Van Garderen’s tour ambitions will live or die at Suisse

If Tejay van Garderen wants to lead BMC at the Tour, he first needs to win the Tour de Suisse or else he'll be playing second-fiddle to Richie Porte.

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As a flag-waving fan of American sports, I want nothing more than for the U.S. Men’s National Team to win soccer’s World Cup, for Michael Phelps to win so many Olympic gold medals that Australia paves over its swimming pools, and yeah, for Tejay van Garderen to win this year’s Tour de France.

I want his maillot jaune to hang in the Oval Office. I want Hulk Hogan’s theme song to echo down the Champs-Élysées.

In order for my patriotic dream to become a reality, however, one thing needs to happen: Tejay van Garderen must win the Tour de Suisse.

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Van Garderen is this generation’s most successful American Tour de France rider, despite his heartbreaking DNF last year. And since last August, the BMC bosses have assured us that the American will share leadership duties at the Tour alongside Australian Richie Porte.

Porte, as you may have seen, is absolutely flying right now. He was probably the second strongest rider at last week’s Critérium du Dauphiné behind winner Chris Froome, and was the only rider to consistently match Froome when the road went uphill. When Froome accelerated away from Alberto Contador and Dan Martin on the climb to Vaujany on Stage 5, Porte was the only guy who could go.

Van Garderen, meanwhile, is racing the Tour de Suisse, which this year is the proverbial Cable Ace Awards of Tour warm-up events. Yes, there are talented riders at the Tour de Suisse, such as Geraint Thomas, Wilco Kelderman, and Andrew Talansky. But there’s no Contador, no Froome, and no Fabio Aru. Van Garderen is the only blue chip tour favorite at the race.

The course includes three summit finishes, one 16.8km time trial and plenty of long, grinding uphills, including Friday’s summit finish to Solden. It’s the type of terrain that’s custom-fit for van Garderen, who excels on long uphill sections. Van Garderen should win, or at the very least land on the podium.

So let’s say van Garderen lays and egg in Switzerland, while Porte continues to impress. Choosing a team leader for the tour will be an easy decision for BMC’s boss Jim Ochowicz. Sure, he may tell reporters that it’s a co-leadership scenario, but he knows that van Garderen will be carrying bottles.

Conversely, let’s say van Garderen thrashes the field at the Tour de Suisse and annihilates Thomas, Kelderman and last year’s winner Simon Spilak on the big climbs. He enters the Tour de France teeming with confidence. BMC will have to throw some of its resources behind his Tour hopes.

If that happens, it’ll be time to break out the star-spangled MC Hammer pants.

Of course van Garderen will still need to outshine his teammate at the Tour. Porte is a talented time trial rider, and he has the zippy speed to accelerate with almost any climber on the planet. In the grand tours, however, Porte has struggled with consistency. Strong one week, dropped the next.

Van Garderen, meanwhile, has that slow, diesel power that can’t always match the zip, but can churn up the big climbs. If he can stay within striking distance until the tour’s third week, he is a realistic bet for the podium.

According to oddsmakers with Europe’s largest online betting websites, Porte is the favorite. He has 16 to 1 odds, while van Garderen is 33 to 1.

With their differing styles, van Garderen and Porte could liven up the race as a one-two punch. Pundits often criticize the co-team-leader model, but not every scenario devolves into Hinault/Lemond. In the “success” column we can put Quintana/Valverde ’15, Wiggins/Froome ’12, Schleck/Schleck ’11, and even Contador/Leipheimer ’07. But in every scenario there is a rubber-meets-the-road moment, when one guy becomes Plan A and the other guy is Plan B. And more often than not, Plan B guy has to chase down a breakaway, set tempo on some huge mountain, or in some way sacrifice his ambitions for the team.

Alejandro Valverde pulled for Nairo Quintana and then marked Froome during the L’Alpe d’Huez stage last year. Froome famously slowed down for Wiggins in 2012. And who can forget Levi Leipheimer’s dogged pursuit of Michael Rasmussen when he and Contador tag-teamed the Chicken in 2007?

I have no doubt that van Garderen would be a skilled support rider, if Porte is the strongest. Perhaps someday we’ll add his name to the list of all-star domestiques who helped their teammates win the tour.

But as an American fan with an American bias, I’m not pining for that scenario. I want Hulk Hogan tunes in Paris and the maillot jaune in the White House. I want van Garderen to win.

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