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Q&A: Van Garderen on 2014, his ‘best season ever’

The American takes a closer look at his 2014 campaign, which included a fifth-place result at the Tour de France

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Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) is chilling out by now. With the last races of the year in the history books, the 2014 racing season is in the rearview mirror.

By any measure, the 2014 campaign was a great year for the American. He opened the season by finishing second to Chris Froome (Sky) at the Tour of Oman. But that was followed up by a setback at Paris-Nice, when he abandoned ill. Just as quickly, he rebounded at the Volta a Catalunya to win a horrible stage in the Pyrenees for what would be his first UCI WorldTour-level professional victory. After skipping a defense at the Amgen Tour of California, van Garderen’s high hopes for the Tour de Romandie faded when he crashed in the prologue and was forced to abandon a few days later, with what was revealed to be a fractured hip. That up-and-down turn of fortune set the tone for the remainder of the year.

At the Tour de France, it was one step back, but two steps forward. He matched a career-best fifth but called the race his “best ever” Tour, simply because nothing came easy. After defending at the USA Pro Challenge, he helped power BMC to the world pro team time trial title in September. That was enough highs and lows for anyone.

For van Garderen, going into late October, it’s time to recover, relax, and reflect, and to plan for the coming season. The 2014 season was a building block, a stepping-stone, and a transition to where he’s going and where he wants to be. VeloNews sat down with van Garderen to look back at a season full of highs and lows.

VeloNews: Looking back at 2014, what do you take away? You won some big races, but you also had some challenges; how do you view the season?
Tejay van Garderen: I would rank this as my best season ever. There were some hiccups early in the season, with my sickness at Paris-Nice, and my crash at Romandie, which led into a bad Dauphiné. There were also a lot of positives from the season. I got my first WorldTour win at Catalunya. I was able to defend at USA Pro [Challenge in Colorado]. The Tour de France was up and down, but in the end, I was very happy with that. I was second to Froome at Oman, so yeah, I am very satisfied.

VN: Last year, you won for the first time as a pro, and this year, a first in Europe. What does that mean to change the podiums into wins?
TVG: It would be even nicer to convert some of that success I’ve had in the States over here in Europe, but in all honesty, the races over here are a lot harder. I think the team is doing a really good job. I just have to keep following the natural progression. So hopefully next year I can get a few more wins. It’s never easy to win, and it’s especially hard at the WorldTour level.

VN: What was your highlight?
TVG: When I won at the first summit finish at Volta a Catalunya. That was on a day that was just atrocious; rain, snow, 20 kilometers of climbing, it was a legit climb. It wasn’t a win from a breakaway. I beat Quintana, Froome, Contador. I think a lot of guys saw me as a good climber who can ride tempo, but to win like that, that was important. OK, it wasn’t the Tour de France, and maybe everyone wasn’t on their best form, but to win like that, on a real summit finale, that was a big confidence boost, to show that I could climb like that against those guys.

VN: Riders such as Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador, and Chris Froome are at the top of the sport. Do you consider yourself at their level?
TVG: I’ve got a ways to go before I can really compare myself to those guys. I think I am close, nipping at the heels. If I was to really be honest, I’ve got a little more developing to do. I can see areas where I can improve, and I am willing to do the work.

VN: Such as?
TVG: My explosiveness. And other sorts of fitness work off the bike. It’s one thing to bust out sit-ups for 15 minutes, but I need to look at other ways to strengthen where I need to strengthen. Position on the bike. Diet. Things like that.

VN: How big are the differences at the top of the sport?
TVG: We are looking at fractions of a percent. If you’re not doing that, you’re 3-4 percent behind, and that’s where I feel like I am behind those guys.

VN: Looking back at the Tour as your first as a team captain, where do you rank it personally?
TVG: That was my best Tour this year, easily. You have a lot “what ifs.” I got sick, I crashed a few times, I bonked that one day, and that really cost me a lot of time. There are “what ifs” on the other side, with Contador and Froome crashing out, that opened up some doors for me. At one point, I thought I was going to get on the podium, but that didn’t happen. It looked like a possibility. I just take it for what it is. I try to learn from the mistakes and move on, and focus on next year, and keep chipping away. One day I do believe I will be on the podium in the Tour.

VN: You were on antibiotics at one point, when did you become sick?
TVG: After that day to Belles Filles, I got sick the day after that. The whole peloton was just getting wrecked. That day started sunny, and then it was a freezing day in the rain. It was up and down, and there was never a chance to go back for a jacket, and we were just in shorts and jerseys. Everyone just came down with something after that. That will knock your immune system.

VN: You also had a few crashes. How much did those set you back?
TVG: They were not serious in terms of injuries, but crashing takes it out of you. When you’re missing that skin, it makes it hard to sleep. You roll over, and you hit the wound, and it wakes you up. On stage 7, that cost me one minute, that also was a setback.

VN: What lessons do you take out of the Tour?
TVG: It just showed me that you have to keep on fighting. I had all these things happen to me, and I still had my best Tour ever. It would have been easy to give up, and to say, “OK, I crashed, I got sick, I lost time, let’s try again next year.” You keep moving forward, and keep thinking about being in the moment, you can come to Paris, and still be happy.

VN: It’s a cliché to say “one day at a time,” but at the Tour, is that true?
TVG: That’s all you can do. You can never turn the page before you get there. You have no idea what’s going to happen, you have no idea what the other teams are going to do. You just got to take it day by day.

VN: You were looking good for a possible podium, but then you bonked in the Pyrénées. What happened?
TVG: It was a bonk. I can pinpoint a few things that were off; I didn’t eat enough on the rest day, I didn’t eat enough during the stage. I just had no appetite. Then I got on that climb, and thought, “I’m in trouble.” I know that feeling. You’re seeing stars a little bit. I just bonked. By then it’s too late. If you wait to eat until you bonk, it’s game over.

VN: And then Movistar attacked; you knew they were going for you?
TVG: It was the worst possible combination. Their plan was obvious; they wanted to get rid of me because I was a time trialer and I was the biggest threat to [Alejandro] Valverde. Movistar attacked me, and they did that plan on my worst day. There are no sour grapes — that’s racing, but that was a tough day.

VN: You seemed to bounce back pretty fast, and were back on the attack; did you still hope to move up?
TVG: Even after that bonk, I was still holding out hope for the podium. I looked back at the results from 2012, and I put three minutes into [Thibaut] Pinot, on a similar course and distance. Obviously, he’s worked a lot, but I was still thinking: “if Pinot had a bad day and I had a great day, Valverde is fading” — all these things were going through my mind. At the end of the day, I was happy to move up just one place, by the skin of my teeth. I was still amped up, nothing is impossible, we’re still going for it.

VN: It was your first year as a captain without Cadel Evans; how was that experience?
TVG: It was a good experience. The team did an awesome job. It wasn’t to say that everyone was just around me. The guys were free to jump into the breakaways. We had a plan for the GC, but we also wanted to win a stage. We came close. The team rode the most aggressive I’ve ever seen them, and we rode really smart.

VN: Are you already thinking about your schedule for 2015?
TGV: I want to wait until to see the routes. I am sure it will follow a similar format; Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, depending which has a better course for me. Then back to Catalunya. Cali is a question mark, obviously the Tour will be the pinnacle of the season, and that will be the main focus.