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MORGAN HILL, California (VN) — Tejay van Garderen’s career palmares include a long list of impressive WorldTour results: the Tour de France white jersey, a stage of the Giro d’Italia, second overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Yet during his nine-year career in cycling’s highest league, van Garderen has never won a WorldTour stage race. It may seem like small potatoes, but at cycling’s pinnacle, it’s a big deal.
Van Garderen could end his WorldTour drought this week. On Wednesday, the American seized the leader’s jersey at the Amgen Tour of California after winning the stage 4 time trial in Morgan Hill.
He started the stage one minute behind overnight race leader Egan Bernal. Van Garderen put 1:23 into Bernal in the time trial, and now enjoys a 23-second advantage over the spindly Colombian.
Will that be enough ahead of a looming stage 6 climb to South Lake Tahoe?
“Time will tell,” van Garderen said Wednesday. “If I lose the race by one second then I’ll wish I would have eked out another second here.”
“At least I’m ahead of any time bonuses so as long as I stick to the wheels I’ll be safe in that regard — but I have to stick to the wheels and Bernal has been showing that he’s going uphill really well.”
Van Garderen won the Tour of California in 2013, which was four years before the event attained WorldTour classification, and the beefed up start lists that come with it. His other stage racing highlights include two wins at Colorado’s now defunct USA Pro Cycling Challenge — again, not a WorldTour event.
In recent years, van Garderen has switched from the role of GC leader at the Tour de France to more of a support role there, with leadership roles in other races. His 2017 Giro bid did not go to plan, although he did win a stage there. He finished 10th at the Vuelta a España last fall. Regardless of his grand tour exploits, however, one-week WorldTour races remain a strength.
Overall wins at races like the Volta a Catalunya, the Tour de Romandie, or the Dauphiné may not have the shine of a Tour de France, but they are important barometers of a GC riders’ ability. Very few riders ever win grand tours without having first proven their mettle in a one-week event.
Moreover, even the one-week stage races are major results in their own right, particularly in the European peloton.
Van Garderen has come close before. He was third at the 2014 Volta a Catalunya, just seven seconds behind race winner Joaquím Rodríguez. He led the 2015 Dauphiné before ceding the lead to Chris Froome in the final stage. He still managed to finish just 10 seconds behind.
Now 29, van Garderen has had an up and down year thus far. He delivered a strong ride to finish third at the Volta ao Algarve, but then rode into the back of a car at Paris-Nice, and crashed in training before the Volta a Catalunya. The team suggested racing the Tour of California as a chance to make up for lost racing miles.
Van Garderen’s eighth-place ride on the stage 2 finish at Gibraltar Road was a solid, if not stellar, performance to kick off the GC fight. It kept him within striking distance of Bernal on the general classification, but far enough down that expectations of a surge to the top of the leaderboard were tempered. Although the time trial was an opportunity to get back into the fight, nabbing the race lead seemed like a tall order.
Even taking van Garderen’s considerable talents against the clock into account, his team had initially expected Patrick Bevin to be the day’s best performer. Bevin finished as runner-up. Van Garderen was seven seconds faster.
“We thought [van Garderen] could do a great ride and we knew it had to be pretty close to winning but I think we were more focused on trying to ride him back into the podium,” BMC sports director Jackson Stewart told VeloNews. “I think that was fairly realistic but a minute we were thinking was maybe too much to ask.
“Him taking the stage, taking 1:23 [over Bernal] was a pretty pleasant surprise.”
Van Garderen pointed out after stage 4 that despite his early-season issues, he kept his faith in the form he was showing early this year. That has paid off.
“It’s easy to get down and think why me, start not training, drinking, eating, whatever — but as long as you still live like a professional, the work I’ve done over the winter doesn’t just go away if you just stay the course,” he said.
His stage 4 performance, however, catapults van Garderen into the race lead. Stewart said that a big result like the one his team’s star snatched in the TT is an important confirmation of all the effort he’d been putting in this year — work that had yet to bear much fruit up until Wednesday.
“In this sport you’re always losing,” Stewart said. “When you’re on Tejay’s level and you’re used to winning and you go a long time without it, you start playing mind games and doubt yourself sometimes. It’s a huge morale boost — but it definitely doesn’t relax you because a guy like that doesn’t relax. He’s a driven guy, always working for it.”
“I think now for the rest of the race he’s only going to be turned on a little bit more.”
To seal the deal and take that next career step of claiming a first WorldTour GC win, he’ll need to fend off Bernal and others later this week on a high altitude climb to South Lake Tahoe. Van Garderen acknowledged Wednesday that the road ahead won’t be easy.
Still, the onus will be on his rivals to drop him.
“Tahoe is going to be a big test to the strength of the team. I think we have one of, if not the strongest teams here,” he said. “They’ll be able to control it and then when we get to the upper slopes of the final climb, I’m going to have to stick with the climbers’ wheels.”
The road from a mid-race lead to the top step of a final WorldTour GC podium is a treacherous one, but rider and team have good reasons to be optimistic that this could finally be van Garderen’s big chance. The nature of the final ascents should play into his hands.
“Two steady climbs, no crazy descents that might split up a group or cause any issues if the weather is good and all that,” said Stuart. “It’s an ideal stage for him. For the team it’s almost ideal for everyone here. They’re definitely going to throw stuff at us but I don’t think we’re going to fall apart.”