American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) has had a rollercoaster beginning to his 2015 season as he prepares for his top target, the Tour de France in July. Van Garderen has twice finished fifth overall in the race – in 2012 and again last year – and as a reward was given reins to the team as Cadel Evans made his exit.
But the 26-year-old's tenure as the BMC leader has been a mixed bag. His result in the 2012 Tour signalled his potential for the Grand Tours, and he started 2013 with his first major win at the 2.HC Tour of California. Van Garderen faltered at the Tour de France that year, however, and despite finishing second on an epic stage to Alpe d'Heuz, he came in 45th in the general classification.
Van Garderen started the 2014 season with an impressive second place at the Tour of Oman behind Chris Froome (Team Sky), but he was forced to quit Paris-Nice during the first stage due to illness. He bounced back to finish third overall at the Volta a Catalunya and win the decisive mountain stage to Vallter 2000-Setcases. He was sixth overall at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and was targeting success at the Tour de Romandie but crashed hard in the prologue time trial, fracturing his hip. Van Garderen returned for the Critérium du Dauphiné and rode to his second fifth-place finish at the Tour.
So far this year, van Garderen has duplicated his runner-up result in Oman and was on target for a top result in Paris-Nice before cracking on a cold wet stage and slipping from fourth overall to 16th. In Catalunya, van Garderen saw his general classification hopes slip away on a crash during a descent, but he bounced back the next day by winning the Queen Stage. He eventually finished 30th overall.
This week van Garderen is at the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, where Orica-GreenEdge sprinter Michael Matthews has the overall lead after two stages.
Cyclingnews caught up with van Garderen after Monday's opening stage in Bilbao, where his BMC teammate Peter Stetina went down in a horrible crash as the sprint trains line up in the final 500 metres, fracturing his tibia, patella and four ribs.
CN: You've had a bit of an up-and-down season so far. You were second in Oman and then had a disappointing Paris-Nice. You crashed in Catalunya and then the next day you came back and won the Queen Stage. How would you say the season has gone so far?
Van Garderen: Pretty much the way you said it: up and down. That's kind of been the story of the past two years, actually. But to be honest, that's the story of cycling. With every rider, if you track their career they have ups and downs. Mine seem to be pretty close together, though. Some riders have up-and-down seasons, I seem to have up-and-down races or days.
But the thing I can take out of that, is I know that my form is good. It's just been other circumstances that have caused some results not going the way that I wanted them to. So it wasn't due to sickness. It wasn't due to an injury or being overweight or under-trained or over-trained. Everything is going perfectly in that regard. I just need to get it all together, you know, stop making the stupid mistakes and put all the pieces together. And then it should get the ball rolling.
The most important thing as that when things go bad is to not lose morale. It would have been easy to pack it in after the crash in Catalunya and just say, 'Ah, the race is over. GC is gone. Forget it.' But if I had done that, then you don't get the stage win the next day. So you've always got to stay the course.
CN: What happened in that Catalunya crash?
Van Garderen: It was a really twisty downhill, but it was a shallow downhill so a lot of pedalling. We were going through a corner and one of the riders started pedalling too soon out of the corner and just clipped a pedal on the road. He didn't actually go down, but it caused a chain reaction behind him. So the four riders in front of me crashed. I was holding my brakes and there was nowhere to go. I was being brought straight into the guard rail. I hit the guard rail, went over, and luckily I landed in some soft bushes. The only injury I really got was the bushes that I landed in had thorns in them, so I got some scratches on my legs.
I was in such shock that I was taking a couple of minutes to look things over. I was like, 'I bet my leg is missing or something but I just can't feel it right now because I'm in shock.' So I had to pat myself down. I took my helmet off and looked to assess if there was any damage to the helmet or if I had a head injury. But I had nothing other than some scratches from the thorns in the bushes. I got really lucky.
Usually when you go over a guardrail – the reason they have guardrails is because you don't want to go on the other side, so I looked at what happened to [Taylor] Phinney and what's happened to one of our old directors, Rik Verbrugghe, and oftentimes when you go over guardrails it's not a good thing to have happen. When I really think about it I was pretty damn lucky.
CN: In the first moments there were you thinking, OK, there goes my season?
Van Garderen: In the first moments I was thinking more about my family. Like, 'Oh my God. I'm a dad. This is crazy.' But then when I got going again I brushed it off and said, 'You know what, you just gotta keep moving forward and forget about it.'
CN: You were on a similar program last year with the same races. You obviously had some setbacks last year but you came back and had a good ride in the Tour de France [finishing fifth overall]. Where do you see your preparation this year as compared with last year? Are you ahead of last year? Behind?
Van Garderen: I feel like I'm ahead of last year. Obviously, the results haven't really shown that. But last year I got sick in Paris-Nice, so I was missing a stage race in my legs. I came back strong but then I had that crash in the prologue at Romandie with the broken hip, and you know – knock on wood – that hasn't happened. So nothing has stalled my progression. It's just been some circumstances have gotten in the way of me really scoring top results. But when I look at it, my progression is going perfect.
Tejay van Garderen showing the effects of his crash at the Romandie prologue in 2014. (Photo: Tim de Waele)
CN: Like you said, the stage win on the Queen Stage of Catalunya shows the form is there, it's just a matter of putting it all together.
Van Garderen: That stage win, I actually watched a video of it. I know that I was given a bit of a leash because I was down on time and they weren't really marking me very heavily. But when I looked back at it, they were coming after me good and I was able to hold off some of the best riders in the world, like Contador and Richie Porte, who's on fire so far this year. To be able to do that on the Queen Stage, I think that shows something. I would put myself right up there with some of the best riders in the world right now in terms of just pure form.
CN: What are your goals at Pais Vasco? Are you there to win, or are you just trying to get some fitness?
Van Garderen: I have a couple of Ardennes Classics coming up after this, so this is kind of preparation for that as well as going for a result. The course at Pais Vasco doesn't really suit me very well. The climbs are not super long. They're usually between 4-6km and they're usually pretty steep and technical. So it's not really my area of expertise, but I feel like I have the form to do a solid result here. To score some WorldTour points for the team is definitely important.
CN: Is there any particular stage this week that you have your eye on, that you think suits you well?
Van Garderen: That climb to Eibar I really like. I think that's stage 4. [Tuesday] I think is going to be another stage similar to [Monday], probably with a guy similar, like Matthews, someone of that calibre is going to win. But from then on everyday is a GC day, so you have to take the opportunities and be ready.
CN: What's next then after Pais Vasco?
Van Garderen: Flèche Wallone and then Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Then I take a break from the spring before I revamp up for the Dauphine and the Tour.
CN: So no Romandie this year?
Van Garderen: Nope. No Romandie.
CN: Did you get a chance to read the CIRC report? What were your impressions?
Van Garderen: I didn't read the entire thing. I read some highlights and I saw some stupid quotes like 20-90 percent. Other riders have more eloquent ways of phrasing things than I can. David Millar said it really well: It's kind of stupid they allowed anonymous people to just spout off a bunch of stuff and then it's published as news. I feel like unless you're willing to put your name to that statement, they shouldn't even regard it as a statement.
I think the peloton is in a really good place right now. Of course when you talk to guys who have maybe been burned a little bit by the sport, guys like Jorge Jaschke, Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, I mean they're obviously going to look at the sport pretty negatively, and they're also not going to have a very good idea of where the sport is at now.
I think it was very well intentioned, the whole CIRC thing, but I can't say it was very accurate in terms of where the sport is at and how far we've progressed.
CN: Do you think it was beneficial for the sport to do that, or is digging up all that stuff not in the sport's best interest?
Van Garderen: It just seems like people want this story to keep going. It seems like if there's no new story, bring up some old stories just to keep it going. It's getting kind of old. I feel like, OK, we aired out the dirty laundry. It's out there, now let's move on. I think that was the whole point of the CIRC thing: air the dirty laundry, and now move forward. But I think it kind of did the opposite. It actually made it look like there's more stuff out there. But that wasn't the intention. The intention was to draw a line in the sand. But I think it just opened up another Pandora's box. It's unfortunate because it just seems like it's never going to end.