BMC's Tejay van Garderen should be considered one of the top contenders for the overall Amgen Tour of California victory: after all, he placed fifth in Paris-Nice and was in contention for the overall Tour de Romandie until a flying branch struck him in the face and took him out of the race. But the 23-year-old American is being conservative in his pronouncements, saying he would be happy to get on the podium in Los Angeles.
Unlike his teammate Taylor Phinney, who stated definitively he would win the Giro d'Italia prologue and then did just that, Van Garderen has learned to be more cautious with his ambitions. He was Phinney's age when he placed third overall in the Critérium du Dauphiné, and he heaped pressure on himself to live up to his promise as a general classification contender. With several strong results, including a stint in the leader's jersey at the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, that failed to pan out, he's come to learn to take a little pressure off.
"I was stoked for Phinney out there in pink. It was such an impressive ride from such a young guy. I was really excited to see him deliver on his promise in the prologue," Van Garderen told Cyclingnews, but explained his own statement that a podium finish would be satisfying."If you come into a race saying you're going to win, you leave yourself with no way out. Even second place and two stage wins that's not enough. It's hard to be happy with that.
"The goal for me is to win, and I'm going to race every day like I'm trying to win - I'm not just going to follow wheels and try to slip into third place and be happy with that. But when you're up against guys like [Chris] Horner, [Vincenzo] Nibali and [Andrew] Talansky - it's tough to say I'm going to drop all these guys. You have to give those guys respect. I'm definitely here to compete against them to the best of my ability, but if I get on the podium I'll be thrilled with that."
So far this season, Van Garderen has posted consistently impressive results, taking fifth place overall in Paris-Nice, one of his first goals of the year. "Everything went well, I got lucky on a few stages, I was in the right place at the right time in the crosswinds and had some good form there."
Next up was the Tour de Romandie, where he minimized his time losses in a wet prologue and then stayed at the front of the pack behind race leader Bradley Wiggins on the following tough stages.
"I had some pretty good sensations there," he said of Romandie. "In the prologue I was unlucky to ride in the wet, and the legs weren't totally sharp there after Liege, but throughout the race I was feeling really good."
He was just 15 seconds off the race lead when on stage 4, he was hit in the face by a flying branch and, face bloodied, he dropped out of the race. "It was a really weird incident. I had to have four stitches - we just took them out the other day. At first it looked really ugly and it hurt like hell. It was a shame I had to drop out of Romandie, but it wasn't a huge setback. I was back on the bike the next day and it healed up pretty quickly. I only have a little scar. I was bummed I couldn't do that last time trial. It looked like a good course for me, but there's always the next race."
That next race is the Amgen Tour of California, where the first four stages all feature enough climbing that the race could split up, and then a time trial followed by two big climbing stages will pack a big punch at the end of the week.
"I think it will be nervous in the early stages. I don't think we'll see any real gaps between the GC guys, but there will be splits in the field and if you're not attentive you can find yourself in a bad situation. The real GC days will be the time trial (stage 5) and Mt. Baldy (stage 7)."
Van Garderen says that the difficult mountain top finish on Mt. Baldy will be made all the more difficult by the previous stage to Big Bear Lake, even if that stage doesn't break up the overall contenders.
"Big Bear will be a smaller group, but even when we did the stage in 2010 Sagan won and it was a group of 30 or so that came to the line. Big Bear is such a hard grinding day you're not going to see any big gaps there, but it will tire the legs going into Baldy. It's going to serve as a day to separate those who have depth and strength and can cope with a really hard day going into Baldy."
Van Garderen didn't discount the idea that he might find himself in the race leader's jersey earlier in the week, where the overall contenders could be sprinting for time bonuses.
"There are time bonuses up for grabs and on the hard stages the sprinters could get unloaded. You could see some of the GC guys sprinting for the seconds, which could prove pretty valuable for the big GC days. I'm not the best sprinter in the world, but I have a pretty fast finish compared with some of the little climbers, if there's a chance to take some seconds you can never let those chances go by."
After a tough spring in Europe, Van Garderen is relaxed and happy to be back in his home country. After spending 10 days in Boulder back home with his new wife, he is looking forward to a promising weather forecast for the Amgen Tour of California.
"I love racing in Europe with the history and the fans and everything there, but there really is nothing like racing in your home country. It's a special feeling. I think we deserve the nice weather after such a harsh spring in Europe. It seemed like just about every race you'd either have a stage cancelled or we were just suffering through it. This is a nice, welcome relief."