You could be forgiven for not paying the Tour of California a lot of attention in the past week. After all, the Giro is on, and after such an enthralling first 9 days of the race, who wouldn't want to turn their attention to Italy where the GC race was deeper and racing more aggressive? But, in the shadow of Italy something happened that is remarkable mostly because it has taken this long to happen - Tejay van Garderen, the young and ascendant stage race star on BMC, finally won a stage race in the professional ranks.
Now, van Garderen has won stage races before - as a U23 rider. In 2010, he ascended to the professional ranks and promptly finished third in the Critérium du Dauphiné, among the highest rated stage races outside of the grand tours. The next year he finished second in the Volta ao Algarve, third in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and fifth in the Tour of California. Most memorably, van Garderen assumed a leadership role in last year's Tour de France after defending champion Cadel Evans faltered, finishing fifth overall. Yet, despite finishing fifth in the biggest stage race in the world, Tejay has not managed to win a race of smaller calibre yet.
In fact, van Garderen has almost become more notable for those times where he has faltered and lost leadership of a race or otherwise underwhelmed than for the strength and consistency of his results. In the 2012 Tour of California, he appeared in position to take leadership of the race after the Stage 5 time trial, sitting just 34 seconds behind David Zabriskie, a level down in climbing ability. Instead, van Garderen had an implosion of sorts on the summit finish atop Mount Baldy, finishing the race in fourth overall. In Paris Nice earlier that year, he had a jour sans on Stage 5 of Paris - Nice, dropping from third to sixth on GC. Even Thomas Voeckler out-climbed van Garderen that day, a feat no follower of the sport would have seen coming.
When a rider has such apparent bad luck in stage races, those inevitable jour sans, one begins to wonder why they cannot pull it together for a whole race, and in fact if they ever will. Leadership of a race is stressful, especially when as young and talented as van Garderen is. Mind, and not legs, often leads to days of surprisingly bad performances. We ask if a rider has, mentally, the ability to take leadership of a race. Many questioned whether van Garderen would continue to improve or simply stay at the level he has shown, at least in the foreseeable future.
Last week, he finally won, shedding the monkey that has been on his back for the past two years. The field at California was not deep, so his victory does not show signs of physical improvement. Instead, it might show Tejay is becoming more comfortable with the idea of leading a team, directing older and very talented riders to do his bidding, and having confidence that he will be able to pull off the eventual victory. If one paid close attention, it was possible to notice a change in tone in his post-race interviews after the final decisive stage on Saturday and the race's conclusion on Sunday - he seemed more relaxed. And since confidence has never been lacking for the young rider, perhaps this is what he needed most.
Will van Garderen win the Tour de France this year, or next? Not likely, not with with Alberto Contador and Christopher Froome racing, among others. But could he pull on a yellow jersey at the Dauphiné this year, or in Paris-Nice next year? I will find it a lot harder to bet against him now.