There is only one name standing between the 29-year-old American and cycling’s most prized tunic. The problem is that person is his BMC Racing teammate and co-captain Greg Van Avermaet.
And the way the race dynamics and team politics are stacking up, it’s highly unlikely that van Garderen will get his shot at yellow.
Here’s why: Van Garderen is tied on time with Van Avermaet. The Belgian superstar taking yellow following Monday’s team time trial victory. Because Van Avermaet had started ahead of van Garderen on GC, it didn’t matter what order they finished in on Monday so long as they were together.
That meant Monday’s yellow jersey from the team time trial went to Van Avermaet.
Right now, there is no indication that the team is planning on playing hot potato with the yellow jersey to give van Garderen a shot at the maillot jaune.
Even if it wanted to, BMC Racing would not risk losing it by trying to “gift” the jersey to van Garderen in the tricky, classics-style courses that lay ahead. To take yellow, Van Garderen would need to finish ahead of Van Avermaet or take time on him, and both are highly unlikely with the kind of terrain facing the peloton the next few days.
And that’s not counting BMC’s direct GC rivals also on the hunt for yellow. Geraint Thomas (Sky) is only three seconds back and Philippe Gilbert and Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) are five and seven seconds adrift, respectively. Even with time bonuses up for grabs at intermediate and finish line sprints, it’s hard to imagine that van Garderen would be able to beat the burly sprinters chasing the green jersey and the stage victories.
On Tuesday, Van Avermaet said he plans on defending the yellow jersey as long as possible.
“I am enjoying the day so far in yellow, and maybe a stage win would be nice,” Van Avermaet said. “Tomorrow would be the first opportunity, and I think I will go for it.”
Unless Van Avermaet falls ill or crashes out, it’s unlikely that BMC Racing will have the opportunity to give van Garderen a shot at yellow even if it wanted to.
Some teams in the past have been able to “pass around” the yellow jersey after taking it in team time trials. One rider can often give it to a teammate based on positioning, especially if that rider is a strong sprinter.
The most recent example came in 2013 when the GreenEdge franchise won the stage 4 time trial to put Simon Gerrans in yellow. The Australian held it for two stages and before teammate Daryl Impey overtook it for two more stages. Impey, an explosive sprinter in the right conditions, claimed time bonuses at an intermediate sprint and then fended off challengers to take the lead for South Africa’s first yellow jersey.
It will be very difficult to replicate that scenario for van Garderen. Not only does Wednesday’s lumpy stage 5 favor Van Avermaet, the day’s lone time bonus comes at about 90km into the stage. A breakaway will likely eat up the bonus seconds, and with the way the finale looks into Quimper, it will be Van Avermaet, not van Garderen, who will be sprinting for the win.
Thursday’s stage 6 uphill finale at Mur de Bretagne on paper could suit van Garderen, but big hitters like Peter Sagan and Julian Alaphilippe as well as GC riders will be gunning for the stage win. BMC Racing will be racing to help Van Avermaet to defend the jersey as well as win the stage, plus keep Richie Porte in strong GC position.
So that means van Garderen could be the odd man out even if he is oh-so-close to yellow.
And that’s not counting team politics. Van Avermaet came into this Tour with the promise of being able to ride for his own interests for the opening nine days of the race. As a former Paris-Roubaix winner, Van Avermaet would like to win a stage before stage 9 over the cobblestones into Roubaix. Van Avermaet then promises to slot into workhorse mode to help Porte ride for yellow.
The team is fine with that because having Van Avermaet in yellow also means that Porte will be well-protected in the opening week across treacherous terrain in northern France.
And with the future of BMC Racing up in the air, the team will want to maximize its time in yellow and perhaps parlay that into a new title sponsorship. So far, Van Avermaet is publicly saying he is waiting to see what happens in the team’s quest for a new sponsor. With Porte reportedly heading to another team, BMC brass will want to try to keep Van Avermaet happily in yellow for a few more days in the chance that a new title sponsor is in the works.
Van Garderen came to this Tour with clear marching orders to ride in support of Porte in the GC. His presence atop the leaderboard after stage 4 will not change the team’s support for Porte in a bid for the final podium in Paris.
Van Garderen has never been closer to yellow in his career. Twice fifth overall, van Garderen is now tied on time for the lead of cycling’s biggest race.
He is only one spot away from yellow, but the combination of team politics and race dynamics means he may likely never bridge that smallest of gaps to yellow.