It’s taken a decade, but an American is finally riding out of Lance Armstrong’s shadow and putting the U.S. back in contention at the world’s biggest bike race
At the start of this year’s Tour de France, all the talk was of a four-way showdown between reigning Tour champ Vincenzo Nibali, 2013 winner Chris Froome, 2007 and 2009 victor Alberto Contador, and 2013 runner-up Nairo Quintana.
Froome, now in yellow, is the only one who has made good on that promise. And halfway through the race, 26-year-old Tejay van Garderen looks to be the rider with the most potential for unseating the Brit.
Van Garderen, who calls Aspen, Colorado, home and has twice finished fifth overall at the Tour (2012 and 2014), has shown a consistency through the first 11 stages of the Tour that belies his relative youth.
He was on the right side of the echelon splits in Stage 2 that dealt serious time setbacks to Nibali and Quintana. He was the only rider able to closely shadow Chris Froome on the sharp finishing climb of the Mur de Huy on Stage 3, where Contador flailed. And on Stage 9’s team time trial, he captained his powerhouse BMC team past Team Sky to a very narrow—but important—stage victory.
Though Van Garderen gave up significant ground to Froome on the first mountain stage Tuesday, most of his rivals lost even more time, and the American did well to defend his second place. Following a stalemate on Stage 11, Van Garderen goes into the final day in the Pyrenees, which will tackle four categorized climbs including the fabled ascent of Plateau de Beille, in second place overall, 2:52 seconds behind Froome. Quintana sits in third at 3:09. Contador is sixth at 4:04. And Nibali is 11th at 7:47.
It’s tempting to look at those time gaps as insurmountable, especially with Team Sky putting a stranglehold on the race and Froome visibly stronger than the rest of the field. But with no fewer than six uphill stage finishes still to come, there’s everything still to race for.
The big gaps to Contador, Nibali, and many others could play into van Garderen’s favor, as the race could become more explosive as riders make big moves to try and claw back time, like Contador did in the 2012 Vuelta a España. And with Froome in the pole position for so long, the weight of defending might get heavy for Team Sky, as it did in 2013, providing opportunities for the opposition. The American will surely take heart in the fact that he outgunned Froome, at least temporarily, last month during the Dauphiné.
Of course, van Garderen has no easy task ahead if he hopes to overhaul Froome. He will not only have to match the Brit, but he’ll also have to find a way to outpace or outsmart him—or hope that Froome has a bad day. Meanwhile, there are still many riders threatening to push the American out of his second place, including Quintana, an able climber, and even Contador, who can never be counted out.
But if van Garderen remains consistent, he has his best chance ever of making his first podium in Paris. And, with at little luck, the top step isn’t out of the question.