KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Five years ago, while Alberto Contador was riding to victory in the Tour de France, Andrew Talansky was a vagabond cyclist scratching out a living in races across the United States.
He had returned from Europe disenchanted by an experience with a low-level team. He wasn't sure what his future held, but he knew he still loved to ride. So with few other options and the support of his family, he loaded up his belongings and spent the summer living out of his car.
"I made absolutely zero dollars that year," Talansky said, laughing. "I still own the car. It's a Honda Fit. It's a great car, man. Lives up to its name. You can fit a surprising amount of things in it -- time trial bike, road bike, wheels, trainer, food, bags. Whatever you need."
Back then, though, what Talansky really needed was a chance.
When he finally got one with a proper team, he was able to parlay it into a career that's been on a steady climb. And now, after a stunning victory over Contador and fellow Tour favorites Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali in the recent Criterium du Dauphine, the 25-year-old Talansky is poised to lead a new era of American cyclists in pursuit of the yellow jersey.
"When you look at the last five years, it's pretty incredible what's happened, every aspect of my life," Talansky said in a phone interview from his training base in Girona, Spain, where he was getting in his last workouts before the Tour's rolling start July 5 in Leeds, England.
"Every now and then you look at the whole thing and say, `Wow.' But honestly? I always dreamed I'd be doing what I'm doing now," he said. "I never dreamed of just scraping by."
Those are the same dreams that drove Tejay van Garderen, Peter Stetina and countless other young American riders to not only try a largely European sport but also thrive in it.
Many of them grew up idolizing Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer, and then stuck with the embattled sport through each wave of doping allegations that shook it to its very core. Now that Armstrong has acknowledged doping, and his seven titles have been stricken from the books, Greg LeMond stands as the only rider from the U.S. to have legitimately won the Tour.
"We're all very supportive of what we're trying to do," Talansky explained of the American contingent, "and that's to be a credible new generation that promotes the sport in a good way and brings fans back to the sport, fans who have maybe been disillusioned by the past."
The best way to do that, of course, is by winning.
Van Garderen, who will lead the BMC Racing Team at the Tour, may be the most accomplished of the new generation. He stunned the cycling world two years ago when, at the age of 23, he finished fifth overall while helping teammate Cadel Evans capture victory on the Champs-Elysees.
Van Garderen had a disappointing showing in France last year, but rebounded to win the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. He's battled injuries this year but has been rounding into form.
"I'm definitely confident in my ability to be a contender at the Tour," van Garderen said. "Obviously, Froome is the No. 1 guy, the defending Tour champion. Contador has had a stellar season. He's barely lost any race he's started. They're the two five-star favorites. But behind them you have a lot of guys who have a chance."
Van Garderen will be helped over the 21 stages, 3,656 kilometers and the harrowing climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees, by the 26-year-old Stetina, who will be making his Tour debut.
"Tejay is our guy," BMC Racing president Jim Ochowicz said. "He's going in there alone to be our leader, and we'll have eight strong guys around him to make sure that job gets done."
Meanwhile, Talansky has been designated the leader of Garmin-Sharp.
"We've all been building the team for the Tour de France around Andrew from Day 1," said Jonathan Vaughters, the team's chief executive. "A lot of people earlier this year thought that was a little crazy, but we decided to take that approach."
Nobody thinks he's crazy anymore.
Starting the final stage of the Criterium du Dauphine, a major Tour warm-up, Talansky slipped into an early breakaway that Froome and Contador both missed. When he crossed the finish line, he realized he had wiped out his 39-second deficit and won the biggest race of his career.
Stamped himself as one of the Tour favorites, too.
"It's good to have expectations, it's good to have goals, but I'm a very big believer in realistic goals," Talansky said. "The goal is to really improve on last season's result. I ended up 10th last year. Go ride consistently, safely, strongly for three weeks, and if I do that the result will significantly improve."