With his race programme finalised until May, Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) has said he will target overall victory at the Amgen Tour of California as well as a coveted place in the team's Tour de France line-up in July.
Van Garderen recently kick-started his season at the Challenge Mallorca and, despite a crash on the final day of racing, will head to the Volta ao Algarve before testing himself at Paris-Nice, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Amgen Tour of California.
"There are no serious injuries, just a bit of road rash and I'm a bit stiff," he told Cyclingnews.
"The roads are just really slippery on the coast there and in the shade you couldn't really see the wet spot. I touched the brakes, lost control and the wheel slipped from under me. I was the first one to go down so I guess I caused it. It was actually a big crash and I felt bad but it's not like it was on purpose.
"Generally though, Mallorca went well. The common misconception is that the first race of the year in Spain is all tranquillo as people ease into things but it's full-gas racing, everyone is nervous and wants to make a good first impression. It was all super-fast as well and we were finishing around half an hour ahead of each scheduled finish.
"I was feeling good and finishing in the top groups and putting in some attacks so I'm pretty happy with where the form is at the moment. I'm on track with where I need to be."
Where Van Garderen lies right now is at the head of a new generation of American bike racers coming through the ranks. The likes of Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner, Christian Vande Velde and George Hincapie are all in or approaching the twilight of their careers. Chasing their tails are riders like Van Garderen, Taylor Phinney, Ben King and the slightly more experienced Tyler Farrar.
Both generations are still competitive, meaning that the Amgen Tour of California could potentially see a major shift in the changing of the guard.
"It's exciting to see. We've got the older, experienced riders in the States that we can learn from and who can help us out but the younger generation are starting to take over. We could have a big showdown at the Tour of California later this year when hopefully Phinney can win a stage and guys like myself and Peter Stetina can be up there in the overall.
"California is the big goal and it's a super-important race for the team. I'm targeting it and I think I've got a good chance of winning. I'm going to the wind tunnel after Algarve to fine-tune some things for the time trial. The race suits my style and I want to go there and do well. I'm going to try to win the race."
Van Garderen's original schedule included the Giro d'Italia, no Amgen Tour of California and little to no chance of riding the Tour de France. However, a reshaping of goals, mixed with the fact Mark Cavendish will almost certainly skip the Amgen Tour of California for the Giro d' Italia, means that Van Garderen could make HTC-Highroad's team for July.
"There are so many things that go into consideration for the Tour selection. If they're building a team that's 100 percent for Cavendish then it's up in the air between me and someone like Hayden Roulston. They might want to bring him because he's a bit better on the flats. If they think that Peter Velits can go high on GC and that he could do with another climber then maybe they can bring me, so I don't know. I think I've got a good chance because of the team time trial."
Van Garderen, only 22 years old and in his second year as a pro, has seen the sport go through some of its most difficult years since he first raced competitively in 2004 as a junior. The last few months have been blighted by doping controversies and political stand-offs between the UCI and the AIGCP.
The American saw first-hand the confusion in Mallorca when the teams protested against the sport's governing body by using radios.
"From what you can see from Qatar and Mallorca, and people saying that without radios the breaks have more chance of staying away, it has nothing to do with that. The riders know when to pull, and you saw that on the final stage in Qatar, it all came back together. It makes no difference on the dynamics or how it looks on TV but it does make it harder when it comes to getting bottles and flat tires," he told Cyclingnews.
"The biggest problem I have is that if the riders all voted and decided on getting rid of them then I'd accept that. I don't think it should be up to the UCI or people who have never raced their bikes to make that call. The riders need a voice and a say. It seems like the rules are being imposed without taking our opinions into consideration because it really is our safety we're talking about. In Mallorca I was at the back with my hand up for 10 minutes waiting for a feed because they weren't calling the car up."
Van Garderen was not surprised by the recent news that Riccardo Riccò allegedly had a blood transfusion. The 27-year-old Italian is still being treated in hospital and has been suspended by his team.
"I'm not really surprised if he's done it again. A person with that mentality and arrogance, you know that it's ingrained in his mind. I don't really know what to say, I'm just glad I don't have to race against him. I'm glad he's going to be okay but I don't feel sorry for him."
Despite Riccò's actions and the fact that multiple Tour winner Alberto Contador could also face a ban for testing positive for Clenbuterol in last year's race, Van Garderen is adamant that the sport is moving in the right direction.
"It's just a shitty situation all-round with what's going on with Riccò and Alberto Contador. The sport is cleaner than it's ever been. Okay, I know I've only been around for a few years, but from what I've heard from other riders and being on one of the most successful teams in the world, I have full faith in what we do is pure. I know that it's entirely possible to do it clean.
"What's sad is that the public are going to lose faith while the sport is in a better place.
"What can I do to counter what someone like Riccò is doing other than focus on myself and what I'm doing? I can go shouting my mouth off on Twitter and to the media that I'm clean, I'm clean but I just can't do that because it's insinuating things about everyone that doesn't do any real good, and I don't want to seem full of myself.
"I don't know what extra measures we can take to show people. We're in the [biological] passport, we have internal testing, so what more can you do? I give my whereabouts 24/7. You can talk about it and say you're innocent but Riccò did that, he said, 'The Cobra was dead'. In the back of his mind, or the back of his fridge rather, you can say it all you want but will people believe you?"
And while Van Garderen is looking on the positive side to the war on doping he admits that the situation is far from perfect.
"There are riders out there that I have my suspicions of but most of what you see today is done on bread and water and that's the truth. I'm not trying to build myself up by saying I'm clean and racing against all these dopers, I'm saying there are just one or two out there that are getting away with it. It's shitty that they are but that's the truth."
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