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Tejay Van Garderen enters 2011 with a bang

ALBUFEIRA, Portugal (VN) ─ Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) is picking up where he left off after his break-out rookie season with a strong ride at the five-day Volta ao Algarve in southern Portugal.

ALBUFEIRA, Portugal (VN) ─ Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) is picking up where he left off after his break-out rookie season with a strong ride at the five-day Volta ao Algarve in southern Portugal.

HTC-HighRoad team camp
Van Garderen is living up to his team's confidence in him.

HTC-Highroad set up Van Garderen and Tony Martin for victory in Friday’s mountain-top finish, with Van Garderen taking second place behind a phenomenal Steve Cummings (Sky) and just ahead of Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard). The HTC pair enter Sunday’s TT finale with the overall title in play.

“Tony will crush the TT and I will do what I can. I will give it everything and see what I can do,” Van Garderen told VeloNews at the start of Saturday’s fourth stage. “This is my fourth time at this race. Every year it’s kind of the same thing, everyone says it’s Portugal, it’s good weather, it’s good early season training, but every year it’s pissing rain. it’s a nice race, I enjoy it.”

Van Garderen nearly kicked to victory atop the Malhao summit finish, further confirmation that the 22-year-old Coloradan is poised for big things in European racing. Van Garderen opened his rookie season last year at the Algarve with ninth place and went on to finish second at the Tour of Turkey and third at the Criterium du Dauphine before riding well in his grand tour debut at the Vuelta a Espana, eventually settling into 24th overall.

On Friday, HTC took control of the frenetic, high-speed run to the base of the short but steep final climb. Van Garderen, Martin and Peter Velits were well-positioned at the base of the final run to the summit.

“It was a big fight into the climb. We had a strong team and Rabon was able to string it out for us so we came into the base of the climb in first, second, third position, me, Peter, Tony and Frankie. When you have a big wide road downhill into that corner, it’s always going to be a big fight, but I think we did it perfectly,” Van Garderen said. “I tried making a move a little bit earlier and that put me on the front, so it’s hard to look back and judge the sprint. If I had to do it over, I would probably do it a little bit differently, but that’s part of learning. Still, it’s a little intimidating when Contador attacks. You think, oh, should I just try to follow, or should I try to attack? Normally when it’s a guy like Contador, you’re usually afraid to do anything. I am feeling a little more comfortable with where I am this year.”

Van Garderen enters his second year with HTC with even more ambitious goals and a top-flight race schedule. He debuted his season quietly at the Mallorca Challenge earlier this month. After Algarve, he’ll race “Paris-Nice, Catalunya, Pais Vasco, Fleche, Liege, then Cali … there are no easy ones in there. This race is about as easy as it gets and it’s pretty friggin hard. I’d like to do well at Paris-Nice, there’s a good 27km TT in there, it’s a race that suits me well.”

HTC has growing confidence in their young charge. HTC sport director Brian Holm told VeloNews last year was an important milestone for Van Garderen.

“He learned a lot last year and he will be even better this year,” Holm said. “I think he will be very good in the future. He’s very professional, he knows what he’s doing. He gets along well with everyone and he has a positive attitude. We have to go step by step with him. Sometimes young riders want too much too soon. We want him to be successful for 10 to 15 years. We know he has tremendous potential.”

2011 Volta ao Algarve, stage 3, Stephen Cummings
Van Garderen made the cut on stage 3

Van Garderen already sees a difference following his first year among the elite pros. He says he’s more comfortable in the bunch and more confident in the key moments. With his racing schedule full of world-class events, Van Garderen knows he will get his chance to shine in some of the most important races of the season as well as continue his progression to learn from his teammates and help out when the time is right.

“Last year, no one really knew what to expect, so they just said give it a try and do what you can do. This year, people know that if I have good legs I am capable of being up there,” he says. “They’re trying to help me at the start of the race as opposed to, wait a second, he’s up there, let’s help him now. It changes a little bit, but not much. We always race the same way, we stick together and we help each other out. At the end of the day, whoever has the legs just goes. When I am on a team with Peter Velits, Tony Martin, John the sprinter, it’s not as if everything is for me.”