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SAINT-LÔ, France (VN) — Temperatures dropped and the rain began to fall. Tejay van Garderen was cold, his legs failing, as the peloton hit final climb of the Tour du Suisse’s sixth stage and he dropped slowly off the lead group. His Tour de France chances seemed to ride up the road as quickly as his rivals. He would lose over six minutes by the finish line. It was not the best preparation for the Tour, on its face.
Two weeks later, on the eve of the biggest race in cycling, and with the benefit of hindsight, van Garderen now believes he got it right. He’s glad he went to Suisse and not the Dauphiné, despite the weather and despite the fact that most of his GC rivals raced elsewhere. “I think it was a perfect decision,” he said.
“I don’t regret doing the Tour de Suisse. That sounds crazy given the weather we had, but in the end, I didn’t get sick, and I didn’t crash,” he said. “Everything worked out fine. If I had come down with pneumonia in the cold weather, that would have been bad, but I stayed healthy and got a good bump in fitness from the hard racing.”
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The change in tune-up race timing was purposeful. The Swiss tour takes place a week after the Dauphiné. While it would seem that this would offer less rest and recovery between tune-up race and the Tour, for van Garderen it ended up providing more. When he raced the Dauphiné last year, he followed it up with a short rest and then used an altitude camp to fill the long gap to the Tour start. After that camp, he had barely a week to recover. After Suisse this year he had a full 12 days to relax.
“It gave me a little more freedom and more space. You go from team recon camp to the Dauphiné to another altitude camp then straight to the Tour. I needed a bit more space to kind of breath a little bit, do my own thing, focus on what I needed to do,” said the American his team has nicknamed “Zen Warrior.” “I definitely spent a good amount of time with the team, but still, I was able to kind of forge my own path and that’s how I like to do things.”
Most of the Tour’s top contenders — Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, and van Garderen’s BMC teammate Richie Porte — raced the Dauphiné. That, too, worked in van Garderen’s favor by decreasing his stress at the race.
“It was certainly more low-key in terms of media stress,” he said. “The Dauphiné is basically like tacking on another week to the Tour. And Switzerland is more like just another bike race.”
With preparations now behind him, van Garderen and the rest of the GC contenders face a treacherous first week in northwest France. There will be crosswinds and tricky finishes as the race heads along the coast. Odds are good that at least one or two will hit the first mountains with a time deficit.
Van Garderen is confident it won’t be him, or co-leader Porte. They have a strong team of classics-type riders, including four who helped usher Cadel Evans to victory in 2011, to offer protection across the flats. And the 27-year-old American has learned a thing or two in his five Tour starts.
“I’m approaching it just the same as I did every other Tour,” he said. “Learning from mistakes but still having the same mindset that it’s the biggest race of the year. We’re here to rock.”