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Q&A: Tejay van Garderen on the ‘hurdles’ of 2020 and his hopes for 2021

American stalwart discusses the potential for team leadership in 2021, the physical and mental toll of the COVID season, and his takes on the new U.S devo system.

Tejay van Garderen rode out his 13th season as a professional in 2020 in what was a year like no other.

Having started his season early at the Tour Colombia this February, the Coloradan found himself hitting eject midway through Paris-Nice to fly home to the U.S. to reunite with his family in advance of COVID border closures. Several months later, he made an equally hurried return to Europe to race at the Critérium du Dauphiné with EF Pro Cycling.

The 32-year-old went on to ride two successful grand tours which saw his team take a stage at the Tour de France with Daniel Martínez in summer and a podium finish at the Vuelta a España via Hugh Carthy in the fall.

VeloNews caught up with van Garderen before Christmas about the challenges of such an unusual season, his hopes for 2021, and his thoughts on the new-look USA Cycling development system.

2020 Criterium du Dauphine.
Van Garderen rode out his 13th pro season this year. Photo: James Startt

VeloNews: You started your season in February at Tour Colombia and didn’t finish it until early November at the Vuelta a España. How did you find that physically?

Tejay van Garderen: Well, obviously we had a big layoff during the pandemic so it wasn’t exactly ‘on’ the entire time, but I certainly wouldn’t want to repeat a season like that again.

We like to plan things we like to work toward and build up to. To be left in limbo there and to not be sure if you should rest or keep training totally threw that, and I could feel the disruption when we restarted. To have a season sprung on you all really condensed like that was definitely a challenge. Some people fared better than others, but it definitely didn’t suit me very well.

There was a challenge mentally too. The biggest thing was that with the travel restrictions, I wasn’t able to bring my family over because they kept closing the borders. So I had to come over at the drop of a hat – I had two days’ notice that I had to get back to Europe and spent a little over a month there on my own before I started racing.

And it was always up in the air. We were always thinking ‘OK, the race season’s on but the COVID cases are climbing back up, so is the season really back on?’ – it was definitely a mental hurdle to manage.

VN: You rode both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España in 2020. You said you were looking to help the young team with your years of experience. How did that play out?

TvG: It wasn’t a defined role as such. You know, sometimes it just kind of happens where you end up being one of the elder guys on the team, and people look to you for advice.

If anyone’s interested I’m always happy to help them out with some of my experiences. If a teammate wants to come to me and ask me something I don’t like to go and be a know-it-all and say ‘Hey young guy this is how you have to do things.’ But if they respect my advice and my experience and they want to ask me something then I’m glad to share what I know, and it’s always rewarding to help.

VN: What’s the plan for 2021? Any plans for leading a team at some races?

TvG: I don’t have any idea of a schedule or anything yet. But I just know I hope to perform at a high level next year.

If my legs are there then who knows, I could lead, but I’m not going to say ‘I’m gonna be the leader for X, Y and Z.’ But if I show good form and show I’m motivated and I say ‘Hey I want to I want to give this one a crack,’ then I’m sure the guys will support me.

And likewise, if I am at a race with Hugh [Carthy] or Rigo [Urán] and they’re going well and they want to be supported, I’m happy to support them.

VN: Do you ever consider stepping into the world of alternative racing?

TvG: The thought’s crossed my mind, but I can’t say it’s something that I’m really pushing to do. I think the bottom line is, I need to perform at some of the traditional races on the road, and if I have a good season it could be a fun, rewarding, thing to do later on. But, it’s just not something I would target my season around because if you want to get a contract you have to perform at the races that are the most important.

But the alternative calendar is a great way to engage with fans and it’s a fun way to get other people involved in the sport and give them a chance to actually ride with us rather than just spectate. If it works in the calendar, great, but it’s not something that I’m focused on right now. We have kind of special riders for that, and the Alex Howes and the Lachlan Mortons of this world, they, they kind of more fit that mold.

VN: USA Cycling recently redesigned its youth development system to offer opportunities to a wider group of riders, but it also comes with a bill of $10,500 per semester. You came through the U.S. development program – what are your thoughts on the new-look system?

Related: USA Cycling just overhauled its youth development system. Here’s why.

TvG: I don’t know all the details of it just yet, but I’m glad to hear there will be a scholarship program for those who wouldn’t have been able to afford such a price to join. I understand that USA Cycling has, along with everyone else, been hit hard by COVID, so they probably need to figure out a way to cover costs, but certainly, when I was a kid growing up, I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford that.

I definitely think there was a need to expand and diversify, and give other people from other areas opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to have. You see cyclists crop up in key areas like Colorado and California and it seems like all of the cyclists come from there. I don’t know if expanding means just ‘Oh let’s take this guy and bring them to Europe,’ but maybe something at more of a grassroots level. Maybe just to start implementing more junior programs or just local race programs to boost these guys up to be able to be competitive at a higher level to get to Europe.