Tejay Van Garderen made his professional debut in Sunday’s opening day of the Mallorca Challenge, safely finishing 69th in the main field proudly wearing the HTC-Columbia team colors.
The 21-year-old is already fitting in well with his HTC-Columbia and says the pro ranks are a sharp contrast to his two-year stint on the U-23 Rabobank development team, where he was somewhat of a novelty on a team loaded with Dutch riders.
“Everyone thought I was really cool on Rabobank because I was the only American. They wanted to know things like, ‘Are the girls really hot in America?’ Or did you have high school parties like in ‘American Pie?’” he told VeloNews. “This is the team that I really idolized or past few years, especially with the way they’ve developed young riders. This is the big leagues. It’s a huge honor to be on this team. It’s the best team in the world.”
Van Garderen has all the tools to become a GC rider, with strong time trialing skills and solid climbing abilities. That’s where he’s hoping to develop in the coming years.
The son of a Dutchman, Van Garderen is anxious to see how far he can go in the pro ranks. He realizes that despite a highly successful amateur racing career, that’s no guarantee of success against the experienced pros.
“Stage racing is where I think my niche where my sport will be,” he said. “You cannot compare your results from amateurs to the pros, when I was in the amateurs, it was mainly the longer stage races that I was good at – I won Montañes and second at Avenir – it was generally the longer stage races that I did well at, when there’s a time trial and some longer climbs. So if I can develop into a grand tour rider, that would be amazing.”
HTC-Columbia team manager Rolf Aldag agrees, but wants to give Van Garderen a chance to find his own way in the rough-and-tumble pro ranks.
The team likes to give young riders a chance to find their way without putting too much pressure on them. Riders such as Edvald Boasson Hagen and Mark Cavendish were not under the gun for results in their rookie years, patience that paid off huge dividends a season or two down the road. Aldag said he will give that same space to Van Garderen.
Van Garderen will see a mix of races throughout his rookie year, getting a taste of the cobblestones and the one-day classics as well as some weeklong stage races and perhaps even a crack a the Vuelta a España in September.
“We want to give him the chance to decide what rider he can become, to see what he likes,” Aldag said. “Let’s start with some one-day races, some stage races, to discover all this different parts of cycling. At the end of the year, I want to have a decision from him. I want to sit with him, OK, Tejay, you’ve done the cobbles, what do you think of them?”
Aldag admits he sees the GC potential in Van Garderen, who already proved he has the mettle by winning such U23 races as the demanding Circuito Montañes and finishing second in the Tour de l’Avenir in 2009.
“From my first impression, he is the future of GC riding. I will never say anyone that they are future Tour de France winner. I would never do this with anyone. It just sets the bar too high and they are doomed to fail,” Aldag said. “I expect him to go that (GC) direction, it’s logical, this is what he did at under-23. He comes from Rabobank continental team, it’s not like from someone coming from amateur races. He does have experience at a high level.”
Van Garderen says he’s more than pleased with the tentative schedule Aldag and the other sport directors have laid out for him.
After Mallorca, he’ll race at the Volta ao Algarve, followed by a mix of one-day races in Belgium and Italy to get a taste of both stage racing and one-day events. Next, it’s the Volta a Catalunya and the Ardennes classics before a trip back to the United States for the Tour of California and then the Dauphiné Libéré.
“It’s good not to jump into the deep end and get your head pounded. It’s a good mix of one-days, stage races and some rest. It’s hard, but not unmanageable,” he said. “It’s a different kind of pressure. It’s interesting to see what they will have me do. In a few races, I want to see what my chances are when they come, whether that’s be in the right break, or do a good time trial or go for the GC. I think I have the potential to do well in some of these races. I want to take my opportunity when it comes.”
He admits he’s particularly excited at the prospect of racing in the United States, where he’s only competed twice in the past two years after spending nearly all of his time racing on European roads with Rabobank and the U.S. U-23 team.
“It will be nice to do Tour of California to get some American exposure, because I think I have more of a fan base in Holland than I do in my own country,” he said. “With my last name, they think I’m Dutch anyway. I got nominated as sportsman of the year in the Dutch town I was living in.”
A big rookie season in Europe will likely on mean more fans for Van Garderen on both sides of the Atlantic.