After the setbacks of the Tour de France and his bad crash in last year's Vuelta a Espana, BMC Racing Team's Tejay van Garderen has returned to the Spanish Grand Tour with a very different mindset to other seasons. One which, as he sees it, is different to any previous stage race he's done.
The American finished well below expectations in 29th place in the Tour de France, but last July arguably was even more disappointing, given van Garderen was forced to abandon ill when he was on target for a podium finish. Van Garderen then had a first-week crash in the 2015 Vuelta, his comeback race, fracturing his shoulder in the same massive pile-up in Murcia that saw Belgian rider Kris Boeckmans (Lotto-Soudal) end up in hospital in a coma, and Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) also pull out injured.
Now, having just turned 28, van Garderen is back in the Vuelta for a third time - he also finished 34th in the Vuelta in what was his first-ever three week stage race in 2010 for HTC. But as the BMC Racing Team rider told a small group of reporters on Thursday afternoon, he plans on tackling the Spanish Grand Tour differently this time around.
"This Vuelta has been an entirely different approach to just about any I've ever done," van Garderen said. "The goal is not going to be GC, so that's an entirely different scenario to anything I'm used to.
"The GC for us will be for Samu' [Sanchez, BMC teammate] and I'm going to do what I can to help him and also hunt for breakaways."
"Really it's about getting two Grand Tours in one season in the legs, to help me build the edge and maybe give me a bit more depth going into next season.
"I definitely don't want to ride around anonymously, I want to hunt for a stage win," he added. "But it'll be a different kind of stage race for me, so it'll be an interesting race for me."
When asked about how he was condition-wise compared to this point in time in 2015, van Garderen, interestingly, replied more by first discussing his mental attitude to the Vuelta - and how the former had really affected the latter both in 2015 and now this August.
"Last year I was really disappointed with the Tour, and I wanted revenge. So I woke up the Monday morning and I was like ‘OK, I'm going to get back on it, I'm going to get back in shape', so I came back sharp, fit, stressed, nervous, all the above.'
"This year, it's another disappointing Tour, but I'm kind of like ‘OK, maybe I'm not going to jump back into it' I'm going to rest up a little bit. I might be more fresh, but I'm maybe not as sharp."
Asked if his two difficult Tours had been a factor in his rethinking of the Vuelta, van Garderen said, "We always look at it with the coaches, we try to see if there's something we can change. If we just keep doing the same approach every year with the same result then that's not going to be too smart of us, so we're kind of looking at the past, when I've had a couple of good Tours and maybe we'll try to focus on what I did for those seasons and try to go back to that."
Comparing the 2015 and 2016 Tours, he said, "it was different. In 2015, I just got sick and this year, even from the beginning, I was just really struggling, could barely hang with the top riders until finally it just came apart altogether.
"I think this year I pushed it too hard with the diet, the training and paid the price in the third week."
Since the Tour, he took a trip home, his first in seven months, only returning to Europe a few days ago. "I mentally recovered, physically recovered, soaked up time with the family. I had time on the bike, but no real intensity. Just riding for the fun of riding."
The jetlag, he said, was not a problem, adding with a slight grin that the Spanish social schedule of later nights and later mornings had helped him adapt to that process.
"So it might take a few days to find the legs and hopefully by the second or third week, I'll really come good and can hunt for that stage win."
Firstly, though, on Saturday a team time trial beckons, which is an inhouse speciality for BMC, who won the opening Vuelta TTT last year. On paper, van Garderen could be in contention for the lead on Saturday.
"We've won almost every team time trial we've started since the Ponferrada Worlds," van Garderen said proudly, "so anything short of a victory would be a disappointment for us. So we're starting with some lofty goals.
"But we're not focussed on who's going to cross the line first, we're focussing on trying to get everyone up there on the podium. However, if we win the stage, we'll have a [leader's] jersey, so that'll be exciting."
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