The shake of the head as he glanced back at the finish line clock told the story: Tejay van Garderen (BMC) had endured longer than most in resisting Sky’s forcing on the first summit finish of the Tour de France on La Pierre-Saint-Martin, yet the time keepers’ verdict was still a harsh one.
A month ago at the Critérium du Dauphiné, van Garderen gamely limited his losses to Chris Froome to a handful of seconds on successive summit finishes. On stage 10, the American conceded 2:30 in the space of just 6.5 kilometres. He was no longer in the same race.
As feared, the 15-kilometre finishing climb proved to be a boulevard of broken dreams for so many Tour contenders. Vincenzo Nibali cracked 10 kilometres from the top. Joaquim Rodriguez was next to go. With a little under 7 kilometres left, Alberto Contador lost ground.
Van Garderen held tough a little longer, but he too had to relent 400 metres later. For a couple of kilometres he limited his losses to 40 seconds or so, but once Froome went into overdrive, the time gap seemed to grow exponentially. He would cross the line in 10th place, caught and passed by a group of chasers in the finale.
"It was extremely difficult, those first 10k were really steep and Sky definitely put on quite the performance," van Garderen said as he warmed down outside the BMC bus afterwards. "I tried my best to stay with them and then when it got a bit too much for me. I tried to stay in my rhythm and just focus on getting to the top."
Van Garderen had worn a pained expression that seemed part-exhaustion, part-disappointment as he had pedalled softly past the finish area and towards his bus, with a BMC press officer jogging alongside him acting as guide and bodyguard.
News of the greater losses incurred by some of his podium rivals had filtered through by the time van Garderen reached his destination, however, and his day suddenly began to take on a different guise. He remains in second place overall, some 2:52 down on the seemingly other-worldly Froome, but Contador and Alejandro Valverde are now over a minute behind, while Nibali is more than four minutes back.
"I was really surprised to hear Nibali got dropped so early and also Contador was struggling. That was a big surprise," van Garderen said. "A big surprise for me was the way [Robert] Gesink [fourth on the stage at 1:33 – ed.] was climbing. We knew Froome and Quintana were good. Some people were better than we thought they were, some people were worse than we thought they were. Hopefully I get a little better."
During his rest day press conference in Pau on Monday afternoon, van Garderen told reporters that he would not settle for second place in Paris at that early point. Given Froome and Sky’s startling display at La Pierre-Saint-Martin – a seeming reprise of their showing at Ax 3 Domaines in 2013 – he may be tempted to revise that opinion, though his team’s pre-race target of a place on final podium remains very much in play.
"I don’t think today was my best day but you know it wasn’t all bad," van Garderen said. "I’m still keeping a good GC position. The first mountain day is always tricky. We’ve done almost two weeks without climbing any real mountains so that can be a shock to the system, especially the day after a rest day. I feel like I should get better. I’m definitely still happy with where we’re sitting."