OYONNAX, France (VN) — Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) survived another white-knuckle ride at the Tour de France, finishing safely in the front bunch in Wednesday’s 11th stage, crisscrossing the jagged Jura Mountains.
At the Tour’s equator, the 25-year-old remains in podium contention going into the real meat of the Tour, seventh at 3:56 back. With the Alps and Pyrénées still looming, BMC believes the podium is within reach.
“The mood of the team is good. We are in the top-10, Tejay is moving up, his condition and his confidence are growing,” BMC’s Daniel Oss told VeloNews. “We want the podium, that’s what we’re working for.”
Van Garderen was among several GC riders who crashed in the harrowing first half of the Tour, but with riders such as Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) out of the race and hobbling toward home, van Garderen has largely been able to shrug off his four crashes so far in the Tour.
Though spills certainly take a physical and mental toll, van Garderen avoided serious injury, and proved in Monday’s explosive uphill finale at Belles Filles that he has the climbing legs to stay with the favorites.
Tuesday’s rest day came at a good time for everyone in the peloton, and BMC said they’re hoping to steer van Garderen safely into the longer, steadier climbs waiting in the Alps.
“We’re not where we wanted to be halfway through the Tour, but we’re not too far out, either. The time loss was minimal,” BMC Racing general manager Jim Ochowicz told VeloNews. “We kept Tejay in contention, and now that we’ve hit the mountains, he’s showed he can stay with everyone, except [Vincenzo] Nibali.”
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) seemingly has a stranglehold on the yellow jersey, with Richie Porte (Sky) his nearest rival at 2:23 back. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) looms in third, 2:47 back, but fourth through 10th are separated by little more than one minute. And van Garderen is only 1:09 off Valverde’s virtual podium spot.
Thursday’s transition stage to Saint-Etienne will be another fight for survival for the GC contenders before a pair of mountaintop finales in the Alps.
Those climbs — the HC Chamrousse on Friday and the Cat. 1 Risoul on Saturday — should settle the GC pecking order going into the final push across the even more decisive Pyrénées.
“We’re coming into the longer, steadier climbs that are better for him. Those short, steep 18-percent grades in the Vosges are not ideal. The Alps will be good for Tejay,” Ochowicz continued. “Everyone who is still here is relieved, not just Tejay. Everyone is happy, including Tejay, to be past ‘phase one.’ We’ll start seeing fewer crashes, and more tactical racing.”
Ochowicz said the absence of Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team as a peloton protagonist will greatly alter the race. With Contador out of the race and nursing a fractured tibia, Tinkoff-Saxo will do less to help Astana to control the pace, and instead go on the hunt for stage wins.
That means Astana will be alone to control the breakaways and yellow jersey, opening the door for aggression, but only if someone is up for it. If Nibali doesn’t reveal any cracks, riders could begin to race for the podium.
“It’s getting closer to the podium fight. That doesn’t mean mathematically that Nibali cannot be beaten. It’s not an absolute yet [that Nibali will win],” Ochowicz said. “It changes the strategy for everyone with Contador crashing out, because you lose the team [Tinkoff-Saxo] that would help control the race, and eventually attack the Astana group. We don’t have the answer to which team will try to take it to Astana. Fatigue is now playing a role in the race.”
Van Garderen will be hoping to hit his stride on the longer climbs of the Alps, with the objective of moving up on GC, and then attacking Nibali if he has the legs to do it.
“In that top-10 group behind Nibali, anything could happen,” Ochowicz continued. “There will be more attrition. Riders have bad days, including Nibali, every rider does. Every rider has a bad day. You just cannot see it sometimes. You have to make it hard enough so that they suffer.”
Also playing in van Garderen’s favor is the 54km penultimate-stage time trial in Bergerac, but first, the team needs to chaperone their captain through some treacherous terrain.
“The time trial is in our favor, but first he must make it there,” Oss said. “Tejay is relaxed, he is nice and chatty in the evening. It’s a quite good ambiance around the dinner table.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher for van Garderen, who is the remaining American GC contender at the tour, after Andrew Talansky finished 32:05 down on stage 11.
With Froome and Contador out of the race, a healthy and motivated van Garderen could ride all the way to the podium in Paris. Up next, the Alps.