MT. DIABLO, Calif. -- It had been following along with the peloton, for the most part unheard and unsaid, until the young American in the race leader's jersey at the Amgen Tour of California felt comfortable enough to bring it up.
It's on us, Tejay van Garderen (BMC) said. Specifically, it's up to a new group of U.S. cyclists to make certain the offseason cataclysm that brought down a generation of marquee names doesn't happen again.
The word he used: responsibility. When he spoke it after his time-trial victory on Friday, he wasn't sure it was the right one. Honor, as in the honor of giving American cycling fans a clean show, might be better, he said. Yet after his third-place finish Saturday atop Mt. Diablo on stage 7 essentially clinched his first stage-race victory, he came back to his original thought.
"It's a weird word," he said. "Responsibility, that's a lot. But it is a responsibility, in that we definitely have the responsibility to never go down that road. The sport's largely clean now and we have to keep it that way."
The Amgen Tour is the country's first major stage race since doping dethroned America's cycling royalty. Stepping out of the wreckage is a new generation, led by 24-year-old Van Garderen and this week including up-and-comers Lawson Craddock (Bontrager), at 21 the race's best young rider, and mountains classification leader Carter Jones (Bissell), 24.
Individually and collectively, they accept the responsibility. As the generation tasked with cleaning up not only the sport but the debris left by their predecessors, they've been out to prove something, both this week and going forward.
"We have a really good crop of young guys in American cycling," Craddock said. "For me just to be a part of that group is something I hold really close. We're motivated. We want to be better. We want to be clean. We want to put all that behind us."
Looking past doping is not necessarily easy, nor is the subject very far away.
"Obviously, it's a touchy subject. A lot of people who were implicated were on the team that I've been on for four years," said 28-year-old Matthew Busche (RadioShack-Leopard), the 2011 U.S. national road race champion.
"What happened in the past happened in the past; I can't change that or control that. All I can do is what I can do and I hope that what people see now they can believe it, because it's real. Not that back then wasn't real. But I am a part of the new generation, and I hope that people believe in us and are proud of us and believe what we do is real."
With that new reality, for some, comes freedom. Liberated from the need to win-- or at least compete-- at all costs, America's next wave looks at their sport with a sense of relief.
"One of the things that [Slipstream Sports CEO] Jonathan Vaughters has been saying, and which really resonates with me, is that there's no pressure. The pressure to do drugs doesn't even exist," Jones said.
"It was definitely painful, what it [cycling] went through, but that was a totally different generation. We're different. We truly believe you can compete at this level clean."
Doubters persist, said Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare), a pro since 2006. At 30, he is somewhat of an elder statesman of the next wave.
"It's been hard," Euser said. "You can't walk around without someone questioning what you do, because they're looking at the past."
That's where van Garderen's headlining week comes in. Each time he pulls on the race leader's jersey and shares the podium with his American peers, they help put distance between them and the mess their predecessors left behind.
"Right there, that is a transformation from the old times," said Jens Voigt (RadioShack), who at 41 has seen the past, the present and now, the future.
"There is hope, that there is somebody trustworthy we can look up to and put all of our confidence into him. Tejay represents definitely a nice, young, clean generation of cyclists. "
And he's one that is more than happy to shoulder the burden of moving forward.
"The good thing that came out of all that happened," Craddock said, "is that it paved the way for us to show that there can be clean cycling. And it's up to us to keep it that way."
Which sounds like a dictionary definition of the word "responsibility."