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ALPE D’HUEZ, France (VN) — The crack was coming, sure as the rest of the Tour de France was behind it. He fought to hold them both off, and he nearly succeeded, if not for the ferocity of the second trip up l’Alpe d’Huez and the fury of Cristophe Riblon.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) attacked at the bottom of the Alpe on the second of two trips over the mythical climb. The surge, which unhintched Riblon (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Moreno Moser (Cannondale) came after the American chased back to the front of the breakaway from a mechanical on the harrowing descent of the Col de Sarenne, and after he rode in the muscled breakaway that broke free from its rulers at kilometer 70. What’s more, he attacked on the first trip up the climb as well, and was only reeled in — by just two of his eight companions in the escape — before the summit.
Van Garderen was gunning for the queen stage at the 100th Tour de France, a win that could alter the complexion of his budding career. With 11 kilometers to the line, 11 kilometers to a breathtaking result, he held a roughly six-minute advantage on the yellow jersey group.
It wasn’t to be. The man he’d twice attacked and twice dropped hunted him down high up on the 21-lacet climb. Riblon proved a wolf, and van Garderen a stag. He was caught, and eaten up — the Frenchman drew onto van Garderen’s wheel at the 2km to go banner and attacked him immediately.
“I know Tejay very well, and from his position on the bike I guessed that he was in difficulty and that I still had a chance to win the stage,” Riblon said. “I wanted it to be clear in his mind that he had no chance.”
With the effort of chasing hard across the flat before the Alpe in his legs, it was crystal clear.
At the finish, van Garderen was hounded by the press, VeloNews included, and said not a word, his lips pursed tight. Hours later, he discussed the day that was, and the win that was not.
“I don’t know, there are a million things you can say, maybe I would have won the stage if … if I had gambled a little bit, and attacked later, rather than earlier, but you can’t change what happened. You’ve just got to move on,” van Garderen said.
He chalked the mechanical that cost him both moxie and effort up to bad luck on a bumpy road.
“[The] issue was that it was rough road, and with the tight corners, you had to shift pretty fast, and sometimes when you shift on a bumpy road, the chain hops off,” he said. “It got caught between the seatstay and the cassette. It wasn’t an equipment failure, or the fault of the mechanic. It was just bad luck, it could happen to anyone.”
It’s hard to calculate what it would have meant, a win on the Alpe — arguably the most famed mountain in cycling.
“This would have been a good one. Alpe d’Huez is one of those climbs everyone knows. It was painful to lose, but at the same time, it was kind of surprising that we were even in the hunt for the win. When I did my first attack, on the first trip up the Alpe, we had seven minutes, and I didn’t actually think we would stay away. I was kind of doing that to just show my presence in the race,” he said. “With the way Saxo Bank was riding in the first hour, they were so aggressive, I was sure they were going to light it up on the first climb up Alpe d’Huez, and we were going to lose three minutes the first time, and get caught the second time. Had I known how it was going to go down, I might have played it a little differently. But yeah, to be up there, with the win in sight, and to lose it, that sucks.”
Van Garderen finished fifth last year at the Tour de France, his second time in the race. And in this Tour, he’s fallen off the pace, blowing up in the heat of the Pyrénées. It’s been one of highs and lows, this Tour, but without the consistency he enjoyed last year.
“It’s been an experience. I had moments in this Tour that I’m proud of, and I’ve had moments where I’ve been pretty low,” he said. “All in all, it will make me stronger for the future. This is my last year of being a young rider. Next year, that excuse won’t be valid any more.”
Not that he made any on this day — he most certainly did not.