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BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON, France (VN) — For BMC Racing, this Tour de France has proven a double-edged sword: Its captain is unable to defend his crown, but his young lieutenant has shown well in his second Tour, and now leads the team on the general classification. A gift and a curse.
American Tejay van Garderen went clear of team leader Evans on stage 16’s final climb and leapfrogged the defending champion in the general classification at the end of the day in Bagnères-de-Luchon after Evans cracked deeply on a hot, steep day in the Pyrènèes.
Van Garderen, who was initially brought here to help Evans in the mountains, sits sixth overall. After Evans was dropped twice on Wednesday, he bled nearly five more minutes to the yellow jersey of Brad Wiggins, bumping the proud Aussie to seventh, 11 seconds in arrears of van Garderen, who also holds the white jersey. Evans is now more than eight minutes behind Wiggins, and has declared his Tour defense over.
Van Garderen’s role as Evans’ top shepherd has seemed fuzzy at times, notably when Evans flatted due to maliciously scattered tacks on stage 14 into Foix and van Garderen stayed with the yellow jersey group, saying he was unclear what had happened to his leader.
The decision to let van Garderen ride on Wednesday was made on the road, according to manager Jim Ochowicz. Van Garderen had become BMC’s best hope.
“When Cadel was dropped the first time, it was kind of up to the other guys to hang around him, because if I dropped back, we could lose everything,” van Garderen said after the stage finished. “We had the rest of the team rally around him.
“I hoped it was just a bad moment, and he could bounce back on the Peyresourde, but it was pretty evident he was on a bad day.”
Evans was, indeed, on a very bad day. The champ, suffering from stomach issues, was dropped on the day’s first climb, the hors catégorie Col d’Aubisque. He rolled over the summit 45 seconds behind the Wiggins group, and though he would catch back on and survive the Tourmalet, the champ was on the ropes all day.
The day’s final climb, the category 1 Col du Peyresourde, proved too much. Van Garderen was dropped as well, after Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) surged and shattered the group, with Sky’s Wiggins and Chris Froome the only riders able to match the Shark’s pace.
“We saw at the end, it was just down to three, there’s not many people left in the race,” Wiggins said. “It was hot out there, everyone reacts differently to it.
“We’re nearly three weeks into this race. Everyone is going through different things with their bodies, and everyone reacts differently after the rest day.”
Van Garderen appears to have passed muster, and there is a positive here for BMC. It’s just not the rider the team thought it would be.
“I’m thrilled with how I am riding. I hope I can keep it going for one more day [in the mountains] and then the time trial. I’m doing better than I could have ever imagined,” said van Garderen. “It’s a pity that Cadel has fallen back a bit, but I can’t say that I’m not happy with myself.”
George Hincapie said he was happy the team loosed van Garderen, who said he would have dropped back to assist Evans if instructed.
“I think Cadel could see early on that he wasn’t good, and that Tejay looked good, it really made no sense to hold Tejay back,” Hincapie said. “I’m glad the team made that decision. Tejay is riding really well, he’s having an awesome Tour so far.”
The big question for BMC now is for whom does it ride: A scrappy American on the way up, or its battered champion, who isn’t on his form of last year?
“I think now it’s more of co-leadership. He’s still only one place behind me,” van Garderen said
Ochowicz, though, has yet to chart the team’s course. Asked if Evans would work for van Garderen now, Ochowicz said he didn’t know.
“I’ve never asked that question to Cadel, so I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. “We race on. Tomorrow’s another day. Other goals, other objectives. We’ll evaluate tonight. We came to this race to defend and we tried.”
Of course, it’s never over at the Tour, and Evans could still leap back over van Garderen, due to the long time trial on Saturday.
“There’s no guarantees in this game. Things happen. People have bad days, like you saw Cadel today,” Ochowicz said. “That can happen to anybody tomorrow.”
Editor’s Note: This analysis initially referred to the 2012 Tour de France as van Garderen’s “maiden” Tour. It is his second after the American rode the race in 2011 with HTC-Highroad.