The Tour de France is set to enter its final week where a cluster of stages in the Pyrenees and a shade over 907 kilometres of racing will decide the outcome of what Tejay van Garderen has agreed is the most important week of his career to date.
The American all-rounder and leader of the BMC Racing team currently sits fifth overall, and although he is 5:49 minutes down on race leader Vincenzo Nibali, he is still within striking distance of a podium place.
Throughout this year's Tour, van Garderen has ridden with the assuredness and confidence that all but deserted him in 2013, with the 25- year-old climbing with a concoction of maturity and finesse. Equalling his Tour best of fifth overall from 2012 looks to be a strong possibility but with a long individual time trial still to come van Garderen has everything to play for.
"I'm definitely happy with where I'm at," van Garderen told the press at the start his rest-day press conference in Carcassone. "There were plenty of moment when it looked like we might have lost everything but we bounced back really well and we're in a good spot."
Last year's Tour disappointment, in which van Garderen wilted, has made the American a more accomplished rider. This year, and this race, he has displayed a greater mental fortitude, bouncing back from losing time on the cobbles and a crash. Part of that comes with experience but also the fact that BMC have entrusted him with sole leadership in the race.
The next three days in the Pyrenees may well decide whether that trust was well-placed but it may also give van Garderen the chance to show how far he has come in the last twelve months.
"The meat of the Tour is coming up," he said. "Last year was the hardest Tour I've ever done. To come in and lose so much so early, when you're struggling mentally the way I was, the three weeks felt like seven. I have the pressure of wanting to perform but we're sitting in a good place."
Although Nibali has a commanding lead in the race, the cluster of riders fighting behind him – including van Garderen – have to be wary on several fronts. Van Garderen has Ag2r-La Mondiale's Jean-Christophe Péraud just 19 seconds behind, and if Belkin's Bauke Mollema continues to recover he could also challenge for a top-five position. However, van Garderen dismissed the notion that he's merely racing against his closet rivals and not the race leader.
"My goal is to obviously one day win this race," van Garderen added, briefly allowing himself to be distracted from the task in hand.
"That might be a bit lofty but years down the line, I think that it's something that I can do."
"I think I've grown into leadership. I've led the team in many other races but to do it at a Grand Tour, it's something different. I feel like the other races have given me a lot of practise."
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