During his tilts at the Tour de France, Tejay van Garderen has tended to spend the bulk of the opening week ensconced in the middle of a phalanx of eight BMC teammates, but the American has been travelling rather more lightly thus far on the Giro d'Italia.
With so many sinuous, narrow roads in the race's opening phase, van Garderen has been protected by a more compact Praetorian guard, while others on the team – such as stage 6 winner Silvan Dillier – have been given the freedom to seek out occasional opportunities. Rohan Dennis, the man designated to ride with van Garderen in the mountains, meanwhile, is already at home, a victim of crash on stage 3 in Sardinia.
"We got Joey [Rosskopf], [Manuel] Quinziato and Fran Ventoso. They're all doing a very good job of shepherding me in the bunch and making sure we stay safe, so I couldn't ask for a better crew of hitters than that," van Garderen said in Molfetta ahead of stage 8, which included a potentially treacherous jaunt around the stunning Gargano Peninsula.
Five hours later, van Garderen finished the stage safely alongside all the podium contenders, and though he slipped a place to 11th overall, he remains just 10 seconds off the maglia rosa of Bob Jungels (Quick-Step) ahead of Sunday's demanding summit finish at the Blockhaus. If the Giro's first week is largely a case of quietly burning the days ahead of the major rendezvous to come, van Garderen's opening act can be deemed a successful one. "It's a lot calmer when you take it from the front and the team did a good job in the final and I was able to pick my wheels," van Garderen said at the finish in Peschici.
Although van Garderen has raced Tirreno-Adriatico for the past two years and was once resident in Lucca, his Giro debut is still a novelty. From a purely physical standpoint, all three-week races may make equivalent demands, but each has its own subtleties. Since the race left Sardinia, van Garderen has been adjusting from the rigid pentameter of the Tour to the looser rhythms of the Giro.
"With the Tour, it seems tense from kilometre zero all the way to the end. Here it seems a bit more relaxed in the beginning and then it's really, really tense in the end," van Garderen said. "I think in that case it's easier to kind of float, you don't need a full team and then you have a couple of guys around you in the final and it's easier to move around as a team.
"Sometimes with it being a bit more tranquil at the start, it means that people have fresher legs for the final and it's even more of a fight. It's different. It's a different style of racing here. I'm enjoying it, I'm kind of getting the hang of it."
Once the road begins to climb in earnest, of course, the Giro d'Italia will become rather less abstract. On mountains such as the Blockhaus, the blunt prose of power-to-weight ratio will begin to deliver its own, remorseless verdict. The Giro's first mountaintop finish at Mount Etna played out in something of a stalemate among the podium contenders, with the block headwind making it on nigh on impossible to gauge their relative form ahead of this next summit meeting.
"You get a sense of it but it's always difficult to judge," van Garderen said. "It came after a rest day, some people hadn't raced in a month, and some people were fresh off Romandie or Alps or whatever. With the headwind, no real gaps opened up, apart from Zakarin taking a few seconds. You can't take too much away from that."
Like his rivals, van Garderen expects Blockhaus finale to provoke more of a selection than Mount Etna. At 13.6 kilometres in length and with an average gradient of 8.4%, the ascent should leave the general classification in a rather different state come Sunday evening.
"It looks like a hard climb and summit finishes are always going to cause gaps, people are going to cause drops. It'll sort itself out," he said. "Etna was a strange situation with the headwind, but the gradients and distance of Blockhaus should set it up for a nice GC showdown."