ORTISEI, Italy (VN) — Tejay van Garderen erased years of frustration and close-calls Thursday in one dramatic coup in the Dolomites.
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After throwing in the towel on his GC hopes earlier during the 2017 Giro d’Italia, van Garderen regrouped to target breakaways, a high-risk bet in any grand tour. The stars aligned in the 137km 18th stage, and van Garderen packed the punch and tactical wile to pull off the biggest win of his career.
“It’s incredible. I came here with GC ambitions, and that didn’t materialize, but I tried to keep the morale high,” van Garderen said. “I’m eight years professional, and this is my first grand tour stage victory. It’s emotional because I’ve had so many trials the past few years.”
The hard-earned success comes as a huge boost for the 28-year-old American, who struggled with the weight of expectation that came with winning the best young rider’s jersey and finishing fifth in only his second Tour de France. The hype soon followed, and though he backed it up with another fifth overall in the 2014 Tour, van Garderen struggled to live up to the demands.
Thursday’s dramatic victory swept away all the built-up angst, and reminded everyone of just the kind of rider van Garderen can be.
“Sometimes things go up, sometimes things go down. Today was definitely up, and hopefully we can keep that trajectory,” he said. “The stage win is always a great feeling to put the arms in the air.”
Just days after expressing doubts to VeloNews about his future as a grand tour rider, Thursday’s victory seemed to bolster his self-confidence that he can compete in three-week grand tours. For a rider who calls himself the “Zen Warrior,” this win seemed to help him remind himself of what he can do.
“I’m not giving up on riding grand tours for GC,” van Garderen said. “I see myself as a similar rider as [Tom] Dumoulin. I just need to avoid having bad days.”
While van Garderen seemed revived about his future prospects, Thursday’s performance was impressive by any measure. A day after riding into Wednesday’s winning breakaway, van Garderen was feeling strong again. BMC Racing teammate Joey Rosskopf followed an early move on the day’s first climb up Passo Pordoi. Van Garderen soon bridged across to a 19-rider group.
With the GC still largely undecided, the main group never let the gap grow beyond two-and-a-half minutes. Van Garderen and Mikel Landa (Sky) were the only two riders left after a long battle of attrition, and the pair nursed a half-minute gap as the pair hit the final kilometers.
Landa, who had lost Tuesday’s stage in a similar two-up sprint into Bormio, seemed to be in control coming into a tricky, technical finale into Ortisei, but van Garderen dared to risk all for the win.
“[Mikel] Landa is a very good bike rider and a very quick sprinter, so it was a bit tactical there at the end,” he said. “I had to be patient and not be excited. I knew it was a downhill finish — I had to do it from the front. He closed on me a bit but I told myself: ‘If I crash, I crash but I’m not going to brake.’ Luckily, I didn’t crash and I’m delighted.”
A jubilant van Garderen leaned against the race barriers at the finish line as fans yelled out congratulations. He buried his face into his hands, and hurried off to the podium area without revealing his at-the-finish emotions.
There was no hiding that the victory meant the world to van Garderen.
“It feels good for me, it’s good to know that I’m still capable of doing a ride like that,” he said later. “Now I have to just put it all together over three weeks like I’ve done in the past, like I know I can do.”
This win puts van Garderen in some elite company. It’s the first American grand tour stage win since Chris Horner won two stages en route to the overall at the 2013 Vuelta a España. It was also the first American winner of a Giro mountain stage since Andy Hampsten won at Selvino in 1988.
Van Garderen isn’t slated to race the Tour. BMC Racing already let it be known that Richie Porte will be the team’s lone leader this July. But he indicated he might race the Vuelta a España.
As BMC Racing sport director Max Sciandri said, a stage win can bring a big boost to any rider. It certainly turned out that way for van Garderen. He seemed to need the win to convince not only his doubters but himself as well.
So what happened over past two weeks?
“That’s a good question. I am going to try to figure that out,” van Garderen said. “For some reason my body hasn’t responded. I would have loved to have come here and raced for GC. This is an amazing feeling. I am happy to have taken something out of this Giro.”
With the win, van Garderen can be content with his Giro debut. His longtime affection for Italy came pouring out as he recounted his association with the mountainous region.
“I love Italy — I love the Giro,” he said. “I used to live in Lucca for several years. I’ve had training camps up the road from here, staying at Chalet Gerard, a lovely hotel on Passo Sella. This area in particular feels like home. Italy is beautiful, people are passionate and positive. I’m surprised it has taken this long in my career to come to the Giro and I’ll certainly be back.”