Since Bob Stapleton took over the venerable T-Mobile squad and began tinkering with their old-world formula for success, High Road Sports a/k/a Team HTC-Columbia has evolved into something of a development machine, turning raw, green talent (along with some savvy vets) into a winning juggernaut that has left the Pro Tour in the dust two years running. But offseason departures of some treasured talents like Edvald Boasson Hagen and Thomas Lofkvist, and repeated rumors of a future Sky raid for Mark Cavendish, raised the question of whether the American-based team could keep all the young European talent it nurtures to cycling maturity. In fairness, this is a question for any team, and national identities are always fluid in cycling. But for all its effort in development it would seem sad to think of Stapleton grooming future champions for everyone else but the High Road folks to enjoy.
So Stapleton's latest talent haul included one rider who may be more important to the team's long-term outlook than any other: Tejay Van Garderen. The Montana native (now of Ft. Collins, CO) represents possibly the United States' best stage-racing talent coming to a Pro Tour event near you soon, and while the future is far from assured, that kind of success would mean a lot to the American(ish) HTC squad. Van Garderen has a long way to go by any measure, as the development of grand tour riders always takes time and patience, and nobody comes with guarantees of success in this sport.
But Van Garderen has made all the right moves so far: rising up with the US National Team based in Izegem, Belgium, before jumping to the Rabobank Continental Team, itself renowned for getting young riders ready for Pro Tour success. He's excelled at every stop too, national championships at the U17 level, a win in one of his first European events at the 2005 Axel Tour, bigger victories with Rabobank including the prestigious Circuito Montañés, and most recently second overall at this month's Presidential Tour of Turkey.
Last week I spoke to Van Garderen from his new home base in Lucca, Tuscany, as he was getting ready to head to his first running of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. We talked about his new team, new direction, and goals for both the short and long run. Below is that conversation, more or less unedited, in which Van Garderen walks us through life as an up-and-coming stage racer.
PdC: First I want to talk about your experience this season, obviously you made the big transition to HTC and the pro tour. What’s been the biggest difference in the races you’re doing now that you’re with the big boys?
Tejay: With Rabobank we got the chance to do a lot of 2.1 level races with some of the pros, like for instance I did Algarve last year and west flanders last year with Rabobank. But the difference this year I think is that we have different goals going into the race. This year our goal is to win and race at the front, whereas with Rabobank (the continental team, not the pro tour team) our goal was to just sit in, don’t do too much, you’re kind of above your level here, and just do what you can. We’d still try to win the lower level, like amateur races, 2.2 and whatnot, but with HTC it seems like no matter where we go we aim for success, and I think it’s a little bit different race style and race pressure. It’s been good though, they do a good job of not putting too much pressure on the younger guys.
Join us for much more on the flip...
Like most of the interviews I've done, it runs a bit long, and while I encourage you to read the whole thing, I've inserted some subject headers for people who prefer to skip around.
Getting Adjusted to the Pro Tour
PdC: Are you getting more comfortable with longer distances, races in the 200km range?
Tejay: Yeah, like I said last year I was already doing those sort of races. I think the distance isn’t normally the problem. I mean, I haven’t done a race like Liege-Bastogne-Liege yet where it’s like seven hours, full gas, and I may have a problem with that. But in the Tour of Turkey there were three days in a row that were over 200k, and you just need to eat more during the day.
PdC: So it’s more of an incremental change? So far your race schedule this year hasn’t been that different?
Tejay: Oh it has. The highest level race a continental team can do is a 2.1 but they’re also allowed to race 2.2s. I can’t race 2.2s anymore being Pro Tour, so when I said we were doing these kind of races last year I meant every now and then we’d have a chance to race at that level. Now we’re at that level all the time. So there’s a difference there. None of my races are easy anymore.
Coming from the Rabobank Continental Team it wasn’t as big of a shock as some people have because we get the chance to race at that level quite a bit, so it’s a smoother transition for people who come from that level.
PdC: Do you think your form is adjusting to the more regular, harder races?
Tejay: Yeah, I think I’ve started getting used to it, I have 30 race days right now, I still feel strong, still feel good. I just need a little bit more rest in between races. I feel like I’m adapting well.
PdC: Is your training a lot different this year?
Tejay: Yeah, last year I was living in Holland and this year I’m living in Tuscany. I think the training in Tuscany is better. If I wanted to do just a 2.5 hr ride in Holland, the place where I lived, it’s completely flat, windy, lots of traffic being close to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht, so it was just hard to get out there. Now it’s like I go on a two hour ride, it’s enjoyable, I can do a lot of climbing, there’s people around who can motorpace me. My training has been a lot more quality this year based on where I’m living, but I don’t think it’s changed much based on, you know, every year you tack on a little more as you develop but I don’t think it’s changed too drastically.
PdC: Are there teammates or other riders around to train with?
Tejay: Yeah, one of my teammates lives in the same town I live in, Lucca: Rasmus Guldhammer, the Danish kid. A couple more riders moved here, Bjorn Selander and Chad Beyer, of Radio Shack and BMC. There’s a ton of Danish guys, you’ve got like ten Saxo Bank Danish guys, Brian Vandborg from Liquigas. Some of the old retired pros like Michele Bartoli or Mario Cipollini, you can ride with them sometimes.
PdC: So not every English speaking rider has to move to Girona?
Tejay: Yeah (laughs). I don’t know why that’s become such a retreat for English speaking guys. I guess because Garmin has their setup there. You have a choice to live anywhere but everyone just goes to the same place, I wanted to do something different.
PdC: So are you off to Liege this weekend?
Tejay: Hopefully, it depends on what the airports are doing. [update: he made it.]
PdC: Assuming you make it, what’s your goal for the race?
Tejay: Yeah, it’s like I said before about the distance, I’ve never really done a race of that distance before, so maybe, I think just finishing it would be an accomplishment. I don’t have any illusions of grandeur of like being able to follow Frank Schleck, but I think if I can conserve energy and be in the wind as little as possible and be in good position, maybe finish in a good group. I don’t want to say numbers, like "top whatever." If I could finish in a good group that comes to the line, I’d be happy. Top ten would be out of the question, top twenty I would be amazed with, top forty would be reasonable I think. If I can do that, maybe next year I can set my goals a little higher, but now I’m just being realistic about it. Those races can be pretty crazy. [update: he finished in a perfectly decent group, 122nd, at 12'.]
PdC: Did you do the U23 LBL?
Tejay: I only did it as a first year.
PdC: So you’ve seen the climbs, but it’s been a while?
Tejay: Yeah, I’m a bit familiar with the area. I don’t know it super well; I actually know the Amstel Gold course pretty well from being with Rabobank and doing a few races there.
California On the Horizon
PdC: Other goals: do you have specific goals or themes for your development this year? You know, HTC has a reputation for bringing along young riders and kind of giving them chances to do well. Are you being directed more to races where you can get a result or places like LBL where they just want you to get exposed what it’s like, or a mix of the above?
Tejay: There is a great mix on this team and that’s why I think they’ve done such a great job of bringing along young guys. They put them in hard races and say, OK, there’s no pressure here, but they also give you a few lower level races, or, not lower level but like the Tour of Turkey. Yeah, it’s a 2.HC and a few big teams showed up but at the same time there’s Paris- Roubaix, Amstel Gold, Castilla y Leon, so like a lot of the bigger name riders would go to these bigger races, and Turkey was more like a training race. So that was a good chance for me to ride for GC. Then they’re also putting me in races like LBL and the Dauphine, races that are a super high level where you can’t expect too much, just see how you do and get the experience.
But the big goal for my season would definitely be the Tour of California. I want to go there and ride well, however that is, whether that is being a key team player or if I get in a lucky move and I end up going pretty far on GC or getting in a lucky break and going for a stage win. No matter what happens there I want to ride well, and that’s a really important goal for the team and for me personally.
PdC: Yeah, on the personal side, you’ve been in Europe for a long time, so it must be a big deal not just racing in the US, but in a really high profile race?
Tejay: Yeah, I think it’s a pretty cool opportunity for me. Yeah, I’ve been racing in Europe a lot, this is where the big racing happens and I’ve gotten a few good results at the amateur level and even the pro level, but I think a lot of the races I’ve done well at nobody in America has even heard of. (laughs) I think I have a bigger fan base of Dutch guys than Americans. So I think it’s a good opportunity for me.
PdC: Are you expecting family and friends to watch?
Tejay: Yeah, I think my girlfriend might come over and some of my friends might come over. My dad’s trying to finagle it with his work and get the time off, he’d love to come as well.
PdC: Do you have any sense from the team as to when they would put you in a grand tour?
Tejay: My goal is the Vuelta this year. That’s a big goal of mine, that’d be the dream. We’ll see, a lot of people want to do it as training for the world championships, so we’ll see. But I think they’re going to want to send one guy who’s gonna want to go well and finish. Even if they do send a sprint team there like I can even help in that respect too, pulling back breakaways. If I could do one and finish it this year, that would be really good for my development.
PdC: You’ve had some strong results already this year in both time trials and climbing stages. Between those two key disciplines which one are you most comfortable with right now?
Tejay: That’s a tough question. I think my strength comes more in day-to-day fitness. If it’s in the middle of a stage race and people’s legs are worn out and there’s a big summit finish, chances are I’ll do well. But if it’s just, for instance like the Mt Evans hill climb where you just start at the bottom and climb and that’s the race, I don’t think I’d do too well. I’ve always done really well in time trials that came in the middle of the race, but you look at the world championships, my track record is horrible. Like, in a one-day time trial I don’t really have the legs for it.
So, to say if I’m a climber or if I’m a time trialer, I don’t know, it just has to do more with my being able to recover in a stage race. Maybe that’ll come, I’m not saying I could never do the World Championships, that I’m not that kind of rider, but it always seems to be that my legs just come good after a few days of racing.
PdC: Longer term goals... speaking from a fan’s perspective we hear "he could be the next so-and-so." I know that athletes maybe don’t really think in that way. When you think about your future do you envision yourself in a few years or do you really try not to think too much beyond this year or beyond your next race?
Tejay: Of course I have dreams of the Tour... I don’t let myself get distracted by that because if you think too far ahead you’ll get discouraged and you’ll be like I really want to win the Tour someday but I’m suffering at this little race that no one’s ever heard of. So it just seems like it’s a long way off. But if you take it like one goal at a time, like this year I just want to get my feet wet with the Pro Tour and get established with the team and let them know that this is something I can do, maybe finish a grand tour. And then maybe next year do the Tour, and then maybe five years down the road I can be contending in it. But to say that I want to win the Tour seven times, I don’t think anyone’s ever going to do that again. But if I can just be a contender there, that’s definitely where I hope my career is going.
The Offseason Switch
PdC: Talking about your switch of teams, you have a pretty strong connection through family and experience to the Netherlands and that had a lot to do with choosing Rabobank, along with the fact that their development program is so good. So what made you switch to an American team? Was it a hard decision for you?
Tejay: It was a tough decision, yeah, for sure. I have a lot of friends on Rabobank, and I think the Continental team, they were really fair to me and really gave me my chance and put a lot of faith in me. But the problem was there were a total of five guys on that team last year that went to the Pro Tour. I mean, that team is just so talented, and the Pro Tour Rabobank only has maybe two spots to give, because you have a maximum of 30 guys on a team. So when there’s five guys who want to come up and you only have room for two guys... They kind of wanted to play the waiting game, like "well, it’s between you and this other guy, and maybe we should wait a little bit and see how the rest of the year goes; you’re riding well now but maybe you won’t be riding well later so we want to wait and see."
But in the meantime I had, you know, a few other teams giving me offers and talking to me, and they seemed really keen on signing me, like, tomorrow. So, if I were to wait and say I want to hear what Rabobank says, you know, maybe the other offers would go cold, so I just thought it was best to say I’ll take this one because it’s a really good team that’s done well with developing young riders. And it’s also king of doing a favor to some of the other guys on the continental team, to give them a chance to move up to the pro tour instead of me taking their slot when I had other offers.
And this team, you look at the young guys that they’ve brought up, Tony Martin, Boasson Hagen, Thomas Lofkvist, Mark Cavendish... the list goes on. So I figured this would be the best team for me to have my young years as a pro.
PdC: Yeah, they’re kind of a development legend at this point, but are there specific things that Columbia does that attracts and develops young riders? I mean, there are other teams out there that are successful in developing young riders, but are there specific things about how Columbia does it?
Tejay: Um, I haven’t really been on the other teams so I don’t know what they do, but the thing I think is unique about Columbia is that, it’s not like OK, we have our leader, say Michael Rogers for GC, so we’re going to put him in the wind tunnel, we’re going to give him the best equipment and the best whatever and everything is focused on him. Everyone gets that, everyone gets put in the wind tunnel and everyone gets the best wheels and everyone gets the sweet time trial bike and everyone gets SRMs, four different ones, one for the training bike, the race bike, the TT training bike and the TT bike. So I think the depth of the team is really good, instead of maybe in the past with T-Mobile where everything is based around Jan Ullrich. If you take what Jan Ullrich gets and you give that to everyone, the whole team just rises up to that level. Since we work really well as a team, I think that’s how we have success here.
PdC: OK, so Tour of Turkey. How bad were the roads?
Tejay: They were awful! [laughs]
PdC: Can you describe it a little bit? I mean, we all race on bad chip seal here in the states but it sounded like it was a whole lot worse than that.
Tejay: We ended up using 25mm tires and eight and a half bar pressure, and even then like there were golf ball-sized blisters on some people’s hands and golf ball-sized saddle sores!
PdC: So like seven days of Paris-Roubaix?
Tejay: I mean, I think for one day Paris-Roubaix would be worse, but if people had the choice they would rather suffer through one day in Paris-Roubaix than eight days on the Turkish roads. They were really bad. I mean, it wasn’t like normal cobbles where you ride, it’s super rough for a minute and then you can relax. It was just super rough the entire time. When you’re sitting in the draft in the peloton you’re still having to pedal the same amount that the guys on the front are pedaling. You can’t just draft and glide, you have to pedal hard the whole time. It was pretty brutal, my body got pretty shaken up there.
PdC: Well congratulations for surviving, and not only that but doing well.
Tejay: Yeah, thanks. I mean, other than the roads it was a great race. The organization was good, the weather was good, we were staying in nice hotels, the transfers were super easy, usually we just finished right at the door to the next hotel. Food was good. I would definitely go back, but I really wish they’d pave the roads first.
Growing Up Tejay
PdC: [laughing] Alright. Just a couple questions going further back in time. Your parents were involved in cycling? And no, I’m not confusing you with Taylor Phinney. Was your dad a professional cyclist?
Tejay: No, my dad was a cyclist, but he was like a club-level cyclist, cat 2. He started racing in Holland and moved here when he was 20 or so and then raced around California, just locally. he was definitely a racer but not pro level. But he definitely got me into it.
PdC: At what age?
Tejay: At what age did I start?
Tejay: Like, ten years old.
PdC: So around what age did you start training with a training plan?
Tejay: Um... probably eleven. When I was eleven I had a training plan but it was more just kind of a fun thing we were doing. Like, we’d go out and my dad and I would set up a time trial course, like 10k. We’d pretend it was the national championships, we’d go out and bring a trainer and warm up, and do the time trial. I’d try to set my personal best record. And written into the training program was that I had to run a mile for PE class and that would be my workout for the day. Or maybe ride for 45 minutes and then go to soccer practice. [laughs] That was my training schedule.
PdC: When did you first go to Europe to race? I know about the Rabobank experience but I don’t know what you did prior to that.
Tejay: When I was my racing age 17 I went to Belgium to race with the junior national team. I did that 17, 18, and 19 I raced with the under-23 national team, and after that I went to Rabobank.
PdC: OK. Did you have success right away with the junior team?
Tejay: The junior team I had success in the time trials right away, I won the time trial at this race the Tour of Axel. But coming from Montana I never had to race in fields with more than 10-12 guys, so fighting for position, I was terrible. My second year I think picked up how to do it pretty quick and then I started getting some results and winning a little but. Yeah, I think the learning curve was pretty steep for me because I was never used to riding with more than ten guys.
PdC: You’re a pretty large presence on Twitter by cyclist standards, you’re one of the more active guys out there. Is this just a fun thing, is this to stay in touch with being far away?
Tejay: I think really it’s just something to do when I’m bored. [laughs] I kind of tweet in waves, like if I’m at a stage race and there’s a lot of hotel time just waiting around for dinner, I start tweeting. Sometimes in the airport I start tweeting. But then when I’m at home and I start spending time with friends or family, and my girlfriend and my day’s more filled up and training and I’m tired, chances are you’re not going to hear much from me. But yeah, it’s fun.
PdC: Has the team said anything more about having a presence on social media? This is a sponsorship driven sport and social media are a big way to get the message out there. Are Columbia specifically interested in this or do they not really care?
Tejay: They definitely want us to talk to the media and want us to have personalities, but you have to watch what you say. You say the wrong thing to the wrong person that can be bad for sponsors. But if you’re a big personality like Mark Cavendish and people respond to you then they want you doing more.
PdC: When I first watched cycling in the days of LeMond we always heard it was difficult for young American riders to go to Europe because of the distance. Do you think that’s still true or is that problem going away for young American riders?
Tejay: I’m not going to say it’s easy right now but it’s certainly a lot easier than it was back then. I mean, back then there was no program that those guys were signing up for. They were just finding host houses and working jobs to buy food and then trying to find time to train, getting into races, booking their own flights and whatever. Now the main language of the peloton is English, everyone speaks English. You have all these English teams and programs, it can ease you into that sort of lifestyle. You start off with the national team and you’re staying in Belgium but you’re staying with Americans, and they take you to race, book your flights. Then hopefully you get on a team that speaks English. And especially with cellphones and internet that helps. But there’s always going to be that language barrier, trying to get things set up like finding an apartment, it can be difficult. But certainly not as difficult in the days of Greg LeMond.
PdC: How’s your Italian?
Tejay: Not good. I really haven’t started learning that. I’m actually fluent in Dutch from being with Rabobank those years, but my Italian, I’ve been kind of lazy with that.
PdC: Last question: so in a lot of things success is a mix of both talent and desire, and your talent for the sport of cycling seems to be pretty well documented. On a one to ten scale, how would you rate your desire?
Tejay: It’s a twelve. I mean, like I said I started this from when I was ten years old. I’ve watched Lance and I’ve watched Paolo Bettini and all these big champions, so it’s been a dream of mine for a long time to enter the Pro Tour. So now that I’m here, it’s easy to be like, I can get comfortable. But that hasn’t been the case. I still do races and I’m frustrated when I lose. It’s really hard for me to be really happy about a result. You talk to people who know me, when I’m racing and even if it’s a great result and I’m talking about it, it doesn’t sound like I’m all that happy about it. I can always improve and I can always see myself getting better and that’s what I really hope to do.
That last question -- sometimes in interviews the one I think won't go over well winds up being the most interesting. Desire is obviously a fundamental element of success in cycling. You and I know it, so obviously an actual pro rider does too. There is simply too much work to do en route to victory for anyone to survive on less than full commitment. So when you ask a question like this, you're sure to get a positive answer, whether it's true or not. You have to look for more subtle cues to judge the answer, and even then... who knows.
I was struck by how quickly and decisively Van Garderen responded. I can't look into anyone's soul, but what I heard was a guy for whom the will to win is simply not a question. Whether he keeps it, whether he channels that desire into effective development, whether time and luck and everything else is on his side... that's for Van Garderen and his team to sort out. But at this point in his young career, America's next big stage racing threat is putting all the pieces together.
Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport