Waking up on the Tour’s first rest day in Pau sitting pretty in second place, Tejay van Garderen is now a genuine Tour de France contender. The young American hasn’t put a foot wrong through the opening nine stages and trails Sky’s Chris Froome by just 12 seconds.
Froome himself has said the BMC leader is currently his biggest rival, and van Garderen has admitted to being ‘irritated’ by his exclusion from The Big Four - the group of pre-race favourites that includes Froome, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana
Defending champion Nibali struggled on the Mur de Bretagne, while Quintana lost out in the crosswinds; all the while van Garderen was sitting at the front of the race perfectly protected by his team mates and matching Froome pedal stroke for pedal stroke, save the last few hundred metres on the Mur de Huy.
Bouyed by his performances in one of the toughest opening weeks in recent Tour history and victory in the team time trial, van Garderen is now showing the confidence to demand inclusion in the elite group.
"Those guys have that tag, The Fab Four, which is getting a little irritating hearing that. I'm not offended not to be named in that. All those guys in the Fab Four have won grand tours." Van Garderen said.
"If I'm not spoken about as much as those guys are, I understand. That doesn't mean I'm going to be intimidated by them, and [that] I'm not here to race against them or try to beat them," he said. "The Backstreet Boys had five guys.”
Not that van Garderen is unproven at the Tour. At the age of 23 he finished fifth behind Bradley Wiggins in 2012 having initially gone to support defending champion Cadel Evans. He then equalled that result in 2014 behind Nibali.
However, van Garderen hasn’t won a grand tour, and has never won an individual stage. Meanwhile The Big Four have won 12 grand tours between them.
During the rest day in Pau today, the press attendance for the BMC conference filled just half the space that it had occupied for Froome three hours earlier. It seemed that even few American journalists - now deprived of a winner since 1990 - arrived to quiz van Garderen on his impressive ride so far. But according to the Colorado native, that's the way he prefers it.
"It's better to fly under the radar. I'm not offended," he said. "We all started from zero when the Tour began in Utrecht."
Van Garderen often refers to the Tour as a marathon. He said that while he would take opportunities, he would mostly let those further down, like Nibali and Quintana, attack in the Pyrenees.
"My strength is not being able to fly up the road and drop Contador and Quintana, it's my consistency. I have the feeling they will have to jump and jump, but if can stay calm, I think my consistency will become a factor the third week," he said.
"The real race is going to happen in the last week. You have to keep your powder dry until then, until La Toussuire or Alpe d'Huez."
The Tour resumes on Tuesday with stage ten and the first of three mountain stages in the Pyrenees. The riders tackle 167km from Tarbes to La Pierre-Saint-Martin, a stage that features three small fourth category climbs before the first summit finish at the top of the 15.3km Col de Soudet.
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