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The 29-year-old American arrived in uncertain form and ultimately finished with a time trial stage win and runner-up honors in the general classification — but he did spend two days in the race lead before ceding the jersey to Sky’s Egan Bernal in stage 6.
It wasn’t quite what van Garderen had hoped for, given his victory in the stage 4 individual time trial. Van Garderen declined to speak with reporters after he was distanced by Bernal on Saturday’s stage 6. On Sunday, however, van Garderen offered some perspective on his second-place overall finish.
“A stage win and a podium, obviously a victory would be nice but I think we can look back at this week and be proud,” van Garderen said in Sacramento.
Van Garderen looked solid, if not stellar, early on in the week in stage 2 to Gibraltar Road. He finished eighth on the day to stay in the GC discussion as Bernal slipped into yellow. A strong ride in the stage 4 time trial propelled van Garderen all the way up the GC leaderboard, however, and he rode into stage 6 feeling good about his chances of defending the jersey.
It was not to be. Bernal was in a class of his own on the long climb to Lake Tahoe.
Breaking down the events of the week, van Garderen said he didn’t feel like there were any tactical errors on BMC’s part. Bernal was just stronger on the California parcours.
“I think he played his cards well. He was going to attack the mountains and I had to nail the TT. In the end, it tipped in his favor,” van Garderen said. “I can’t think of any mistakes or anything to do differently. In the end, he came out on top.”
Van Garderen added the Tour of California to his racing program after a string of crashes early this season. He said he was happy he decided to race in California. The race marked his first start on U.S. soil since 2014, when he won the now-defunct USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.
“It’s been a minute since I raced here in the U.S. Hearing the crowds, hearing my name, I feel like I almost feel bad for having abandoned all the U.S. fans,” he said. “I’m definitely going to make it a point on my program to race a little bit more in the U.S. in the future.”
Van Garderen had not raced the Tour of California since he won the overall title back in 2013. Then, he was an up-and-coming 24-year-old, fresh off a top five performance at the 2012 Tour de France.
He says he’s grown a great deal since then. Still, he doesn’t think he’s reached the pinnacle of his potential. He may not be developing physically the way he was as a young up-and-comer, but he continues to evolve as a racer.
With July rapidly approaching, van Garderen will now begin to shift his focus towards the Tour de France. After several years as BMC’s GC leader for the Tour, van Garderen has slotted into a support role there nowadays, with Richie Porte taking over as the team’s main yellow jersey contender.
Anything can happen out on the road, of course, and BMC will be glad to have a two-time top 10 finisher in reserve should Porte run into misfortune the way he has so often in recent years — but van Garderen says he’s on board with the plan to go all in for his teammate in France.
“Going into the race, Richie is our leader and we’re there first and foremost for support,” van Garderen said.
The American may get his own chances at grand tour glory a bit further down the road this season.
The Tour may be Porte’s domain now, but van Garderen is still BMC’s most accomplished grand tour racer historically, and he will likely continue to get his chances outside of France. Last year, he nabbed a stage win at the Giro d’Italia and rode to 10th overall at the Vuelta a España.
He is slated to race the Vuelta again this August.
Van Garderen will likely be the team’s leader in Spain. In mid-May, however, he preferred to avoid thinking too much about the season’s final grand tour.
“We haven’t discussed tactics. We haven’t even gotten through June yet in the buildup to the Tour,” he said. “The Vuelta is on my program, but I don’t know where my legs are going to be and what all the circumstances are going to be.”
For now, it’s full-steam ahead with preparation for the Tour de France. After his rocky, crash-marred start to 2018, his podium performance in California represents a major step towards readiness for the three-week race.
“I think I’m on track [for the Tour de France],” he said. “The Tour is a couple of months away so I think I have a little room to improve. I’m going to head to altitude, I have the Tour of Suisse and then a camp with the team, so hopefully that brings me another notch above.”