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Tejay van Garderen might still be able to walk down the street in the United States unrecognized by most people, but when he’s hanging out in a hotel lobby in the Netherlands, fans are quick to identify him.
When VeloNews sat down with van Garderen for an hour-long interview during last month’s world championships, it didn’t take long before fans took notice. A group of kids approached him asking, “you are Tejay van Garderen?” With that, a quick photo and autograph session unfolded.
That growing profile reveals just how fast things are changing for van Garderen, who confirmed this season that he could have a grand tour win in his legs when he rode to fifth overall and won the best young rider’s jersey at the Tour de France.
Van Garderen said this year’s Tour was a revelation for him as well, and something that only fuels his ambitions for the future. Many peg van Garderen as the American rider most likely to win a grand tour in the coming years, but he says he simply wants to win a top-level pro race, be it in Colorado or in France.
Speaking with VeloNews, van Garderen explained what it was like to ride in the vapors of Bradley Wiggins and says he was never ordered to wait for teammate Cadel Evans when it came to crunch time.
VeloNews: How would you characterize your 2012 season? Were fifth overall and the white jersey at the Tour better than you expected?
Tejay van Garderen: I am happy with the season, but I was lacking that big GC win that I had set out to achieve this year. I came close in Colorado; I was second there with a stage win. The Tour was the highlight of the season and it was a result that I didn’t expect. It was far and above of what I thought I was capable of. I am happy with that. I’ve had consistent results throughout the year — Paris-Nice, California, Tour and USA Pro Challenge — they were all top five or podium. I set out with a goal of winning a GC, but that didn’t work out. I am still hungry for next year to get the GC victory.
VN: You said the Tour was beyond your expectation. Did you start the Tour simply with the idea of helping Cadel Evans defend yellow?
TvG: In the first week of the Tour, it looked like Cadel was on fire, looked like he was in the hunt, he was riding aggressively, and looked like he was putting Bradley (Wiggins) under a bit of pressure. Then it started unraveling for him after the first time trial. Then we decided to try to rally around him and see if he could bounce back. He still rode a consistent race, but once he started to lose a bit of time, the team gave me a bit of a free role and I was able to ride my own race. It was fun. I just took advantage of the opportunity.
VN: Evans later admitted he was off his best form going into the Tour. Did the team realize that going in or did the team truly expect him to win again?
TvG: We were pretty confident in his ability to be a leader after the Dauphiné, when he was third and won a stage. He was riding strong there and we knew he was on good form. In the Tour, if you need to cut corners throughout the season, it will definitely come through in the second or third week; that’s when any shortage of base will really shine through. He was sick over the winter, he didn’t come into the training camp with the same level of fitness. Then there were problems throughout the year — he had to skip out on the Ardennes classics.
There were a lot of changes in his program, probably due to his success last year. He was getting pulled in a million different directions. I think he’s learned to manage that stuff better, learned not to over-extend or commit to too many obligations. A new kid didn’t help, either. There were a lot changes in his life in a short period.
VN: At what point did the team cut you free during the Tour? Was there an open discussion, or was it just obvious that you had good legs?
TvG: There wasn’t an open discussion. When he was started to fall back on the first mountain day, it was just instinct, I wait for him. When he was getting dropped later in the race, even in some earlier climbs, I would just stay in the front group until they called me back. Then (sport director) John (Lelangue) said, ‘Tejay, stay in the group and everyone else wait for Cadel.’ That’s what I did.
VN: At a certain point, it was obviously in the team’s interest to keep your GC and white jersey, correct?
TvG: If we held everyone back to wait for Cadel, there was a chance to lose everything. In the first week of the race, that’s a call you make, because he’s the leader and the defending champion, and we were rallied around him to win again. At one point, it was obvious he wasn’t going to win, so you have to salvage what you can.
VN: Was there ever a point the team held you back, when you wanted to go but were ordered not to?
TvG: Not really. There was never a point that I was going to attack the race, but I couldn’t because Cadel is the leader. It wasn’t a matter of me attacking. It was a question of me following the best wheel that I could. If that means, Wiggins, (Chris) Froome and (Vincenzo) Nibali are up the road, and I am in a group with (Jurgen) van den Broeck and (Haimar) Zubeldia, that’s it. There was never a question of me being held back. It was more a question that I was being allowed to follow the wheels that I could follow.
VN: From your perspective, just how strong was Sky during the Tour?
TvG: I have never seen anyone be able to control a race like that. The pace they were setting on the front was unbelievable. And they never panicked. You could throw everything at them. Even if it was a dangerous guy, like Nibali, they would be like, ‘let them go, we stay in our rhythm, and we’ll bring them back.’ And they always did. Some people said it was a boring Tour. You’ve got to hand it to them, the fact that they were able to make it boring like that, that they were so strong. It was not that Nibali didn’t want to attack. It’s not that Cadel didn’t want to attack. They just couldn’t. You cannot go over the top of 450 watts they set on the climb. It was not possible.
VN: What role do power meters play at that moment of the race? Is everyone just racing off their power meters once they’re on the big climbs, knowing that they can push a power threshold for a certain distance, and measure their tactics off that?
TvG: No, people do not race off their power meters. People know their bodies. If I am at my limit, I am breathing hard, my heart rate is through the roof, I am struggling to stay on the wheel, why would you attack? That would be the stupidest thing. You just try to stay where you are. That’s how it was. They had everyone on the ropes to the point where there was nowhere to go. You either stayed on the wheel, or you even drop off the wheel and try to limit your losses. That’s what everyone was doing. It came to a point when even Nibali, who was third, had to drop off of Sky’s pace and Wiggins and Froome just rode away.
VN: There was quite a polemic between Froome and Wiggins. Did you see Froome as stronger than Wiggins?
TvG: It was weird. There were a couple of times when it looked like Froome was in trouble. I remember on the stage to La Toussuire, he was dropped, and Wiggins was pulling on his own to get Nibali back. And then all of a sudden, Froome came up again, started setting pace and then dropped Wiggins. I was like, ‘weren’t you just getting dropped?’ I think Froome can go really hard, but then I think he needs to recover. It was interesting to watch. I don’t know if he was playing poker a bit. There were a few times when it looked like Froome was in difficulty and then he was able to come back and drop everyone. It was pretty impressive.
VN: What did you take out of this year’s Tour for your personal ambitions down the road?
TvG: It gives me confidence for the future. The Tour is something that now I know I can focus on and make it a big goal. Cadel still has a couple more years left in him. I can learn from him and he can still be the leader. But eventually I think I will try to learn to step into the leadership role myself and learn how it’s done so I can take it all the way to the end.
VN: Have you talked within the team since the end of the 2012 Tour about next year’s season, how it will play out between you and Evans?
TvG: A little bit. I’ve looked at the calendar for next year and earmarked a couple of races to make as a goal of mine. The Tour is definitely on that list. The calendar probably won’t change that much from year-to-year. Maybe next year I will stretch out my season to do (Giro di) Lombardia. There are a lot of options. I could change it up in the middle and include Pais Vasco or race Catalunya. Just minor changes. It will still be the same basic structure.
VN: Have you had discussions about going to the Giro or Vuelta to try to win it before focusing completely on the Tour? Look at what Hesjedal did at the Giro…
TvG: I think I am still a bit young to try to do two grand tours in one year. Next year, it will probably just be the Tour. I am not ruling out the possibility of going for the GC at either the Giro or Vuelta and trying to win it one year.
VN: When you were up there this year, riding with the top riders on the major climbs, did you make any conclusions about how far you still have to go to be at podium level in the Tour?
TvG: Well, I need to improve my climbing and time trialing, so it’s pretty much everything. The thing that I think we have down on this team is getting through that first week pretty safe. We have such strong classics guys, they can ride in the wind and keep us out of trouble. You were seeing GC riders crashing left and right, or getting caught out in the wind. Cadel and I came out of the first week untouched. Everything was fine, stress-free. Not many teams can say that. Now I know what it takes to stay safe in that first week. So I want to fit that same template into every year we do the Tour, having those strong classics guys. When it comes to the mountains and time trials, I just need to get better.
VN: And that’s a question of dedicating even more time to training?
TvG: It’s a lot of hours on the bike as well as more specific work. I am working a lot with our team doctor and coach, Max Testa. He is writing my training program now. That just happened halfway through the year and I’ve seen some real gains from changing up my training a little bit. I think it will take some confidence and learning and some development.
VN: When you look at where you are now, did you expect to be at this level when you turned pro just three years ago?
TvG: I didn’t expect to be top five in the Tour, but on the other hand, I had expected to have had won a classification by now in some race. I think I am happy with how I am progressing, and progressing pretty quickly, but at the same time, there is still a ways to go.