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Van Garderen’s Vuelta tune-up off to a winning start

WIth the Vuelta coming up, Tejay van Garderen opts for Tour of Utah and scores a win on the first day.

ST. GEORGE, Utah (VN) — For a grand tour tune-up ride, things could hardly have gotten off to a finer start for Tejay van Garderen, who won the prologue in Tour of Utah Monday.

Van Garderen said that he decided to ride this year’s Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah instead of putting in training miles for the Vuelta a España.

“I figured after a week of recovery I could either start training again, hitting ‘set’ on the power meter and cranking out efforts up a climb, or I could come hop in the Tour of Utah,” van Garderen said.

“I just came here to have some fun and keep the body rolling, and I told myself if there was a chance for a result, I’ll take it. Today was a great opportunity for that.”

Less than two weeks removed from finishing the Tour de France, van Garderen was the final rider on the road in the 5.3-kilometer time trial, and he delivered the day’s fastest time on the course to give BMC a podium sweep. U.S. time trial champ Joey Rosskopf finished second with Tom Bohli in third.

Van Garderen said he did not know what to expect from his Utah campaign, immediately on the heels of the Tour and then a week of less intensive training — and with the Vuelta on the horizon.

“I really had no idea how I was going to respond, especially coming to this heat, at altitude, and such a violent short effort, I was stepping into the unknown,” he said. “But I was motivated and I went through my normal warmup routine as if I was starting any other time trial. And the legs responded well. As soon as I started pushing on the climb, I knew, gauging my sensations, I was like, ‘Okay this could be a good one.'”

The 29-year-old American — who turns 30 on Sunday — has ridden through a few ups and downs so far this year. He got off to a good start against a strong field finishing third at the Volta ao Algarve. That was followed by a relatively quiet spring, until the Amgen Tour of California, where he won a stage and wore yellow into the final mountain stage, dropping to second overall on the final podium behind Egan Bernal (Sky).

He started the Tour de France in a support role for Richie Porte, who crashed out of the race in stage 9. Van Garderen lost time on the cobbles that same day, however, and transitioned to hunting stages from the breakaway for the next two weeks.

With the Tour in the books, his attention shifts to the upcoming Vuelta a España, which has been on his race calendar since earlier this year. He finished 10th overall there last season. BMC’s team plan for the race remains to be seen, with Porte now also set to make the Vuelta start after his early Tour exit.

A strong pre-Vuelta performance could factor in how things play out for the team in Spain, of course, and Van Garderen is in pole position to deliver one, at least after the first day of racing in the Utah heat.

Brent Bookwalter, who rode to fifth and a stage win last year, said before the race that BMC was looking to a few of the other purer climbers as favorites. With such a short prologue, ridden on standard road bikes, he did not expect his team’s edge in the time trials to have a huge impact on the race. Nonetheless, among the other GC hopefuls, only Neilson Powless (LottoNL-Jumbo) finished within 10 seconds of van Garderen in the prologue.

Last year’s third-place finisher Serghei Tvetcov (UnitedHealthcare) came home 11 seconds back; 2017 runner-up, Tvetcov’s teammate Gavin Mannion, finished 13 down. Mike Woods of EF Education First-Drapac was 13 back while defending champ Rob Britton (Rally Cycling) conceded 18 seconds.

The time gaps are not huge, but for a stage so short, they are a good sign that van Garderen — and his teammates — mean business.

“Today’s result really sets us up well for the rest of the race. It definitely gives us some extra motivation and some more confidence looking ahead,” said sports director Jackson Stewart. “I think now that Tejay has won the first stage, on a course that he is maybe not a specialist on, it will definitely give him a boost as we look ahead to the other stages which we know he can be good on.”

That said, van Garderen avoided putting too much stock into his early advantage with so much climbing to come. After all, it was only a few months ago that van Garderen saw Bernal snatch his California leader’s jersey away in the mountains.

“The climb to Snowbird [in stage 5], that’s a hard climb. It’s hot, it just bakes in the sun. It’s steep,” van Garderen said. “If you have a bad day on that day, whatever advantage you gain in a 5k prologue is going to be wiped away.”

No matter what happens in the GC over the next week, van Garderen has to be pleased with the early returns from Utah. Monday saw him deliver a win in a 2.HC-rated event. That will be a welcome result for the former best young rider at the Tour de France after a quiet ride this July. It marks his second victory of the year — and a sign that he may have more in store for the second half of his season.