In theory, the Tour’s best young rider competition is a straightforward parallel to the race for the yellow jersey. Take the GC results, strip out all the riders over the age of 25, and what remains is your white jersey classification. Come Paris, the lowest time wins. Simple. Unless you’re Tejay van Garderen, the young American currently leading the competition.
Contested since 1975, the competition has a roll of honor littered with prodigies, riders who were contenders for both white and yellow before they even hit what are considered the peak years for a professional cyclist.
Four men have claimed both jerseys in the same year — Lauren Fignon (1983), Jan Ullrich (1997), Alberto Contador (2007), and Andy Schleck (2010). Several other white jersey winners, like Damiano Cunego in 2006, the late Marco Pantani in 1994 and 1995, and Jan Ullrich in 1998 were team leaders who chased yellow but ultimately won white as a consolation prize, using all their teams’ full resources to do so.
Tejay van Garderen has no such luxury. BMC brought the 23-year-old to the Tour to render high-mountain aid to Cadel Evans and set time checks for the defending champion in the time trials. Van Garderen grabbed this Tour’s first white jersey of the year doing just that, riding to fifth place in the prologue time trial 10 seconds off Fabian Cancellara’s winning time. From the outset, the jersey was a nice honor, but the expectation was — and remains — that when Evans needed help, providing it would take precedence over retaining the jersey.
Unfortunately, van Garderen’s stiffest competition for the white jersey comes from men with no such complications to their ambitions. His first challenge came from promising Estonian Rein Taaramäe, his number 81 signaling his role as the nominal leader of a fairly stage-oriented Cofidis team.
Van Garderen kept the jersey through stage 6 to Metz simply by doing his job, sticking close to Evans during the team’s efforts to keep its leader secure through a violent first week. But he had an off day with the transition to the hills on Stage 7 to La Planche des Belles Filles, while Taaramäe finished an impressive fifth behind a storming Chris Froome of Sky. Van Garderen rolled across the line 46th, ceding 2:49 and the jersey to Taaramäe and dropping to third in the white jersey rankings behind RadioShack’s surprising Tony Gallopin, who was third.
Stage 8 saw the youngest man in the race, 22-year-old Thibaut Pinot of FDJ-Big Mat, leap to prominence with a spectacular solo win in the seven-climb march to Porrentruy, Switzerland. In the process, Pinot put 1:25 into Van Garderen and 2:21 into Taaramäe, who mounted a successful late-stage effort to save his jersey.
The win thrust Pinot into the international spotlight, and the time he gained thrust him into the thick of the white jersey competition. His squad’s GC hope, Sandy Casar, has always been more of a sentimental hope than a sporting one, and it seems sure that Pinot’s win will buy his freedom in the week to come.
Pinot’s win also highlighted the limitations van Garderen will increasingly face in the white jersey battle: He may have been a threat for the jersey, but Pinot’s relative anonymity and 4:07 deficit at the start of the day wouldn’t ring any alarm bells in the GC race to which van Garderen was beholden. So away he went. Where a GC contender might have had chased immediately when a rival jumped away, van Garderen can watch and chase only Evans’s rivals, not his own.
Van Garderen rocketed back into the jersey with a stunning performance in the stage 9 time trial, finishing fourth behind new race leader Bradley Wiggins, his emerging super-domestique Chris Froome, and Cancellara. In doing so, van Garderen put 1:40 into Gallopin, 2:23 into Taaramäe, and a staggering 4:06 on climber Pinot.
As he had since the start of the race, van Garderen used post-stage interviews to reiterate the fact that his only goal at the Tour was to assist Evans (whom he had just bested by 37 seconds). But stage 10, the first day in the Alps, may have shown that either van Garderen or BMC’s management isn’t willing to give up white so easily.
Dropped from the yellow jersey group on the slopes of the hors categorie Grand Colombier climb, van Garderen rallied on the descent to rejoin his leader prior to the Cat. 3 Col de Richemond. He was soon dropped again, but regrouped to finish just 17 seconds adrift of the yellow jersey group containing Evans, as well as Pinot and Taaramäe. Faced with a similar situation, a pure domestique might have sat up and saved up for the next day after being dropped on the Richemond rather than chasing seconds to the finish line.
If Stage 10 left an impression that van Garderen was valuing his own chances over Evans’s, Stage 11 immediately proved otherwise. On the slopes of the Croix de Fer, BMC took its most serious crack yet at Sky’s dominance, with van Garderen striking out first from the yellow jersey group and Evans jumping across. With a third BMC, Amaël Moinard, dropping back from the break, it looked like a serious play for time.
But in the moments that followed, it was clear the American was too strong for his captain, and as Evans lost steam, van Garderen dutifully accompanied Evans back to the yellow jersey group. With 9km remaining in the stage, Evans finally came unhinged from a very select Wiggins group, and van Garderen was again perfect, easing off to pick up Evans and drive him to the line.
The pair ceded 1:26 to Wiggins, but in the process, van Garderen also gave up 1:28 to white jersey rival Pinot, who had nipped away to take second, 55 seconds behind winner Pierre Rolland.
Can van Garderen secure the final white jersey in Paris, despite his ongoing duties for Evans? There are several indicators that it is possible. Taaramäe had a disastrous day on Thursday, losing over 20 minutes to both Pinot and van Garderen and effectively leaving the battle for the maillot blanc a two-man race. Van Garderen holds a solid 1:54 over Pinot after Stage 12, and as with Wiggins, the final time trial plays to his advantage.
In the stage 9 TT, van Garderen took 5.9 seconds per kilometer from Pinot. Should he be able to do the same in the 51.5km stage 19 test, van Garderen would best Pinot by more than five minutes. But with the Pyrenees still ahead, climbing revelation Pinot will be looked after by his team and have only his own interests to look after.
Van Garderen’s chances will be tied to those of Cadel Evans, for good or ill, and that may make all the difference.
Ryan Newill has contributed to VeloNews since 1999, and confesses to being the Ryan behind www.theservicecourse.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @SC_Cycling.