Commentary: I like this Tejay van Garderen

If there's one thing we learned on Thursday, Tejay van Garderen is determined to go down fighting.

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At first glance, nothing about Tejay van Garderen’s tumbling crash during Thursday’s zany sixth stage of Vuelta a España seemed that surprising.

Van Garderen, 29, had ridden himself into contention in a grand tour, and looked like he had the legs to challenge the other contenders. When Contador and Froome surged ahead, van Garderen was right there. Our hopes were high. Would this be the year Tejay finally rode himself onto a grand tour podium?

As many American cycling fans are aware, this point in a grand tour is historically when Tejay somehow crosses paths with a black cat tattooed with the number 13 that has just opened an umbrella indoors while walking under a ladder. Yep, as soon as he’s looking like a viable contender, van Garderen’s luck goes poof, and he suffers the hated One Bad Day. He gets sick. He gets hypothermia. Something terrible happens.

So to watch poor van Garderen somersault across the road felt like an inevitable conclusion. Things were just going too smoothly for the guy.

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But then something different happened. Van Garderen got back on his bike, and he began to ride super-hard. He began to fight.

Van Garderen gave chase with the full effort of his big diesel engine, and after a few minutes, the gap to the GC guys — no crashes for them — began to shrink. He stopped for a bike change somewhere during that time, and then continued to chase. The GC group tried to pull away, yet van Garderen ate into their gap. And then, oops! he crashed again, and slammed into a concrete curb, which looked extremely painful. And as soon as he was down, he got back on his bike and revved his engine, and continued the chase.

By the finish line, van Garderen had ceded just 17 seconds to the guys up ahead. Two crashes, one bike change, one charging peloton, and just 17 seconds. By any measure of the circumstances, that is an enormous victory. Van Garderen fought back.

I like this version of Tejay van Garderen. It’s the souped-up grinta model that we’ve all been waiting for.

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We’re all familiar with the reputation that van Garderen has earned — whether rightly or wrongly — over these past years. He’s soft. He’s not tough enough. He can’t overcome the bad moments.

It’s true — van Garderen has historically been derailed by inopportune moments of bad legs or illness. And the optics surrounding those bad moments do not earn him any toughness points. As cycling fans, we’ve grown accustomed to watching tough guys like Jean Christophe Péraud and Laurens Ten Dam and Jonny Hoogerland soldier on with torn jerseys and bloodied bodies.

With van Garderen, there’s never blood or shredded lycra or broken bones. There are no over-the-top grimaces of anguish or pain. He simply looks tired, or cold, or sad, or some combination of the three. We never really see his pain, as photography just can’t transmit the agony of sickness, the chill of freezing rain, or the discomfort of getting dropped through a computer screen.

That’s what makes van Garderen’s performance on Thursday so different. In the first crash he tumbled down the tarmac like a rag doll. It had to have hurt.  “It was a bumpy road and I must have just hit something and my hand slipped off the bars,” van Garderen said in an audio file that the team sends around to media outlets.

It looked awful. Poor Carlos Betancur eventually dropped out of the race after crashing alongside van Garderen.

Plenty of contenders would be tempted to pack it in after suffering a high-speed crash and a broken bicycle. Van Garderen’s second crash was hardly a dusting either. He slammed into a concrete curb. Plenty more riders would simply soft pedal to the line after a succession of mishaps. Maybe it’s just not your day — probably best to ride safely to the line. Not van Garderen.

“When you think about it, over three weeks nothing goes perfectly, and it’s more about how you deal with the not perfect days and take advantage of the good days,” van Garderen said afterward.

Tougher days lie ahead for van Garderen at this year’s Vuelta a España. There are plenty of 20-percent punchy finishes, soaring climbs, and even the feared Alto de l’Angliru.

Van Garderen may get dropped, and he may get sick. If there’s one thing we learned on Thursday, he is determined to go down fighting.

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