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MOUNT DIABLO, Calif. (VN) — While BMC Racing ground the rapidly tearing peloton to dust high on Mount Diablo, Tejay van Garderen could have sailed away and tried for a stage win, an exclamation point on his Californian coronation as the United States’ premier stage racer.
He did not.
He stayed put, stayed close enough to the threats without a moment of panic. In short, he showed restraint and balance where, in the past, he may have tried to do too much. He was metronomic.
“There was really no reason to panic. I knew I had an incredibly strong team, and I knew I had a solid buffer of time. All we had to do was just ride smart. I think that’s come with a bit of maturity. To learn to just relax a little bit,” said a happy van Garderen atop Mount Diablo. “There was no reason to try to attack the race, or blow everyone’s heads off. I just gotta keep cool and do my thing.”
His “thing,” in California at least, is winning. Van Garderen smashed Friday’s individual time trial, taking the stage and icing his nearest rival, Aussie Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff). After gaining a bit more time on the above-category Diablo, van Garderen now sits 1:47 ahead of Rogers, and 3:26 up on climbing ace Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman).
Barring absolute disaster on Sunday in a stage from San Francisco to Santa Rosa that touts no major obstacles, van Garderen, 24, has earned his first major stage race win as a professional, though his talent has long been known, evidenced by his fifth-place finish at last year’s Tour de France.
“I knew I was going to have to rely really heavily on my team, and luckily we brought a strong one here. I saw them just take control from kilometer zero to 200ks … all I had to do was follow,” he said. “It was stress free — really easy. I’m really proud of my guys. Even if we were getting some GC guys moving, I just knew that I could stay relaxed, because I had strong climbers pulling me all the way to the finish line. It was just an incredible day.”
He appears a slightly different rider this year — he says perhaps becoming a dad has changed his makeup a bit — and his confidence is only growing now, heading into the final Tour de France tuneups. He’s also keeping the pressure on his team at a minimum by seizing control of the race whenever he can, be that a climb, or in the crosswinds.
“He’s still young, but he has a good team. … He proved in the past he’s a typical stage racer. In one-week stage races, he’s complete. Good in the mountains, good in the time trial. Good in the echelons. And he’s perfect for going in those races. I think he has a big future,” BMC sport director John Lelangue said. “He has already proven he’s there… each race that he’s doing, he’s always regular, making a top five, a top 10.”
As a captain, team managers say he’s growing as well. Van Garderen was tough in the heat to Palm Springs, only losing a handful of seconds to Acevedo, and gaining time on other GC men. He was dominant in the time trial, and crafty in the crosswinds toward the coast, which saw the stealing of the yellow jersey from Acevedo.
“The goal, obviously, wasn’t to win the stage, it was to protect the GC. And follow the race. Lead at our speed, you know, without putting any stress on Tejay,” said BMC president Jim Ochowicz. Van Garderen, he said, wasn’t told to not chase certain moves but was trusted to ride his own race.
Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard) said the win here in California must be comforting to a rider on the cusp.
“I suppose it’s pretty comforting,” he said. “It’s not that far to go to the Tour. Having an overall win in the pocket with some tough circuits. Winning the TT in a convincing manner. Being strong and solid today. I guess he’s ready mentally and physically. It’s an important step for him on his way to a potential Tour de France podium this year.”
The Tour is a discussion for another day, with both van Garderen and Cadel Evans poised for sterling spring results. For now, van Garderen is happy in this moment. After all, it’s been years and near misses (Colorado last year, most recently) in the making.
“It’s incredible. I mean, barring any incident tomorrow, I think we’ve made it through all the obstacles, and we’re cruising into BMC’s hometown of Santa Rosa. It’s where the team got started, and I’m glad I can do the team proud with the jersey in their home state race,” he said. “There’s a big difference between being up there, and really winning. I think I finally showed that I have the full package.”