Pundits are talking about the EF Education First recruit not because of his current standing on the overall but his changed demeanour.
Van Garderen assumed the yellow leader’s jersey in South Lake Tahoe on Monday, ironically the place he lost it to title winner Egan Bernal (Ineos) last season. He kept it today after EF Education First controlled the peloton and allowed Remi Cavagna (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) to take a solo victory from the breakaway.
In South Lake Tahoe van Garderen had tucked into a sandwich wrap as he sat at the centre of a raised, long table while an MC introduced him to journalists as the new race leader. The 30-year-old ate with relaxed shoulders, the lines on his calm face completely smoothed out under a traditional cap emblazoned with sponsor logo.
Van Garderen cracked a joke at Stage 2 winner Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), the Dane he initially thought would have the yellow jersey now sat snugly around his own bony shoulders.
“What happened?” he tongue-in-cheek asked Asgreen sat to his left.
“It was quite a surprise, but I’m thrilled and honoured to represent yellow.”
Van Garderen met questions about his pre-race standing and aims at this year’s mountainous edition, which doesn’t include a time trial that would be advantageous to him, also with a light-hearted chattiness and boyish nationalism.
“I didn’t read any headlines about me. I don’t know if there was any. I’ve been too busy following the NBA playoffs. Now that my Denver Nuggets are gone, I might tune into cycling news a little bit more,” he said.
Earlier on the winner’s podium van Garderen had encouraged the crowd gathered in a way only Americans can, with brash but inclusive sentiment, to loud applause.
It was all a stark contrast in composure and nuance to the man who two years ago appeared more like a caged and threatened animal in front of a press pack that alluded to reports he was in a ‘rut’.
“Great to see @EFprocycling and Tejay on top of things today. The kid deserves it. He’s endured a lot of criticism and hate the last few years. Makes me happy to support him out of the muck,” EF Education First general manager Jonathan Vaughters tweeted following Stage 2.
Van Garderen has a fresh start at Vaughters’ stable following a seven-year tenure at the now-defunct BMC where he was perhaps victim to his own potential.
When he signed at BMC, van Garderen was fashioned but never realised as a successor to Tour de France champion Cadel Evans. He endured heartbreak at Grand Tours with misfortunes from injuries to hunger flats spoiling promise, and then found himself 2IC to Richie Porte when the Australian arrived in 2016.
The US-based family man marked success at BMC – a stage win at the 2017 Giro d’Italia, three team time trial triumphs at the Vuelta a España, two USA Pro Cycling Challenge caps and one at the 2013 Tour of California. In the eyes of the international media however, van Garderen has more often than not been weighed against his touted possibility rather than present capability and so fallen short of expectation.
It reached tantamount on season debut at the 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour where van Garderen amid an enclave of reporters had sat square and rigid in an armchair, his answers to questions short and defensive. It was an uncomfortably awkward experience as the coffee and conversation about his few results and effective Tour de France demotion to Porte turned cold.
"I'm not lacking love for bike racing. That's never the issue. I haven't thought about taking a year off Grand Tours,” he’d said then, and answered later with the Giro stage win.
Van Garderen has been in his current position at the Tour of California before and it’d be premature to call a result now. Maybe it’s just the US that brings out the best in him, or maybe Vaughters is right. In any case, the “muck” does appear to have cleared off for a new chapter to be written on empty pages.
“I don’t feel pressure, I’m always excited to come here. I’ve raced well every year I’ve come here and even won it one year. It’s the motivation being here in front of my home crowd,” van Garderen said.
“Everyone always says you’re only as good as your last race. Today was a good day, I had a couple of good results in Paris-Nice, but I don’t think this changes much. We’ll be happy, celebrate and move on tomorrow.
“We want to race aggressive and make the race happen. Now that we have the jersey we might get stuck in a more defensive role, but even then we still have cards to play. If other teams decide to be aggressive, we can also send guys up the road.”