Commentary

Van Garderen ready for Tour stage

Updated: June 28, 2013, 10:19 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Tejay van Garderen, Cadel Evans Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesTejay van Garderen, left, will again ride in support of BMC team leader Cadel Evans at the Tour.

BOULDER, Colo. -- Tejay van Garderen comes to the door with his 3-day-old daughter cradled against his shoulder. She's draped in a pink blanket, dozing. He's beaming and relaxed, as if he's had years of practice instead of being a first-time dad at age 24.

It's a weekday in early April, the beginning of a stretch van Garderen had planned to spend in Colorado anyway, returning from the spring European racing season to train and await the baby's birth with his wife, Jessica, a former elite racer. Everything was thought out and organized. But little Rylan had her own timetable. When she elected to arrive three weeks before her due date, van Garderen spent an entire trans-Atlantic flight unhappily convinced he was going to miss the most important event of his life. He made it an hour before Rylan was born.

None of that stress is evident in van Garderen's face on this day. He's used to living at a blistering pace. He was a junior cycling champion at 12, on his own in Europe at 19, a consistent podium contender in major races in his early 20s, married at 23. Last year, in his first season with powerhouse BMC Racing, van Garderen finished fifth overall and topped the Best Young Rider (under-25) standings in the Tour de France.

His performance outstripped that of BMC's illness-hampered team leader and defending Tour champion Cadel Evans of Australia, setting off months of speculation about van Garderen's role at this year's Tour. Evans quelled that with his third-place finish at the Giro d'Italia in May, and BMC will go into the Tour, which begins Saturday in Corsica, with the 36-year-old as the undisputed team leader. Van Garderen will be Evans' chief wingman in the mountains. It's also clear that if anything were to befall Evans, the team would regroup around van Garderen.

"I'm just learning the big difference between winning and getting on the podium," he says, sitting in his basement bar with Rylan still blissfully asleep on one arm. "I still have at least one more year in that development stage.

"I don't think I'm ready to be the person that makes or breaks the team's season."

Few know van Garderen better than Allan Peiper, the candid Australian ex-pro who is BMC's performance director. Peiper scouted van Garderen when he was riding on developmental squads for Rabobank and the U.S. national team, fighting the crosswinds and damp of Belgium and Holland for the first time, and signed van Garderen for HTC-High Road, where he spent his first two professional seasons.

[+] EnlargeTejay van Garderen
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Tejay van Garderen began riding at age 10 in Montana with his father Marcel, a former amateur racer.

Van Garderen is ahead of where Peiper thought he would be at this point, but Peiper said it's "a bit of a blessing" that he hasn't been designated for wire-to-wire leadership in this year's Tour.

"His fifth place wasn't a fluke," Peiper said by phone earlier this week. "He was consistent the whole way through, and the confidence he got out of that, he brought into this season. He's a mature lad, quite relaxed and laid-back for his age. He's a great time trialer and he climbs with the best. But he's still growing. There are things that take years to learn. Cadel is meticulous in his preparation for the Tour, and that's something Tejay can work on."

The résumé van Garderen has compiled would be catnip for any cycling follower. It's especially alluring for American fans yearning for a new protagonist after the deluge of evidence that has washed away the credibility and results of Lance Armstrong and many others in his generation. Yet there's also a scandal-weary, alienated contingent that will regard van Garderen and any other emerging talent with jaundiced eyes.

Hope and high-fives line one side of the road. On the other side stand those who trust no one and nothing. It's a strange gauntlet to ride through. Van Garderen would prefer not to be defined by either camp, but he accepts that doping is something he has to address directly in 2013, with people still choking on the exhaust fumes of dishonest champions. Every team in the elite peloton has allegations or suspensions or admissions woven into its timeline somewhere. Several of BMC's owners and staff members were previously involved in running Phonak, the Swiss team led by Floyd Landis that was forced to fold after a string of scandals.

Van Garderen listens to the questions and responds quietly, without defensiveness: He rides clean. His teammates ride clean. He respects his bosses, calling them "completely professional ... I can only base my relationship off of my personal experience with them." He has faith that contemporaries like Garmin-Sharp's 24-year-old Andrew Talansky, who will be making his first Tour appearance, are riding clean. They are competitive because the sport is cleaner than it used to be, thanks to the biological passport and improved testing, van Garderen says.

"There's not a team out there that doesn't come with a little bit of baggage," he says. "You can choose to forgive, forget and look forward, or you can dwell on everything and judge everyone. This is my second year on BMC and there is absolutely nothing going on out of the ordinary, or that shouldn't be happening."

There's an innate pragmatism to van Garderen that also seems advanced for his age. He sees nuance rather than heroes and villains. After the 2008 world championships, he found himself at the national team house in Belgium for a few days with veteran Dave Zabriskie as his only company. Van Garderen asked how much doping was still part of doing business. Zabriskie -- who last year furnished key testimony in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's case against Armstrong and admitted his own past use of performance-enhancing drugs -- told him things weren't perfect, but they were getting better and it was possible to succeed clean.

"It's easier to keep something clean than it is to clean it up," van Garderen said. "And these other guys cleaned it up. They changed their own habits and their own pattern and I think that is a harder thing to do than stepping into a clean environment.

"I understand there are also people out there who never touched anything, and they didn't make near the amount of money as a lot of these people who decided to go down the wrong road. They deserve the most credit, guys like Danny Pate, who was the under-23 time trial world champion, rode for [defunct Italian team] Saeco and then decided 'I don't want any part of this,' bounced around [domestic racing] before he finally came back into the Pro Tour once it had kind of cleaned itself up. He went to bed every night knowing 'I made the right choice.' He stayed true to himself as a person. He's someone who I really admire.

"So there's definitely this big spectrum of what you consider good and bad and ugly."

Van Garderen fully understands his position. Excel, and some will celebrate him. Excel, and some will suspect him.

"What can I do or say to change their minds?" he asks, not really expecting an answer. "The fact that I don't have a positive test -- well, we've heard that a lot."

He glances down at Rylan. "Or, I'll swear on my newborn daughter's life," he says. "But people have sworn on that before too."

Tejay van Garderen Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesTejay van Garderen's newborn daughter, Rylan, made her podium debut after her father's win at this year's Tour of California.

A few weeks after that conversation, van Garderen won his first major stage race, the eight-day Tour of California. He clinched it with a calm, controlled show of strength and well-executed team tactics on the Mount Diablo uphill finish in Stage 7 and avoided the one-bad-day syndrome that had undone his bids in several other races.

"It was a big stepping-stone for Tejay," said BMC's Brent Bookwalter, one of his key support riders there. "When you hear, 'Is he finally going to win a stage race, is he finally going to do it' -- geez, give the guy a break, he's 24 years old and has incredible palmares [results] already.

"We all knew it was going to be a matter of time. He showed up in California physically, emotionally, mentally and personally able to handle the weight of the team. And he made those improvements just in a year."

There's not a team out there that doesn't come with a little bit of baggage. You can choose to forgive, forget and look forward, or you can dwell on everything and judge everyone. This is my second year on BMC and there is absolutely nothing going on out of the ordinary, or that shouldn't be happening.

-- Tejay van Garderen on cycling's history with doping

Van Garderen is usually ahead of where people think he'll be, and when he isn't, he's capable of quick accelerations. He began riding at age 10 in Montana with his father Marcel, a former amateur racer. A stellar junior career led to an early migration to Europe, where he raced extensively from age 17 on.

Like a teenager growing into gangly features, van Garderen needed time to allow his competitive psyche to catch up with his gifts. He created a medium-sized monster for himself in 2010 when his time trialing vaulted him into third place overall in the Criterium du Dauphine, a prestigious Tour tuneup in the Alps. "From there, I maybe did get a little bit of a big head," he says. "I was thinking, 'If I did that as a neo-pro, then I should be winning everything in a couple of years' time.'"

The next two seasons brought a lot of almosts. In 2011 and 2012, van Garderen entered the Tour of California as one of the favorites and left without a top-three showing. He landed on the podium at many other races and piled up a stack of white Best Young Rider jerseys -- impressive results that were good enough for everyone but him. He kept his frustration well-contained behind good-humored stoicism most of the time, but his BMC teammate and close friend Taylor Phinney saw it gnawing at him.

"I kept telling him, 'When you flip that domino over, a lot of other dominoes are going to fall, you just have to be patient,'" Phinney said in a recent phone interview. "He's a guy I really enjoy working for. There are a lot of GC guys [overall contenders] who can't really communicate what they need or aren't as thankful as you'd like them to be. You can rely on him to be really positive. He's a motivational leader."

Although van Garderen says he still hasn't mastered the art of telling people what to do, Phinney disagrees. "I think he thinks he struggles with things a lot more than he does," Phinney said.

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado last August looked like the ideal stage race for van Garderen to knock down the first domino. Energized by his Tour showing, racing in his home state, van Garderen twice took the race lead. But his status as a marked man drew relentless attacks on the climb of Flagstaff Mountain outside Boulder in the penultimate stage, isolating him and enabling a group including veteran Levi Leipheimer to leave him behind.

That night, van Garderen sought out Phinney and vented his disappointment in himself and his feeling of having let down his team. "He was so nervous, it was crushing him," Phinney said. "He kept saying he wasn't prepared to lose. I wish I could have helped him more."

An anxious van Garderen entered the final 9.5-mile time trial before big crowds in Denver focused on the time he needed to make up on Leipheimer. Instead, Garmin's Christian Vande Velde outpaced them both and won the race by 21 seconds. Van Garderen was visibly distressed in the finish area. He shakes his head at the memory.

"That was a race where I was thinking the same as everyone else was thinking -- 'If you can get fifth place in the Tour, then you can win a one-week stage race,'" he said. "And sometimes those two don't add up perfectly. You still have to race the race.

"Maybe I wanted it too bad, and everyone knew that. When you come into a race as the hot favorite, that comes with a lot of responsibility."

The gap van Garderen couldn't close in that Colorado time trial represented the incremental difference between better and best that he had been contending with all along. That same summer, he decided he needed a change and parted with longtime coach Jim Miller to work with Salt Lake City-based sports medicine specialist -- and BMC's chief medical officer -- Dr. Max Testa.

[+] EnlargeTejay van Garderen
John Berry/Getty ImagesTejay van Garderen won the Best Young Rider jersey and finished fifth overall at last year's Tour de France.

Phinney has known Testa since he was a kid living in Italy with his parents, former top pro Davis Phinney and Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter, and thinks the new partnership has been beneficial. "Max is a less-is-more kind of guy, and that's good for someone like Tejay who's always trying to overachieve and do more than he's supposed to in training," Phinney said. "Plus, he's a miniature cycling Wikipedia who has so much knowledge, he inspires trust."

Rylan's impending arrival prompted another shift. The van Garderens gave up what had been Tejay's in-season base in Tuscany and now split their time between Boulder and Aspen. They're nomads when he needs to be overseas. Jessica, a former women's race organizer, maps out training routes, moto-paces her husband and locates other pros for him to train with. At just a few weeks old, their baby daughter already had a passport and three round-trip tickets to Europe.

"Jessica does such a good job of planning and taking care of everything and leaving me to focus on what's important," van Garderen said. "I feel like I'm able to take on these challenges because she's here with me. Without her, it would be nearly impossible. It's not always easy, it's definitely challenging. But as long as she's there, I know it'll be OK. It'll work out, because we make a great team."

The official baton pass between Evans and van Garderen is currently scheduled for 2014, as Evans himself acknowledged last year. Quirky is a word often applied to Evans, and van Garderen doesn't dispute that, but says the 2011 Tour winner's attention to detail and self-knowledge are qualities he will strive to emulate even though Evans isn't a mentor in the traditional sense.

"You can learn a lot from Cadel through observation, and I kind of prefer it that way," van Garderen says. "Sometimes if someone sits you down and has a lecture, that can be a little bit patronizing."

Watching Evans preview the first time trial in last year's Tour, with director John Lelangue following in a car with a radio, was especially instructive. As Evans leaned into each bend of the course, he relayed his intentions to Lelangue: Brakes needed. Fifty percent. Full gas.

"He sees the road and he knows what he can do," van Garderen said. "While I was there, he wasn't saying, 'This is what you should do, learn from me, watch what I'm doing.' He just kind of did it. I know I'm not as good at it as Cadel is. I still second-guess myself.

"There's nothing awkward between us. We don't call on the phone and chat every weekend. We don't email each other. But when we see each other, everything's totally fine."

After the Mount Diablo stage at the Tour of California, van Garderen sat at the summit with a panoramic view spread around him and said he looked forward to being part of a double-barreled threat at the Tour. "I think it's incredible that we're going to have two guys who are strong and capable of being up there, because it's going to take two guys to knock Sky off of their top step," he said, referring to Tour favorite Chris Froome, who is stepping into the leader's role in the absence of defending champion Bradley Wiggins.

Peiper said everyone on BMC, including the two principals, is very clear about the depth chart and expects no conflict in July. "There's definitely a changing of the guard, and Cadel acknowledges that," he said. "The timing is perfect. Cadel still has the body to vie with the best. Tejay has the body, but he hasn't got other things down just yet. Next year, it'll be a totally different mindset in setting up a possible Tour de France win. The future is his oyster."

And it appears primed for an early arrival.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.