for how everyone operates and that keeps everyone in a zone. Sometimes you venture off that platform and then it's my job to pull them back in."
Such a scenario played out in 2015 when van Garderen, sitting high on GC, cracked at the Tour de France and left the race in a flood of tears. Ochowicz could have sent the American home immediately or dispatched a member of staff to chaperon. Instead, he left the race with van Garderen and drove him halfway across France to his home on the south coast. The journey was long, and at times painful, but the pair, already aware that Porte was heading to the team came, through it.
"On that journey we were more like friends. We didn't have to talk if we didn't want to but eventually we talked and figured out what happened. The body is unpredictable and the mind is as well, and so I let him talk and then I talked. At that point it was about getting him home, letting him have some time to unwind and then look at the next step."
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Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at Cyclingnews.com between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.