Tejay van Garderen sat quietly in the BMC team car before the start of stage 3 at the Tour of Oman, satisfied about his season debut so far and relaxed about the upcoming hilly stages that will decide the final winner and show who amongst the Grand Tour contenders has the best early season form.
Van Garderen is still only 25 but has been given team leadership at BMC for the Tour de France this season, while Cadel Evans has been persuaded to focus on the Giro d'Italia. Sporting manager Allan Peiper is convinced a generation change can get the best out of both riders.
Van Garderen proved his stage race potential by winning the best young rider's white jersey and finishing fifth in the 2012 Tour de France. He faltered and finished 45th in the 2013 Tour but impressed with overall victories at the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge.
2014 will be all about the Tour de France, with BMC happy for van Garderen to sacrifice a second win at the Amgen Tour of California so he can be at his very best for the French Grand Tour.
February in Oman is a long way away from July in France, so van Garderen naturally brushes off any pressure about competing against Grand Tour rivals such as Chris Froome (Team Sky), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo).
"So far it's been pretty easy. We just kind of roll along on the flat stages," he told Cyclingnews, perfectly summing up the vibe so far this year at the Tour of Oman.
"It's a good race to start the season: good weather, wide roads, kind of a relaxed feel. I think the real race starts now. I hope I can show good form. I trained well in California this winter. You never know how you're going to go in the first race of the season and I've also been fighting a bit of jet lag. But the team is in high spirits after a great start to the season and we're having fun here."
No psychological blow
Friday's fourth stage from Wadi Al Abiyad to the Ministry of Housing is the first of the back to back hilly stages. The first half of the stage is flat but the second half includes four 3.4km climbs on the Bousher Alamrat highway. Last year Alberto Contador blew the race apart on the final climb in an attempt to land a physical and psychological blow on Froome. It didn't work. Froome quietly powered across to him with Rodriguez and then won the stage as well. He then defended his lead on the Green Mountain finish.
The 5.7km, 10.5 percent climb comes at the end of Saturday's 147.5km stage. Froome and Rodriguez are expected to clash again on both days and van Garderen hopes to be up there with them.
"I'd like to be up there but if I'm not, it's no big deal and it won't be a psychological blow," he told Cyclingnews.
"A result is a result; even if there are no points here, it would be a good confidence boost to have a go up Green Mountain and see where I'm at.
"It's a good test, a chance to feel out your competitors a little bit, to see who's going good, who's not going good. With other WorldTour stage races coming up, it's good to get a sense of who to keep your eye on and who has had a little too much fun over the winter."
No defence of California crown
Van Garderen is quietly confident that he had a quality winter after spending two months training in the hills near Santa Barbara and Solvang.
After Oman he will head to his new European base in Nice, where performance coach Bobby Julich is also based. He hopes to triumphantly arrive in Nice a second time in March at the end of the so-called 'Race to the Sun'.
"Paris-Nice is the first season objective and after that the Volta a Catalunya," van Garderen told Cyclingnews.
"Where there's WorldTour points to be scored, we'll put a lot of emphasis on that. They're the big goals for us because the points are pretty important these days. Then I've got the Tour de Romandie. I'll take a break after that and then ride the Dauphine and the Tour de France. I'll still be target US Pro Challenge but that's pretty far off."
Van Garderen would have liked to defend his Amgen Tour of California title but knows he has got to hold some important matches back if he wants to light up the Tour de France in July.
"That was really a decision made by Och (Team manager Jim Ochowicz) and (Performance manager) Allan Peiper and people above me, who thought it was the best thing to do," he said.
"My coach was involved, too, and they more leaning to the month of May being a building month; do some altitude, do some training. It's hard to hold a winning level from May all the way to the Tour.
"If I were to ride the Tour of California, they'd want me to race it to just get in racing kilometres in and maybe sit in the pack and chill. But it wouldn't feel right going there as defending champion without the fitness to try and win.
"And if you burn matches too early, you might not have enough left in July."
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