There are, so the adage says, no easy stages at the Tour de France, and after fighting the effects of bronchitis earlier in the second week of the race, Tejay van Garderen (BMC) is pleased to reach the second rest day still resolutely in the hunt for a place on the podium.
Sunday's 222-kilometre haul to Nîmes brought the peloton out of the Alps, but any hopes of a peaceful day on the flatlands of the Rhône delta were thwarted by the crosswinds and thundershowers that buffeted the peloton in the final two hours of racing.
Van Garderen's team briefly threatened to split the peloton into echelons when they hit the front en masse with 60 kilometres remaining, but the American admitted afterwards that he was simply glad to survive the day intact and alongside his fellow overall rivals in the main field.
"It was looking like today was going to be just a day for sprinters but the wind and the rain made it a day where you had to be mentally switched on and bring your game face," van Garderen said as he soft-pedalled towards his team bus after the finish. "I'm glad the rest day is tomorrow."
Van Garderen treated his bout of bronchitis with a course of antibiotics during the second week of racing, and wondered whether the illness had blunted his ability to respond to accelerations in the Alps. Even so, he performed well at Chamrousse and Risoul, and now lies fifth overall on general classification, 5:49 minutes down on Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and just 59 seconds off a place on the podium.
"The body feels good, that's for sure. Tomorrow, I just want to recover, do a little FaceTime with the family," he said. "Tomorrow, is all about recovery."
Penultimate time trial suits van Garderen
There is something for every one of the riders jostling for position behind Nibali in the Tour's final week. The demanding troika of stages in the Pyrenees will surely be to the liking of the climbers such as Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), but the 54km time trial on the penultimate day is something of a trump card for van Garderen.
When pressed after Saturday's stage to Risoul, van Garderen estimated that he "would have a chance" of overhauling the two French climbers if he was within a minute of them come the final weekend, and his directeur sportif Max Sciandri espoused a similar brand of cautious optimism.
"Next Saturday, we have the time trial and that's the key stage for us, but with Pinot and Bardet, we have to be careful not to let too big of a gap open to them," Sciandri told Cyclingnews. "I don't really want to speak now about what we can gain on them because our mentality is that we want to keep it quiet. We don't want to put our heads up because the moment you put your head up, things happen."
Sciandri was optimistic, too, that van Garderen has room for improvement in the third week of the Tour. When he was forced to miss Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie earlier in the season, it was feared that the lack of racing miles would impact on his Tour form, and his early struggles at the Critérium du Dauphiné appeared to bear out that thesis.
At the Tour, however, van Garderen has shown continued signs of improvement, illness not withstanding, and if he can replicate his Alpine showing in the Pyrenees, he will be within striking distance of a podium place in Paris come the final time trial.
"I think the only thing we lacked a little bit was that we felt we didn't have the race depth because we'd missed Paris-Nice with sickness, we missed Romandie with a crash," Sciandri said. "That was the one thing he missed at the start of this Tour, he didn't have the race depth, but he's pretty confident.
"We looked a little bit at the course and it allowed you eight or nine days to ride into this Tour de France. We didn't want to be in top condition. I don't want to talk about opponents but Sky were really in their top condition at the Dauphiné – the whole team and Froome himself – but we kind of did this gradual build-up into the Tour de France."
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