CUGNAUX, France (VN) — Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) was a bundle of nerves at the start line of Thursday’s 12th stage. After riding through the first half of the Tour de France unscathed, the Tour rookie was looking down the gauntlet of the Tour’s first major climbs.
“A little bit nervous,” Van Garderen told VeloNews. “I really don’t know what to expect. I am hoping to have good enough legs to stay with (teammates) Tony (Martin) and Peter (Velits) at least to the base of the Luz-Ardiden, then it’s up to them.”
On tap were three rated monster climbs, including the hors-categorie Tourmalet and the summit finale up Luz-Ardiden. Other than racing in the Ronde d’Isoard in the U-23 ranks, this was Van Garderen’s first foray into the Pyrenees.
“This will be my first time over the Tourmalet. I’ve ridden quite a bit in the Alps, but I don’t know the Pyrénées that well at all,” he said. “They’re not easy. The roads are not quite as smooth, they’re bumpy, narrower. The Alps are a little more forgiving. The Pyrénées are just relentless.”
Flash forward six hours later at the finish line at Luz-Ardiden, and things were not quite so sunny. HTC-Highroad’s GC captains, Velits and Martin, each struggled. Martin was dropped on the Tourmalet and Velits fought back on, thanks to a tow from Van Garderen, who faded back to help him after Velits slid out on a corner coming off the day’s first category climb midway through the stage. Velits slotted in 14th overall and Martin tumbled to 26th. Van Garderen rode in with a group at 16:17 back.
Back in Cugnaux at the start village, the 23-year-old Van Garderen was excited and pumped for the second half of the Tour. He survived the harrowing first 11 stages in good shape, with nary a scratch or bandage on his lean build.
“I haven’t hit the ground. I was pretty lucky. I don’t think many people can say that after 11 days of racing. We got three stage wins and two guys who are going on GC. The pressure is not on me, I just got to do what I can to help out.”
Van Garderen has more than carried his weight throughout the Tour, proving an invaluable teammate to the sprinters and GC captains. He’s been at the nose of the peloton, sled-dogging for the HTC-Highroad train on the sprint stages to control the sprints and even taking pulls in the train as it barreled toward the finish line for Mark Cavendish. On Thursday, he proved he could be there for Martin and Velits.
While the team orders are clear – that he’s here to work, learn and arrive in Paris with no pressure — Van Garderen took full advantage when the HTC brass gave him the green light to go on the attack in stage 8, when he powered into the day’s main breakaway and nearly rode away with a stage victory.
“It was incredible to be in the breakaway,” he said. “Looking back on it, I think I rode a little too hard in the last 20km. I should have played a little more poker.”
Portuguese rider Rui Costa (Movistar) used his experience to his advantage against the Tour rookie and won the stage. Van Garderen admits he worked too hard to cover all the late-stage attacks, opening the door for Costa to jump away with 6km to go.
“I attacked too much and covered too many moves. I feel like I was the strongest guy in the breakaway. I just wasn’t conservative enough in the breakaway. Lesson learned,” he explained.
“The Europcar guy just attacked and I followed, and then Rui Costa countered. Everyone was countering me because they saw that I was strong. I wasn’t getting help, so I followed one attack, then another attack and another attack, and finally Rui Costa attacked with a strong move, and I just didn’t have the legs to respond again,” he said. “I should have gambled a little bit more.”
Van Garderen earned a trip to the winner’s podium by snagging the King of the Mountains points over the day’s main climb and got kisses from the podium girls with the polka-dot jersey.
“It was cool to get on the podium for the polka-dot jersey,” he said. “It was a nice consolation to miss out on the stage.”
Van Garderen is soaking it all in. Many believe he could become a legitimate contender for the yellow jersey in a few more years as he continues to mature and evolve as a racer.
“I am thrilled with the Tour. It’s been incredible. It’s been fun and hopefully the good luck keeps going and the legs hold up to Paris,” he said. “Peter and Tony are sitting on good time. I think we can get one, if not both of them, on the top-10 in Paris.”
Right now, HTC is being very careful with their promising charge. And Van Garderen is enjoying the ride, well, as much as you can when you’re humping up the Tourmalet.