On top form, van Garderen looking for more luck

The American hopes his winning ride in the queen stage of the Volta a Catalunya last week is a sign of things to come

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KORTRIJK, Belgium (VN) — When Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) crossed the La Molina finish line in stage 4 of the Volta a Catalunya last week, he threw up both hands in a victory celebration, understandably elated.

The result came on the heels of a very difficult stage 3; unfortunately for van Garderen, the impressive display ahead of every other top climber in the race on La Molina would not help him much in the general classification, as he had crashed and gone sailing over a guardrail and into the bushes on the previous stage, ultimately finishing the day nearly 16 minutes behind the leaders.

Entering the race as a GC contender, dropping out of contention with his crash, and then winning the queen stage anyway, van Garderen’s 2015 visit to Catalonia fit a familiar mold.

“I have an up-and-down relationship with this race,” van Garderen said after taking the stage victory. “I did this race my neo-pro year in 2010 with Highroad and I finished on my hands and knees, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And then one year we had a bad snowstorm and I had to quit the race, I was sick. And then I had a really good one last year.

“Yesterday was looking not so good but I think I can at the end of the day say that I have a very passionate relationship with this race.”

“Up-and-down” seems an apt description of his week in Spain and his history here generally. It is also a description that might apply more generally to his 2015 campaign so far. The 26-year-old American opened his 2015 season in strong form, taking runner-up honors in the Tour of Oman behind a surprising Rafael Valls (Lampre-Merida).

On the back of that performance, he entered Paris-Nice among the top overall race favorites. He put in a good ride in the prologue and stayed close to the top of the leaderboard by placing fifth on the Croix de Chaubouret on stage 4. Everything fell apart on stage 6, however, when van Garderen lost contact with the rest of the GC contenders far from the finish line on a cold, rainy day, and fell completely out of GC contention, rolling across the line nearly five minutes behind the stage winner.

With van Garderen’s GC hopes dashed in a race he and his team had hoped he might win, BMC sport director Valerio Piva offered a few choice words for van Garderen at the time.

“Many errors can be made in the first year, but Tejay has to … he has to get results. For him it’s important, for us important,” Piva said.

Piva acknowledged that the weather played a part, but characterized van Garderen’s unpreparedness for the day as a costly mistake, saying, “When you are there in the middle of the race, it’s logical that you are going to pay if you are ill-prepared.”

Van Garderen’s results over his most recent few years as a pro have included other instances of high highs followed by low lows followed again by high highs, with the appearance of a bad day or bad week in an otherwise strong period of form a recurring theme.

Van Garderen followed his fifth-place result in the 2012 Tour de France with a string of excellent results through May of 2013 (including an overall win at the Amgen Tour of California), but then a bad day on a very hot stage 8 during the 2013 Tour de France saw him lose over 12 minutes to the race leader. He rode rather anonymously for the next week, but then came close to winning stage 18’s double ascent of Alpe d’Huez, ultimately crossing the line in second to Christophe Riblon (Ag2r La Mondiale) from the breakaway. He closed out the year on a high note with a victory in the USA Pro Challenge.

His early 2014 campaign was a mixture of strong performances and injury-related withdrawals. He came into the Tour de France as an unknown commodity in terms of form, putting in a ride for 13th overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné, but with only a week remaining in the Tour he found himself less than a minute off the virtual podium. A bad day in the mountains on stage 16 saw him fall out of podium contention, but he was able to finish the race in the top five, and then repeated his Colorado win the following month.

Approaching the present, 2015 opened well in Oman but turned sour at Paris-Nice.

The Volta a Catalunya, then, with its top-caliber lineup of rivals, provided an opportunity for van Garderen to right the ship in the face of criticism. His GC aspirations fell by the wayside with the stage 3 crash, but he did prove to be among the most proficient of a very impressive list of uphill specialists in the race with his queen stage victory.

Pleased by the opportunity to finally raise his hands in victory in a big race for the first time this year, van Garderen viewed the result as less of a return to form and more of a confirmation of strong form he felt had been there from the start of the year.

“I’ve known from the beginning of the year I’ve had really good form, I’ve focused really hard the whole season, and all I was missing was a little bit of luck,” he said. “I think I’ve shown the form that I’ve had, the stage at Paris-Nice and then Oman. I’m glad that I could show it here.”

After the queen stage victory, van Garderen put in further respectable showings on stages 5 (he finished 10th) and 6 (he finished sixth, crossing the line on the same time as the race leader from a successful breakaway).

Piva was in Belgium with the BMC classics squad while van Garderen was racing in the Volta. Asked after Gent-Wevelgem if he had seen the results of van Garderen racing in Spain, Piva acknowledged he had heard about van Garderen’s success and that his reaction was a positive one, but he preferred not to go into detail on the subject, saying only, “He won and it’s fantastic.”

With van Garderen finishing the La Molina stage ahead of eventual race winner Richie Porte (Sky) and the likes of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), it’s hard to imagine BMC or van Garderen feeling any other way than “fantastic” about the result. Whether or not van Garderen can maintain the form he feels he’s had all season and turn it into further results this year remains to be seen.

Van Garderen took confidence away from his victory on La Molina, though, and from there, he hopes it’s only a matter of the cards continuing to play out in his favor.

“We’ve just got to keep moving forward and not lose the focus and just hope that the luck comes our way,” he said.

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