DENIA, Spain (VN) — By helping Richie Porte, Tejay van Garderen is hoping to help himself.
Once hailed as America’s most promising Tour de France rider in a generation, van Garderen will be back in France next summer after skipping the 2017 edition. He’ll play a dramatically different role.
In coming off the bench, van Garderen is quietly hoping he’ll have a shot at being the captain once again someday.
“What I’ve done in the past doesn’t go away,” he said. “With the past few grand tours I’ve done, I have to prove myself again. I’m turning 30, and it’s a pivotal year.”
In what could be a make-or-break season for van Garderen — at least in terms of his personal grand tour ambitions — he’ll ride to support GC captain Porte.
At least that’s the rough plan as BMC Racing hunkered down along Spain’s Mediterranean coast to outline the 2018 season. In 2017, the team sent him to race the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. For next year, van Garderen is likely headed back to the Tour. His role is clearly defined: help Porte make the final podium.
“Right now, I am not in the situation to tell the team to build a team around me, especially when we have a rider like Richie,” van Garderen said Monday. “I get that and I’m fine with that – I think I can turn it around and figure things out to where I can get back to what I’ve done in the past.”
Van Garderen is simply being honest with himself and his current situation at BMC Racing. Van Garderen’s best Tour results (fifth in 2012 and 2014) are long in the rearview mirror. Embracing the new reality as a super domestique is all about rediscovering his own grand tour momentum.
“I am very motivated for next season, and I am looking forward to it,” he said. “I have a different attitude and outlook.”
So what happened to van Garderen? Some decisive crashes and illnesses in key races took their toll. Younger rivals, like Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet, eclipsed him. Van Garderen also admits he struggled to deal with the pressure and expectations that came on the heels of those early encouraging Tour results, and the big-money contract that came with it.
Just as things are easy when the wins are coming, it’s just as hard to stay positive when things go south. There was a moment during the 2017 Giro after his GC ambitions went off the rails when van Garderen publicly questioned his grand-tour future. A subsequent stage win and a top 10 at the Vuelta helped bolster his confidence coming into 2018.
After an off-season of introspection, van Garderen says he still has ambition and drive to train, race, and fight for results.
“One-hundred percent, the passion is there,” he said. “I went through a lull period where I almost … I lost a bit of that passion a little bit. It’s back and I’ve rediscovered it. I’ve had one of the best winters I’ve had. It’s hard – you cannot be a top cyclist without it. There’s too much sacrifice, and it’s too hard of a sport.”
Behind the scenes, van Garderen is moving his family to Girona, the Spanish cycling hotbed where many of the peloton’s top pros reside. That stability and quiet support at BMC despite his relegation as the team’s Tour man should help when it comes to producing results.
Van Garderen knows he’s at a professional crossroads. He’ll turn 30 in 2018, and he’s looking to prove to everyone he’s still capable of being the rider who twice finished fifth at the Tour de France.
In 2016, team brass brought on Porte because they felt the Tasmanian had a better chance than van Garderen to reach the Tour podium. That decision was akin to van Garderen being benched as the starting quarterback. As a keen fan of the Denver Broncos, van Garderen knows that coming off the bench also is important.
Despite that relegation, BMC brass insists that they still believe in van Garderen’s potential.
“Tejay will have maybe the biggest role he’s ever played in cycling. I believe in Tejay. He’s had a few slower years and not really progressive years, but with some changes, we’re going to see a much better Tejay in 2018,” Ochowicz said. “He’s more motivated, more relaxed, more focused. The whole season is not just about the Tour. Tejay will have some chances for results early in the season to add to his confidence. When you get results, it keeps you in the game.”
At the Tour, BMC is counting on van Garderen to play a key role for the team time trial stage, and then to be there in the deep mountains to help Porte. And just like a quarterback coming off the bench, if something happens to Porte, van Garderen could be right back in the starting lineup.
For 2018, van Garderen will be looking to take some opportunities earlier in the season, but come July, he promises to play his part, and not go rogue.
“I am going to go in with the idea of being Richie’s helper,” he said. “If you hear the call on the radio to do something, and if you cross those tactics, then you’re not a professional. I am not going to flick Richie. That will never happen.”
While van Garderen promises to be loyal to his team and to his captain, that’s not to say he’s entirely given up on the yellow jersey dream.
Despite his struggles over the past few years, van Garderen remains the best American hope in grand tours. Andrew Talansky retired, and none of the younger riders stepped up. For American fans hoping to cheer one of their own, van Garderen is the only game in town.
“There will be races when I do have a leadership role, and it’s still important to want that role,” he said. “I am definitely not bowing down and saying it’s your team now. I still have that drive and motivation to be that guy. I still want to be that guy to take the final shot in the game.”