Tejay van Garderen entered the final week of the Tour de France with his end goal, a place on the final podium in Paris, firmly within his reach, only for an untimely respiratory infection to nudge it beyond his grasp once again.
As van Garderen wheeled to a halt on the road to Pra-Loup on stage 17 and the door of the BMC car yawned open, he was faced with the existential crisis familiar to so many in that position over the years. What next?
In the short-term, the next stop on van Garderen’s itinerary was recovery on the couch at his European base in Nice, where he was at least able to bring himself to watch the remainder of the Tour – "Those final stages looked brutal," he said – before flying to his home in Colorado to resume training.
At that juncture, van Garderen’s intention was to resume competitive action on home roads at the USA Pro Challenge, but with some gentle encouragement from his team, he talked himself around to lining out at the Vuelta a España instead.
"The team gave me the option. I could sense that they wanted me to do the Vuelta but I was saying no, I wanted to do Colorado but then I got back home, I looked at the course profiles and spoke with my wife," van Garderen told Cyclingnews as he took shelter from the early evening sun ahead of the pre-race presentation in Benahavis on Friday.
"Having looked at the profile, the Vuelta looked like it suited me pretty well with the TT and everything, and sometimes it’s good just to keep it fresh. The past five seasons have been almost exactly the same, so this is my first time on the Vuelta since 2010, my neo-pro season. It’s almost like going full circle, and I’m excited just to change things up a bit."
Van Garderen rarely shies away from laying out his objectives in public – ahead of the Tour, for instance, he felt himself capable of a podium finish and saw no reason to pretend that wasn’t his aim – but like many at this Vuelta, he sets out from Andalusia unsure of precisely what he can achieve.
"I’d like to do GC and I’d like to stay up there with the best guys, but form is a little bit of question mark. I’ve been training at home at altitude and I haven’t raced in a while, so it’s difficult to gauge where I am compared to some of the other guys," he said.
"But I think a lot of the guys are in the same situation, anyone who came from the Tour is probably in the same situation, so I’m not going to put a number on it, like I want to finish top three or top five or whatever. I want to stay with the best guys, take my opportunities when they come and try to have a little fun."
The Vuelta for the Vuelta’s sake
Earlier on Friday evening, Chris Froome (Sky) had told reporters that part of his reason for coming to the Vuelta was that the Spanish race provided the ideal springboard for the beginning of his 2016 campaign, a theory borne out by the statistic that in each of the past five years, the winner of the Tour had raced the Vuelta the previous Autumn. Van Garderen, by contrast, said that he was at the Vuelta simply for the Vuelta’s sake.
"I wasn’t aware of that statistic, but I think what goes on here doesn’t have any bearing on what happens next season," he said. "I think a perfect example was Richie Porte. He got ill at the Tour last year and didn’t race at all, and then he was the strongest guy in the spring, winning everything. So I think the winter’s training will be the winter’s training. I’m just here for the Vuelta thinking about the Vuelta."
At some point over the next month, the World Championships in Richmond will gradually begin to edge their way to the forefront of van Garderen’s mind, but that, too, was not part of his rationale for lining out at the Vuelta.
"The team time trial is a huge objective for BMC and personally I’d like to have a good individual time trial. The road race course I don’t think suits me too well but you never know," he said. "The Vuelta should put me in good form for that but it’s not the reason I’m here."
Van Garderen will, however, surely hope that a change is as good as a rest. After building his past five seasons around the Tour de France, this Vuelta sees him return to the scene of his Grand Tour debut, at HTC-Highroad in 2010, when, as well as penning a blog for Cyclingnews, the neophyte helped Mark Cavendish to land four stages, Peter Velits to finish on the podium in Madrid and was part of the winning squad in the opening team time trial in Seville.
"I kind of got a free role that year and I kind of got to do whatever I wanted. I was helping Mark Cavendish in the sprints and I think he won four stages and the sprint jersey, and Peter finished on the podium," he said. "And my first memory, of course, was that we did a team time trial there on stage 1 at the night-time and we won it, so straight away my first Grand Tour experience was a victory."
BMC will, as ever, line up among the contenders for victory in the opening team time trial from Porto Banus to Marbella on Saturday evening, but while there will be a red jersey on offer for the first man across the line, the times from the stage will not count towards the overall classification. Van Garderen voiced his support for the decision to neutralise the 7.4-kilometre test due to safety concerns.
"I understand both sides. The town pays for the race and they want a certain television shot to draw attention to that area, but that can’t be done at the risk of the riders," he said. "I think they made a good call by neutralising it. We’re sportsmen and we’re not there just to risk our lives just so you can get a camera shot."
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