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Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) survived a harrowing stage up one of the steepest and hardest climbs in cycling to defend a podium spot at the Critérium du Dauphiné in Saturday’s summit finish up Alpe d’Huez.
Van Garderen slipped to third overall, now at 2:41 behind race leader Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack), but fended off a challenge from Belgian rival Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), who climbed from eighth to fourth, now at 3:46 back.
“I was already at my limit, so when they surged, I knew I couldn’t go with that. I needed to stay there at my limit and do what I can,” he told VeloNews. “This is unlike anything I’ve ever done. That was a hard climb. I kept looking at the kilometers and I would look up and I could kind of see where the finish was, I was thinking, there’s no way I have to go up that high in that many kilometers.”
The rookie dug deep when he got dropped with 9km to go up the 13.8km climb to keep alive his podium hopes with just one day to go in the Dauphiné.
Alberto Contador (Astana) won the stage with the same time as Brajkovic and climbed to second at 1:41 back.
Van Garderen crossed the line 11th at 1:26 back to secure third, but it was Van den Broeck who posed the biggest threat to the podium.
The Belgian was able to stay with Contador, Brajkovic, Sylvester Szmyd (Liquigas) and Jerome Coppel (Saur-Sojasun) when Contador surged for the first time with 9km to go.
Van den Broeck later couldn’t match the pace set by Contador and crossed the line fifth in the stage at 40 seconds back.
“I really wanted to keep my third place. When I saw Van den Broeck up there, I really was hoping I can hang on for third place. To be on the podium for this race would be unbelievable,” Van Garderen said. “Even on the Glandon, they were turning the screws, and riders like (David) Millar were getting dropped, so that’s how hard they were going.”
Van Garderen’s fortunes improved greatly when a quartet of chasing riders, including Chris Horner (RadioShack), caught him with about 2km to go.
Van Garderen had been riding alone against buffeting headwinds and was losing ground against the stage-hunting leaders further up the road. The arrival of the Horner group gave Van Garderen a wheel to ride on through the final long and wide-open switchbacks exposed to the wind.
“Horner really helped me out today. I was suffering to staying that group and he really paced me. He didn’t have much reason to do that, except helping out the young Americans, but he was fantastic out there,” he said. “He was saying on his Twitter how he really wanted an ‘In-N-Out burger,’ so he can have one on me.”
Van Garderen is quietly hoping he can make it through Sunday’s 148km finale in Sallanches. The stage concludes with five passages over a short but steep climb featured in the 1964 and 1980 world championships.
“Right now, I am just fried. I really hope that nothing too crazy happens tomorrow, because my legs are pretty much done,” he said. “It’s another mountain day, it’s not going to be just a criterium, go easy and present the jerseys. People are going to be going bananas.”