Throughout this Tour de France, Tejay van Garderen has handled his post-stage media duties in the manner seemingly demanded by the marginal gains era, perfunctorily answering a few questions from television reporters while warming down outside the BMC team bus, before later being whisked into a team car to travel ahead to the evening's hotel, recovery meal in hand.
There was no need to check the results sheet at Finhaut-Emosson on Wednesday afternoon to establish that van Garderen's hopes of a high overall finish at this year's Tour were over. His actions on reaching the BMC bus, parked on the dam above Lac Emosson, after the finish said it all. Rather than the usual rush to warm down, the American simply unclipped from his pedals and stood with an arm resting against the rear of the bus while a small group of reporters gathered around.
Distanced as Sky and Astana forced the pace on the day's penultimate climb, the Col de le Forclaz, van Garderen understood immediately that his race was run. He reached the finish some 26 minutes down on stage winner Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and more than 18 behind the yellow jersey of Chris Froome (Sky).
Van Garderen entered this race aiming for a podium place, but will already have been recalibrating those ambitions when he conceded ground on the Lacets du Grand Colombier at the weekend. Wednesday's first Alpine stage was merely a confirmation of those sensations, and the American took his defeat on the chin.
"In other Tours, I've crashed or gotten sick, but this year I don't know for whatever reason it's not responding. There's really no excuse. I wish I had one," van Garderen said. "I'm going to have to sit down with our performance team and see what we did in the build-up. I've raced against a lot of these guys in a lot of races and been able to be there with them and for some reason this year it's not happening."
Once van Garderen was dropped on the Forclaz, it was immediately clear that his hopes of matching his fifth place finishes of 2012 and 2014 had come to an end, and he confessed that he had little appetite to chase a more minor placing in Paris. He now lies 17th overall, 23:03 down on Froome, and said that his priority in the final four days would be to support his teammate Richie Porte, who remains in podium contention in 6th overall.
"I was on my limit and I got to the point where there was still 5k to go and I was hanging on by a thread. I'm not going to say I gave up, that's not the case but when I realised that I didn't have it, to me it's not worth fighting and fighting and fighting for 15th place," van Garderen said. "I said I'm going to save my legs as best I can to help Richie or try to sneak a stage win because that's worth more than just fighting for the best wheel I can just to finish 15th in Paris. Having finished top five in this race, I'm not interested in doing that."
Thursday's time trial to Megeve, once a key stage in his bid for a podium place, will now become something of a de facto rest day for van Garderen ahead of the finale in the high Alps. "I'll do what I can to help Richie if the legs rebound. And if I'm down enough on time they might let me sneak into breakaway and get a stage win," he said, more in hope, perhaps, than expectation.
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For two and a half weeks, van Garderen has dealt in the cautious post-stage soundbites that are de rigueur for an overall contender, but finding himself removed from that particular skirmish may even have felt like something of a liberation, particularly given the ill portents from last Friday's Ardèche time trial and Sunday's trek through the Jura, when he had slipped to 8th overall.
In the weeks and months ahead, van Garderen will have ample time to mull over the whys and wherefores of this latest setback at the Tour, a race that has by now brought him more heartbreak than happiness. It was a process just beginning in Switzerland on Wednesday.
"It's definitely tough. You work the whole year and you think you're doing all the right things. You know, form's a funny thing. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don't. I don't know. Right now, I'm just struggling. The thing is, I know I have it in me to do this. I just have to get all the pieces together. I mean, shit, in the first week, I didn't lose any time, didn't get sick, didn't hit the ground once. I don't have an excuse, I wish I did."
Tour de France stage 17 highlights video
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