Much was expected of Tejay van Garderen (BMC) at the 2013 Tour de France following his fifth place overall result and best young rider classification win at last year's edition. But at the start of today's 18th stage and its unprecedented double ascent of Alpe d'Huez, the 24-year-old American stood in 50th place overall, more than one hour and ten minutes in arrears of Chris Froome on general classification.
Van Garderen, however, came tantalisingly close to salvaging both his and his BMC team's Tour de France campaign as he found himself alone in the lead for much of the second ascent of Alpe d'Huez. The BMC American was seemingly en route to the biggest victory of his career when former breakaway companion Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale), riding second on the road, began to claw his way back to van Garderen. Riblon steadily neutralised his 45-second deficit to van Garderen, made contact with two kilometres remaining, and immediately attacked.
Van Garderen had no answer and ultimately finished second to the Frenchman, 59 seconds down.
"It was painful to lose," said van Garderen. "It was an amazing feeling being at the front of the Tour de France on such an iconic climb. This would have been a good one [to win]. Alpe d'Huez is one of those climbs that everyone knows. To be up there with the win in sight and to lose it, that sucks.
"But at the same time it was kind of surprising we were even in the hunt for the win. When I did my first attack the first time up Alpe d'Huez, when we only had seven minutes, I didn't actually think at that moment we were going to stay away. I was just doing it to show my presence in the race."
Van Garderen was originally part of a nine-man breakaway which splintered the first time up Alpe d'Huez and its 21 switchbacks. Over the top, it was down to three, with Moreno Moser (Cannondale) topping the summit ahead of van Garderen and Riblon. But a mechanical problem for van Garderen on the already tricky descent of the Col de Sarenne caused the BMC rider to lose contact with Riblon as he was forced to come to a halt.
"The issue was it was a really rough road and with the tight corners you had to shift pretty fast," said van Garderen. "Sometimes when you shift, when it's such a bumpy road, you try to shift up two times and then the chain just hopped off and got caught between the seatstay and the cassette. It wasn't an equipment failure and it wasn't a problem the mechanic did, it was just bad luck and it could have happened to anyone."
With no neutral support in sight, van Garderen waited for his team car and was back on a new bike after approximately 40 seconds. Van Garderen chased alone and eventually made contact with Riblon and Moser prior to the second ascent of Alpe d'Huez. On the second ascent of the storied climb Moser faltered first, then van Garderen rode away from Riblon in pursuit of a stage victory.
Van Garderen was pragmatic in his assessment of whether the energy expended regaining contact with Riblon and Moser cost him the stage win. "It's hard to say, there's a million things you can say to maybe I would have won the stage," said van Garderen. "Maybe if I had gambled a little bit and attacked later than earlier. You can't change what happened so you just have to move on.
"It's been an experience for sure," van Garderen said of his 2013 Tour de France. "I have moments in this Tour that I'm proud of and moments that have been pretty low. All in all it will make me stronger for the future."