There is solitude to these mountains. Tranquillity.
Away from the pressure of racing, the grind of team duties and the constant white noise of the world, Tejay van Garderen rides on.
All he can hear is the slick hum of his gears as they run from cog to cog, the metronomic draw of his breathing, and the autumnal breeze as it whistles through the snow-peaked passes of the Rocky Mountains.
A few hours later he is back in the valley, spinning his cyclo-cross bike through the small town of Basalt with a basketball under one arm, a Golden State Warriors jersey on his back, and Stephen Curry's name across his shoulders. This is Tejay van Garderen: the unplugged version.
"I'm a Curry fan, not a Golden State fan. I just wanna make that clear from the start," van Garderen says when he comes to a stop in Crown Mountain Park.
Basalt lies just under 200 miles from Boulder – out west and along the seemingly endless Highway 70 as it meanders through the mountains. Like a blur, we drove past signs for Georgetown, Silverthorne, and Frisco until, after almost half a day behind the wheel, we reached our destination.
Dating back to 1901, Basalt is an old railroad town with historic ties to Leadville, and a population that nowadays sits at a few thousand inhabitants. The main strip runs downhill, like a stream to its source, with a few quiet coffee houses and bars where from the outside you can hear the clink of glasses, the laughter of customers, and the televisions as they fill the airwaves with the latest college football game.
There is a small school and a modest shopping district, but we're stood by the town's bike park, which just so happens to lead onto the basketball courts. Van Garderen has dressed for the occasion. He looks prepared and he can probably pick up on the fact that we're a little uneasy. Maybe he got a sense of that already when we messaged him the night before with the words: "What? We're playing basketball?"
The plan had been to join van Garderen on a ride around the Basalt hills, but time being a factor, as well as our inept understanding of the sheer size of Colorado, means that we missed the morning ride. So we're 'shooting hoops' instead, and, according to van Garderen, I'm his 'rebound guy' – a term Siri had to rescue me with. As van Garderen warms up with a few throws – and he sinks almost all of them – he opens up about why he has brought his family out this far when Boulder is such a hotbed for cycling.
Van Garderen, his wife Jessica and their two young daughters have been bumping around home-wise for a while now. They had been in Aspen, but in the fall of 2017 they decided to make living in Europe a full-time effort. They upped sticks and ventured to Girona, basketball and all, but after less than a year they were back in Colorado, and, more specifically, Basalt.
"We tried Europe but we didn't like it, and it was a hard adjustment for the family," van Garderen says as he concentrates on bouncing the ball in front of him before making another shot.
"After a while, we realised we had to move back. The prices in Aspen were ridiculous but Jessica's folks moved there in the '70s and they're still there. Down here the riding is great, it's close to Jessica's folks and the weather is better than a lot of other places this time of year. We felt that this was a community that we could get into."
And in the months since their move, the van Garderens have ploughed plenty of energy into the local area. For them, living in one place is only part of it. They want to feel part of a community and plant roots. For a high-pressure athlete who is constantly on the road and living out of a suitcase, that desire is entirely understandable.
The young family has invested their own money in the bike park, and when he's back home van Garderen joins local school children on organised rides. Their two daughters, five and two at the time of this interview, are both enrolled in the local school and day-care system, and for the first time in a while, they have a place they can call home.
Van Garderen tosses the ball over. "You're up," he says.
"It's about what we're doing with the bike park, our vision for this place, and the high school here. I just did a ride with the school kids before their state championships and we went up a climb called Buckeye with its switchbacks. They do that ride after school, and I went with them one day just to offer some encouragement. We've also donated to the mountain bike programme at the school and we're trying to help get more kids on bikes.
"The whole bike park is really a vision that Jessica has been involved in. She's been talking to the planner and the owner about fundraising and the plan is to have a trials course for the mountain bike kids. They would love that and they're just daredevils when it comes to riding downhill… I could never ride that fast. Then we've thought about a cyclo-cross course. We just want to try to get our feet off the ground to see if can recreate the Valmont experience from the Boulder. I love it here. To have the parks and the access to the terrain, it's just gorgeous," he says with the ball safely back in his hands after a number of simply embarrassing misses.
However, van Garderen isn't just here for the creature comfort of family life. He has a serious job and one in which terrain and location are major considerations when it comes to residency. This area of Colorado may not have some of the longest or steepest climbs on offer within the state, but there's still enough vertical metres and quiet roads to keep the new EF Pro Cycling rider ticking along until a more strenuous training block will take him out to warmer climes in California.
"That's a good climb and it's steep," van Garderen says with his finger pointed out towards the distant horizon.
"That's the climb out of Basalt, but there's a climb to the other side that's on the dirt road, and it's long and it's steep. A lot of the climbs here are decent but don't go for more than 20 minutes, so I tend to head out to California later in the winter and do the bulk of my training there. Here it's more fun riding on the dirt roads, and about staying in shape. You can get good, decent training in here, but I also get to hit the bike park and play basketball."
An out-and-back ride for van Garderen might take him up Missouri Heights, with uphill grades along Route 82 and perhaps a venture up to Snowmass.
"The training is great, though. If you're training for the Tour and you need those long climbs, then you're not going to get that here, but there's still some really solid climbing. Once you get off 82, you don't see any cars," he says.
On Wednesdays, the local cycling club puts on events, from hill climbs to road races, and on a few rare occasions van Garderen will show up in full kit just to have some fun. Some recognise him, some assume, perhaps, he's just a really big BMC Racing Team fan, but part of the appeal for the 30-year-old is that he can decompress in Basalt. For an American rider who has been lumped with years of pressure and expectation, that in itself cannot be underestimated.
"We've made this a home. We tried it in Europe, but we couldn't force that. We're happy here, and it's not that we were unhappy there, but we're better at going there when it's for a job. It's not that Girona was hard work… It just wasn't home. When you're young, it's an adventure being away. As long as I had my bike and some good roads, I'm happy, but when you have a family it changes things.
"I think I'm in a place where I can escape from the world of cycling, a little bit. You're still getting things done but you're not in any 'scene' and you're not beholden to anyone, so if you don't feel like going on a group ride, you're not going to be that weird guy who always says no. I feel like I do enough training camps and stuff with the team that sometimes it is nice to be here on your own. Does that make sense?"
The basketball lesson complete, we venture back into town, van Garderen leading the way on his 'cross bike as we follow in the hire car. As he weaves through traffic in search of a place we can sit down and have coffee, it dawns on us just how much home means to a rider like van Garderen. We find a place to have coffee and the first question is whether he is recognised around town.
"It's funny, because I was in Vail the other night, on the way to Alex Howes' wedding. There was this janitor guy, and I was walking to dinner with Jessica, and he turns around and says, 'Hey, big fan. Don't give up – believe in yourself.' I had to turn to Jessica and ask if what had happened was real. It was almost like something out of those teen movies, with the wise old janitor. But around here, not so much."
Van Garderen's next move comes in the form of change of team as he swaps BMC for the Argyle of EF Education First. It's a move many predicted and one that van Garderen – from the outside at least – desperately needed in order to rejuvenate his career.
"If anything else, I know that the move will be a lot of fun," he says with a broad smile.
"With characters like Taylor Phinney, Howes and guys I grew up racing with, it's almost like this was meant to be. Having that atmosphere, it will feel like I'm back racing on our old junior team.
"I knew straight away that I wanted to go there. I knew I'd end up there."
Whether it's at BMC, Education First or any other WorldTour team, van Garderen has found his real home. It's right here in Basalt.
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