Tejay van Garderen “is in the flow,” a magical, elusive place where things start to click in a bike race. When the luck starts falling your way, when the legs feel light in the pedals, and the confidence grows by the kilometer.
That’s the assessment of BMC Racing sporting manager Allan Peiper as van Garderen pedals into the final decisive week of the Tour.
“He’s confident in himself, he’s balanced, he’s focused … he’s in the flow,” Peiper told VeloNews after Sunday’s wild ride into Nimes. “You can’t order that. It comes by different circumstances.
“‘Being in the flow’ is a different place … after four crashes and losing a bit of time, GC-wise, he might have taken a mental blow, but he’s come through that even stronger. He got some inner strength out of it, and he’s moved on.”
Indeed, after a rough-and-tumble start to the Tour, van Garderen’s confidence is on the rise. After surviving two harrowing weeks of racing and battling through a minor bout of bronchitis, the BMC captain enters the final mountain stages with his podium dreams fully intact.
Van Garderen is fifth overall, 5;49 behind an untouchable Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). But he’s only 59 seconds from third-place Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), and 1:12 from second-place Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Peiper said BMC is refusing to fall into the trap of assuming that a podium place is assured. Facing three tough climbing stages over the Pyrénées, the team realizes anything can happen before arriving to the long time trial in Bergerac, which should play into van Garderen’s favor.
“It’s a war of attrition, and the last three days in the Pyrénées, we’ll see who is worthy of the podium,” Peiper said. “We’re not thinking about the time trial yet. We’ve got three hard stages ahead of us in the Pyrénées, and the most important thing is to take it day by day, and taking nothing for granted.”
BMC rallied around van Garderen in the final hour of racing in Sunday’s windy, potentially explosive stage across the Rhone Valley to carry his fifth-place GC position into the final rest day Monday.
“It was looking like today was going to be a sprinters’ day, but the wind and the rain made it a day when you had to be mentally switched on,” van Garderen said. “I am glad the rest day is tomorrow. I just want to mentally recover — do a little face time with the family. Today was no mental recovery. So it is all about taking advantage of tomorrow.”
Watching van Garderen’s performance with growing satisfaction is Peiper, who took over the team’s sport director staff last year following the departure of longtime director John Lelangue.
So far through this Tour, Peiper has been hanging in the background, letting his lead sport director staff of Yvon Ledanois, Max Sciandri, and Valerio Piva handle the day-to-day strategy, decision-making, and race-day tactical calls.
But Peiper was instrumental in making the decision to fully back van Garderen’s candidacy to lead BMC for the Tour, and redirect 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans toward a push for the Giro.
So far, that decision is paying dividends. Van Garderen has stepped up as team captain, and is posting strong performances that only fuel the team’s confidence going into the final week.
“There is no question about him leading the team. It’s been a natural progression over the last couple of years; winning California and Colorado last year, he was fifth in the Tour a few years ago, he’s done all the pieces, it’s getting the jigsaw together,” Peiper said. “Maybe the jigsaw isn’t right this year with some of the crashes, but there will be a time when we get the pieces 100 percent right.”
As Peiper mentioned, the team is trying to stay focused on the day-to-day rigors of racing, and not look too far ahead. But it’s clear that if van Garderen can stay where he is on GC, he has a very good chance of finishing on the final podium.
Van Garderen estimated he could take at least one minute on French climbers Bardet and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), fourth at 43 seconds ahead of van Garderen. It’s not unreasonable to think that van Garderen could also catapult ahead of Valverde to finish second overall.
“He’s in a good place, the team’s excited. We’ve brought him to the place that he needed to be, and the sport directors have done well with their directions. Now we can race the rest of the Tour,” Peiper said. “At the moment it’s all moving in the right direction.”
A turning point came in the Vosges. Van Garderen had crashed four times; once in the UK, twice in the stage across the cobblestones, and a fourth, yet more brutal impact on the road to Nancy in stage 7.
The next day, van Garderen stayed with the final surges from Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Nibali at Gérardmer. Two days later, at Belles Filles, he battled to sixth in the stage, just 22 seconds behind Nibali. That’s when van Garderen proved to himself and the team he could stay with the best.
“One big surprise was after his fourth crash [in Nancy],” said Peiper. “From what I know of Tejay, maybe he was a bit nervous about where he was, but after the first mountain stage, he proved he was there, and since then, I’ve seen him grow. His confidence and mental state and stature … I’ve known Tejay quite a while, and I’ve never seen him like this. And the boys pick it up as well, and that’s a good sign for the coming big days.”
The building blocks have been in place for a long time, and now that van Garderen is “in the flow,” Peiper and the rest of the team believe that anything is possible.