ESCONDIDO, California (VN) — The day before the Amgen Tour of California commenced, pre-race favorite Tejay van Garderen wasn’t showing much of his hand, downplaying expectations and noting the weight upon his BMC Racing team’s broad shoulders.
Van Garderen enters this year’s Amgen Tour — a mountainous parcours with more than 60,000 feet of climbing and three mountaintop finishes over its eight days — as a clear favorite for perhaps the first time. Recent champions Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard), Levi Leipheimer (teamless after being sacked by Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Robert Gesink (Blanco) aren’t in the field, and the young American has finished in the top five here twice over the past two seasons.
And yet, van Garderen isn’t carrying the swagger of a five-star pick to win his first major stage race.
“Well, with the events of this last month, it’s been amazing with the new child. But I’m not going to say everything’s gone entirely smoothly with training. … I had to take a couple days just to catch up on some sleep. But I feel really good. I definitely see myself as one of the favorites,” he told VeloNews. Van Garderen and his wife recently welcomed a baby daughter to the family.
“it was crazy. I found out the last day of Pays Basque. I was set to fly out the next morning. So the night before I went to fly I got the call from Jessica that she went into labor. Our little girl came three weeks early,” he said.
“For a few days there, it was in the hospital, getting things adjusted in the house, making the introduction with the dog — I wouldn’t recommend getting a puppy and a baby in the same year.
“It’s been great. It’s certainly been an adjustment, but it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and it’s given me a lot of perspective. It’s certainly a lot harder to leave home now.”
But, now that he’s here, van Garderen knows the eyes are on him.
“I see, with a few other guys who would be considered favorites for this race not being here, that might be more of a hindrance to me than a help. Because then more of the responsibility lies on me and my team to make the race and to dictate the races,” he said.
“You know, if you have a climber like Horner, who I’m pretty confident I can beat in the time trial, he’s going to want to drop [Dave] Zabriskie and [Michael] Rogers, and I can maybe stay close to Horner. But if he’s not there to make it hard on the climbs, that means I need to make it hard on the climbs. And even if I can consider myself a better climber than Zabriskie and Rogers, it’s easier to follow someone and drop them than it is to just drop them on your own.
“It changes the entire tactics and dynamic of the race, and I think it puts a lot more burden on BMC.”
Hard or not, BMC has a deep team here that includes two world champions in Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert and a cadre of grand-tour-worthy support riders. Hushovd doesn’t see any reason why his man can’t take the Amgen Tour and make it his own.
“Tejay has a big talent. He’s a really young rider, and he proved already he’s a big GC contender. I mean, top five in the Tour de France at that age, not that many riders have done that before him,” he said.
“It looks like he can live with the pressure. When he’s the team captain … you can feel like he wants to win the bike races. Of course he can win. It just depends if he’s got his potential for this time of the year. He has the talent, and what you need to win this race, with these kind of climbs and the time trial.”
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) gave the nod to van Garderen as well. Asked who would win the overall, he replied: “Mmmm. Maybe Tejay, I think. But … we can’t tell before the race. We will see in the race how it’s going in the race, day by day. Because you can have back luck one day, some problem, and you are out, no?
“But probably Tejay. What did he say? He said he wanted to do well. He wanted to do the general classification. And I think he’s a good rider for it.”
The race begins on Sunday in Escondido, Calif., and finishes a week later in Santa Rosa.