Even at this early point in the Vuelta a España, Tejay van Garderen has his routine down pat. Most days, he emerges promptly from the BMC bus, recovery meal in hand, and eases into the passenger seat of a team car, stealing a march on the finish town traffic and slipping away early to the evening’s hotel. Marginal gains, it seems, are not the sole preserve of the men in black.
Van Garderen may have arrived at this Vuelta understandably unsure of his form – he hadn’t raced since illness forced him out of the Tour de France in the final week, and he has never before tackled two Grand Tours in one season – but that hasn’t detracted from the rigour of his approach to the race.
The early impressions have been encouraging. Van Garderen limited his losses well on the surprisingly tough finishing climb at Caminito del Rey on Sunday, broke even at Vejer de la Frontera on Tuesday, and he wasn’t alone in conceding six seconds to Chris Froome (Sky) when the peloton split in the finishing straight at Alcalà de Guadaira on Wednesday.
Five days into this Vuelta, van Garderen lies in 13th place overall, 56 seconds off the red jersey of Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), but broadly in the same constituency of the contenders for the final podium in Madrid.
"I feel like I’ve recovered ok [from the Tour de France], I’m getting into the swing of things and after a couple of more days of racing, I should have my normal legs back," van Garderen told Cyclingnews in Alcalà de Guadaira. "But yeah, it’s getting there."
The opening stanza of this Vuelta is punctuated by short stages and punchy finishing climbs, which hardly rhyme with van Garderen’s qualities of endurance, but the American has by and large been attuned to the beat thus far.
"On paper the longer climbs should suit me better and these punchy finishes are tough, but I’m dealing with them ok. Maybe not as well as some of the other guys but I’m feeling ok," van Garderen said.
In recent seasons, the Vuelta has tended to reward fresher riders, with the likes of Juan José Cobo (2011), Alberto Contador (2012) and Chris Horner (2013) winning out at the end of truncated seasons that didn’t include the Tour de France. This time around, with the exception of Astana duo Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa, the bulk of the contenders for the red jersey were all present at the Tour, though van Garderen said that at this juncture, it was impossible to tell who had recovered best from the exertions of July.
"It’s too soon to say," he said. "You can kind of look at little things, how they sit on the bike or whatever, but we’re not really going to know until we hit some serious mountains."
Despite the presence of so many of the same marquee names – Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, for instance – the tactical approach of teams during the first phase of the Vuelta has been radically different to opening exchanges of the Tour.
In July, as the Tour wound its way from the Netherlands to Brittany, the BMC, Sky, Astana, Movistar and Tinkoff-Saxo squads seemed to mass en bloc at the head of the peloton all stage long, making for particularly tense days in the saddle. The atmosphere has been slightly different in Spain.
"Certainly, the Tour is a lot more nervous. The racing here is just as hard and just as fast but it seems like at the Tour, we fight and fight for nothing," van Garderen said. "Here we fight only when it’s necessary, it seems like."
Those fights look set to become ever more significant as the week progresses. The overall contenders could well enjoy a sparring session at Sierra de Cazorla on Thursday, while the following day’s category 1 summit finish at La Alpujarra could see the first substantial blows landed.
"Well obviously the big mountain summit finishes are going to tell you a lot. So stage 7, that should answer some questions," van Garderen said, before the team car pulled into the early evening traffic, some 140 kilometres from the evening’s hotel in Cordoba.