Tejay van Garderen has raced all over the world since jumping into the pro cycling fray with the Rabobank Continental team in 2008, but this week he’ll join his EF Pro Cycling teammates for the first time in Tour Colombia 2.1, where he says the local riders are set up to smash.
“The home field advantage is going to be very much in play here in Colombia,” van Garderen said Saturday, seated between Colombians Daniel Martinez, Sergio Higuita and Rigobert Uran during an EF Pro Cycling press conference at the team hotel in Paipa.
“The Colombians are going to be on another level here, not just motivation-wise but also altitude-wise and knowing the roads,” van Garderen said. “So right now I’m building toward goals later in the season, and I’m happy to help out these three guys who are on great form, especially our recent national champions.”
Van Garderen was referring to Martinez and Higuita, of course, who last week won the Colombian time trial and road race, respectively. Van Garderen compliments an EF roster with four Colombians – Jonathan Caicedo is the fourth – and fellow American Lawson Craddock.
Given the performance of Martinez and Higuita at Colombian nationals, van Garderen has plenty to be confident about going into Tour Colombia 2.1, which starts Tuesday with a 16.7km team time time trial in Tunja.
Prompted by a question about which teams will have a major impact on this year’s Grand Tours, van Garderen’s confidence in his own team continued.
“Education First, of course,” he said without hesitation. “I think we have the talent and the riders and the experience on this team to make a big impact – not just in results, but also in the way we portray ourselves to the public and how we give back to the people and have a message to explore the world. Obviously, the other teams are going to be fighting for results in the Grand Tours, but on this team we’re going to have something to say about that.”
Van Garderen is hoping this year to be part of the say that EF Pro Cycling has in the Grand Tours, despite a 2019 campaign that saw him abandon both the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana. Although EF team director Juan Manuel Garate told the assembled media that the 31-year-old’s best days as a cyclist are still ahead of him, the rider who was twice fifth in the Tour acknowledged he’s ready to take on a mentor role for the talented young crew EF has put together.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said when asked about passing on his acquired wisdom to younger riders. “If guys want to listen to me, then sure. Anytime anyone comes to me for advice, I’m always happy to give it and share my experiences. These guys [Martinez and Higuita] are going to be huge talents for the next 15-20 years even, and it will be really exciting to see them, and if I can help them get there in any way, then I’m absolutely happy to do that.”
High on Colombia
Van Garderen said his reason for racing Tour Colombia this year was very simple: He loves the country and its people. He got his first taste while training with Uran before the Tour last year, and he knew immediately he wanted to come back.
“I’m ecstatic to be here in Colombia,” he said. “I came here to Colombia for the first time last year after the Tour of California just to do an altitude camp, and Rigo was incredibly generous with his time and showing me around when I was training with him. After that experience, I told the team I have to do this race next year so it gives me the opportunity to come back and experience this country once again.”
The rise of Colombian cyclists over the past decade also motivated van Garderen to seek out the race.
“That’s part of the reason I wanted to come here,” he said of the Colombian athletes. “There must be something in the Colombian water. I had to soak in everything I could being in this country, because Colombians are taking over cycling.
“I’ve had nothing but great experiences with all the Colombians. All these guys – well, I guess I did crash Dani [Martinez] in the Tour a couple of years ago. I’m sorry about that. I bring that up every now and then, but I think we’ve put that behind us. But I’ve had nothing but great experiences with all the Colombian riders.”
Van Garderen was also positive about the current status of cycling in the US, despite the country recently losing the Tour of California and a host of national calendar races. Van Garderen looked past the disappointing news and pointed to the young Americans who are thriving in the WorldTour.
“I think US cycling is doing quite well,” he said. “We have a lot of young riders coming up like Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), who just won a stage at the Vuelta. Neilson Powless, who’s now racing for our team, is a big, big talent. We have a junior cyclist [Quinn Simmons of Trek-Segafredo – ed.] who just won the junior world championships, and he’s now also in the WorldTour. I think the young generation of cyclists that are coming up are going to be very successful.”