By Neal Rogers
When American Tejay Van Garderen rolls out of the start house at the under-23 world time trial championship on Wednesday in Mendrisio, Switzerland, he’ll do so as a medal favorite.
The Colorado native, who spent 2008 and 2009 riding with the Rabobank Continental Professional team and will join Columbia-HTC next year, is fresh off a second-place overall finish at the Tour de l’Avenir (the “tour of the future”), the under-23 stage race run by Tour de France organizers ASO and viewed by many as a precursor to future grand tour contenders.
Held in France September 5-13, the nine-stage race was won by France’s Romain Sicard, who gained GC time out of a breakaway on the opening stage. Sicard, who hails from the Basque region of France and has already signed a deal to join Euskaltel-Euskadi for 2010, took over the race lead on the summit finish at Gérardmer.
Heading into the final stage Sicard held a 2:01 lead over the American, however the Frenchman received a two-minute penalty on the final stage for taking a bike change from another team, resulting in a one-second differential on the final classification standings.
Van Garderen’s result was the best Tour de l’Avenir result for an American since Kevin Livingston placed second to Laurent Roux in 1997.
Also contesting the time trial for the U.S. in Mendrisio is Peter Stetina, who finished seventh overall at l’Avenir and will ride for Garmin-Slipstream in 2010.
Rounding out the U23 men’s road team are national champion Alex Howes, Kirk Carlsen and Chris Barton, who scored two top-10 stage finishes at l’Avenir. All five men participated in l’Avenir on the U.S. national team, which placed third in the team standings.
With such a strong group, the U.S. under-23 road team stands a good chance at bringing home a medal. But Van Garderen is first focusing on the time trial, hoping to become the first American U23 rider to take the rainbow jersey since Danny Pate in 2001.
VeloNews’ Neal Rogers caught up with Van Garderen late last week while he and his teammates were training at the national team house in Lucca, Italy.
VeloNews: Of course you would have liked to have won l’Avenir, but you have to be happy with finishing second overall.
Tejay Van Garderen: Absolutely, I am super happy with second place. It was a big goal of mine all year. I went into it thinking I had a shot at victory, and second place fell a little short of the goal, but once you sat back and looked at it, it was pretty amazing. It’s the biggest under-23 race in the world. It was a hard nine days, but we had a great team. We had a motivated team, and everyone did their job and rode like professionals.
The race all happened on the first day. Two French guys broke away, and every team had only six guys, and it’s nine days, and everyone was too afraid to work the first day, they didn’t want to blow their team. The French guys were the only ones that had a 12-man team, but they weren’t going to chase their own guys. So everyone was standing around saying, “well what now?”
VN: So the French had two six-man teams?
TVG: Yeah, they had a French A team and a French B team, but they always work together. The B team works for the A team, and they don’t try and hide it. So really they have 12 guys.
VN: So on one hand, Sicard went up the road and took time on you, on the other hand, he won the time trial, albeit only by three seconds. Do you feel like he was the strongest guy in the race?
TVG: Absolutely. I didn’t mean to say that I would have won had things gone differently the first day. He put time on to me on the summit finish, and he put time into me on the time trial, and those were the big decisive days. The only difference was that it would have been closer and it would have made it a little more nervous for him. But at the end of the day, he was absolutely a worthy winner. He’s going pro next year with Euskaltel. He was a super strong guy.
VN: Given your career aspirations as a stage racer, finishing second at the most important U23 race in the world has to bode well for your future.
TVG: It gives me tons of confidence. I was getting a few calls from the guys at Columbia-HTC, and they were all happy to see how I was doing. I think I’ve shown this year that if it’s a stage race that is long and hard, that’s where I am at my best. Hopefully I can develop into a GC rider, hopefully for grand tours.
VN: What can you tell us about your 2010 schedule with Columbia? We see a lot of first-time grand tour riders race the Vuelta. Is there a chance you might make the Vuelta team next year?
TVG: It’s too early to say. They know I am a stage racer, and they want to develop me into that. At the same time, they want to develop me into being able to handle myself in all sorts of situations. So I might be a little bit in Belgium doing some of the one days, and maybe some of the shorter stage races there. I don’t think they will want me starting out too big, but maybe a smaller stage races like Mallorca, or maybe peak for one big one, like the Dauphiné perhaps.
Doing the Vuelta would be incredible. That’s going to be a goal of mine, to make the Vuelta team, and to finish that, and to finish it strong. But it really all depends. It depends on the guys on the team – who want to do it – maybe a bunch of the good guys on the team want to do it as preparation for worlds, or they will want to send some sprinters and they need a strong lead-out train. But absolutely my goal would be to do the Vuelta next year.
VN: Let’s talk about the world championships. Finishing second in the time trial at l’Avenir against the best U23 riders in the world has to make you a big favorite for a medal in Mendrisio. What do you know about the course, and the favorites, and how do you rate your chances?
TVG: All the heavy hitters were at l’Avenir, and everyone was going for the TT. No one was holding back. If you can get a stage win at l’Avenir, that shoots straight to the top of the resumé. All the good time trialists were there, and they were all going for a stage win, and I beat a lot of them.
The silver medalist from last year, Patrick Gretsch, he’s actually going to be my teammate next year at Columbia, but he took silver last year and I put 30 seconds into him at l’Avenir. So for sure, I’m going to the world championships to try and win. I think it’s a possibility. It’s a great goal to have, and it would be a great way to finish out the season.
VN: What do you know about the course, and how does it fit your characteristics?
TVG: I don’t know…. my theory for time trialing is that the course doesn’t make that big of difference. I think the same guy is always going to win, it just makes it interesting for the people watching. I hear it’s a pretty flat course. We do three laps, and there’s a 1km climb that’s pretty shallow, maybe four or five percent. It’s really just going to be a power-man’s course, just keep your rhythm the whole time. It sounds pretty straightforward, no big hills, not super technical just a straightforward time trial, and it’s going to come down to who has the legs on the day.
VN: At the 2007 worlds, you told me you performed better at time trials during stage races, after four or five hard days of stage racing, rather than at a one-off TT like worlds, which can be tricky. Is that still the case? Where do you stand with that, two years later?
TVG: Yeah, that is true. I always tend to be better as the days get longer and harder, and when I’m more opened up. What that really means is that I’ve had to change my preparation. I can’t just rest after l”Avenir. Three days after l’Avenir I did a motorpacing session for an hour. I just have to keep myself open. The 10-day window in between Avenir and worlds is a tricky one. It’s short, so you don’t have a whole lot of time to recover from the race, but it’s not really close enough to just keep it rolling. I’ve been working a lot with my coach, (USA Cycling sport director) Jim Miller, and I think we will have it down where I can expect to have a good ride come worlds.
VN: Obviously the TT is your focus, but how do you rate the chances for the U23 road team? Peter Stetina finished seventh overall at l’Avenir, Alex Howes won two U23 national titles and a stage at Utah and he raced on a European team last year. From what you saw of the U.S. national team at l’Avenir, and what you know of the course and the competition, how do you rate the team’s chances for a medal, or maybe even a rainbow jersey?
TVG: Oh we have a winning team. We’re going into the road race with the same goals I have in the time trial. We’re going to go to win. I think we’re going to have one of the strongest teams there. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that is as strong as us.
Yeah, I got second overall at l’Avenir, but Peter got second on a stage and finished seventh overall, Chris Barton was third on the last stage, Alex was in the breakaway just about every day, and so was Kirk Carlsen. Almost every one of our guys could get in the right move and have a shot at the rainbow jersey. We’re going to have a ton of cards to play. We have a strong team and everyone is still really motivated. It’s crazy, finishing a nine-day stage race, usually the last thing anyone wants to do is ride their bike. But everyone is still as motivated as they were at the start of l’Avenir. It’s cool to see. It’s a great group of guys and we’re going with the goal of riding not just for experience, but with the goal to win.