DENVER, Colorado — The rain came down, the leaders were muddied and shivering. Dropped riders caught back up and came to the front. BMC Racing riders harangued officials, but their case was unheard. The peloton was neutralized, as Tejay van Garderen and his teammates had gone for broke toward Mt. Crested Butte.
Van Garderen was visibly annoyed, but it seemed to end there. He finished the stage and finished third, putting 10 seconds on Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp). Van Garderen stayed calm and composed, and this race was never really in doubt, from Monarch Pass to the slope of the Vail time trial. The Aspen resident was measured and strong and comfortable as a leader, as the man to beat.
“When I think back to 2011, I think I’ve definitely matured a lot since then. I got into the yellow jersey on the stage into Aspen and I didn’t get any sleep that night. This year I’ve been staying more relaxed, getting a full eight hours every night,” van Garderen said after he cemented his overall win in Vail on Sunday. In Denver, he looked at the Monarch Mountain stage, which he won and fended off a feisty Danielson as the defining moment. “I don’t win that many races, and when I do, it’s usually in a time trial. It’s not that often I get to put my hands in the air. And when I was crossing the finish line, it came to me, to kiss the ring, to show the tattoo I got for my daughter. I thought, ‘I never get a chance to do this, so I’m going to give a shout-out to my family.’”
It was as loud a shout as one can send in the sport on such a day. In one ride he showed poise and strength — a truly hard combination to get right when riders are at their limits and situations change instantly.
“He’s definitely getting better in that, you look at him a few years ago, having some bad days, making some mistakes. And you look at him now and he’s just unbeatable in this race. It seems like he’s really maturing as an athlete and becoming a real deal race winner,” Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies sport director Jonas Carney said. “Hopefully he can turn that into some grand tour results. I know he was fifth [at the Tour de France] this year. He’s knocking on the door. He’s got a lot of years left. … A performance like this, I don’t know how he could have possibly have done this race better. He’s just dominated.”
Domestically, van Garderen has been great the last year and a half. He won the Amgen Tour of California in 2013 and the last two editions of the USA Pro Challenge. Abroad, he’s had a tougher go, though he still belongs with the best names in the sport. He’s earned two fifth-place finishes at the Tour de France in the last three years. Danielson, who finished as runner-up here in Colorado, marveled at van Garderen’s poise.
“My whole career, one of my weaknesses was reacting during the race to other people and kind of self-doubt,” Danielson said. “And just watching Tejay through the Tour de France, really that stood out to me, where he had so many problems, so many reasons to give up and quit, so many excuses to bail out of that dream to finish on the podium. And he should have finished on the podium, you know? And to fight for the top 5 and get that, that’s pretty impressive … I’m 36 and still learning a lot. And this guy — I definitely aspire to be calm and confident like that, no matter what the circumstances are.”
Inside his own team, he’s still in progress, though he’s making tremendous leaps. “The longer he’s in the sport the more he’s going to learn. The more he learns, the better he’s going to get,” BMC general manager Jim Ochowicz said. As a leader, van Garderen is assertive, but not outright bossy.
“The way he communicates is pretty much a normal tone. Quiet, not excited. Even in the race you don’t see him screaming and yelling and moving his arms around. And he doesn’t panic,” Ochowicz said. “I see him as an easy character to work with, but he certainly is not a softie. If you screw it up he’s not afraid to confront you with it.”
The time difference in Colorado read at 1:32 to the good for van Garderen over Danielson, though it never felt that close here in the Centennial State. From the Garmin car, van Garderen appeared exactly what he was.
“I think he seems a little bit less nervous. And I think he seems a little bit more willing to maintain a good advantage and manage it without risking going overboard,” Garmin director Charly Wegelius said. “I think he seems a little bit more conservative about using his energy and a more mature rider.”
Van Garderen is now three for three in the big American races since 2013. What’s next, only the next year will tell.