The opening blows in the fight for the yellow jersey will be cast here in Yorkshire. Tejay van Garderen is a man with designs on making a statement in 2014. Nick Westby reports.
Following Lance Armstrong is an unenviable task.
Supplanting Chris Froome is a challenge of equal difficulty, yet they are the twin prospects facing Tejay van Garderen, the latest off the conveyor belt from the United States to do battle for a place in the Tour de France’s rich history.
Armstrong’s name casts a shadow over the recent past of the race while Froome’s is the dominant present.
Van Garderen, at 25, hopes to be its bright future.
This will be his fourth Tour de France but his first as a team leader. Even the man he has succeeded in that role at BMC Racing, Cadel Evans, is a cyclist who in 2011 wrote his own chapter in the ever-expanding story of the world’s greatest race.
Everywhere he looks, Van Garderen sees big shoes to fill.
He has made strides ever since making his debut in the great race that year, becoming the first American to wear the King of the Mountains jersey since Greg LeMond.
Twelve months later, he finished fifth overall and won the Best Young Rider classification. Form deserted him last year, but the Washington resident of Dutch descent is fifth favourite to win the yellow jersey this month after recovering from last year’s setback by winning the US Pro Challenge and finishing second in the Tour of Oman at the start of 2014.
He also earned a stage win against Froome and Alberto Contador in the mountains in the Tour of Catalunya.
“That stage win was a big confidence boost,” said Van Garderen, who finished in the recent Criterium du Dauphine against many of his fellow yellow jersey contenders.
“It showed I can fight hard in the mountains and that I have a good time-trial to back it up. For me, it’s always about trying not to lose time and then making my move in the time-trial to go for the knockout punch.
“I’ve shown I’ve progressed as a rider and that I’m a complete rider. That bodes well.”
Van Garderen insists he has learned from last year’s Tour disappointment, pointing to a solid base of winter training as evidence of his greater strength.
He had a setback when he abandoned on stage one of Paris-Nice in the Spring, but bounced back quickly in Catalunya and Pais Vasco.
“I didn’t have any trouble last season then all of a sudden everything unravelled at the Tour and it’s the worst time to have that happen,” he said.
“You want to be at your best in a Tour de France and this year I feel I’m ready.
“I feel it’s always easier to come in hot and pull back a little afterwards than it is to come in sluggish and try to make up that work.
“Because sometimes you can leave it too late.
“So the run-up to the Tour has been all about keeping those levels high and just tweaking them.”
As a yellow jersey contender, Van Garderen’s appearances this year have been sparse, with his sprinkling of stage races interrupted by a large period of altitude training in Aspen.
He has reconnoitred a number of the stages, particularly in the Alps – though not in Yorkshire – and has built his season around a bid for glory at the Tour de France.
This may be his first as a team leader, but he is already talking like the man calling the shots for the Swiss team, with his preparation for stage five on the cobbles of northern France underlining his developing big-stage mentality.
“My goal on that stage will be to not lose any time,” he added. “I’m not racing against Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara that day, I’m racing against Chris Froome and Alberto Contador.
“My chances on a stage like that are not any worse than theirs.
“Froome and Contador may be the two five-star favourites but there’s no let-up of competition in this Tour.
“For me the solid foundation is done, it’s now just a matter of not having any bad luck.”