Tejay van Garderen leads "third wave" of U.S. riders in Tour de France

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PARIS (AP) -- Eight Americans are competing in this year's Tour de France on four different teams, close to the record 10 U.S. riders that competed in last year's Tour.

At 23, Montana-native Tejay van Garderen is the youngest of the contingent and the rider who exemplifies what cycling insiders describe as the "third wave" of U.S. riders, with some calling them the most promising generation of Americans to ever challenge the sport's best on the roads of Europe.

Riding for the BMC Racing team of defending Tour de France champion Cadel Evans means van Garderen will have a clear mission when this year's Tour begins Saturday in Liege, Belgium.

"There's one goal only in the Tour, that's to defend Cadel's title," van Garderen said in a phone interview this month before the Criterium du Dauphine, a weeklong race in the French Alps.

That puts a lot of responsibility on the young American, as he'll be expected to sacrifice his aspirations to help Evans through the difficult stages over the Alps and Pyrenees.

It's a role he's familiar with from having ridden his first Tour last year in support of British sprint sensation and reigning world champion Mark Cavendish. Van Garderen even wore the polka dot jersey given to the best climber for one stage, something no American had ever done.

Van Garderen is among the subjects of an upcoming film, "Path to the Pros," which looks at the rise of the new generation of U.S. racers. Brian Smallwood, the film's Emmy-award-winning director and a former professional cyclist, says van Garderen has what it takes to win the Tour de France one day.

A big reason why van Garderen and other young U.S. riders like Taylor Phinney (22), Tyler Farrar (28) and Ben King (23) have broken into cycling's top ranks, Smallwood says, is a strategic move a decade ago by USA Cycling to start sending a large pools of riders to Europe for several weeks at a time.

"They get full support and are encouraged to immerse themselves in the culture, learn the language, the food and the lay of the land for racing and training," Smallwood said.

There are even two "American houses" for promising young U.S. riders to live and train at in Europe, one in Belgium and one in Italy.

Van Garderen and Farrar, a sprinter on U.S. team Garmin-Barracuda, are the only two of this new generation competing in this year's Tour. The rest of the race's American contingent will be made up of veterans, including van Garderen's teammate George Hincapie, racing in a record-setting 17th Tour de France.

Hincapie, who's announced he'll retire from pro racing after this year at 39, is part of the previous generation of American racers who are all now nearing 40. Besides Hincapie, that generation also includes Levi Leipheimer (38), Chris Horner (40), and Christian Vande Velde (36), all of whom are riding in this year's Tour.

That group of riders, most of whom raced alongside Lance Armstrong during his seven-consecutive Tour de France titles, has set a high bar for the new group of 20-somethings. Notably, they've placed at least one American in the Tour's top 10 every year dating to 1998, when the now-retired Bobby Julich placed third overall.

These veterans are playing an important mentoring role for the young riders coming up, van Garderen said.

"In the 2010 Dauphine, I was fighting to keep my third place overall on the Alpe d'Huez and I got in a little trouble," van Garderen remembered. Horner, racing on rival team RadioShack, rode up alongside and helped pace van Garderen up the climb's final punishing switchbacks. "He really helped me out," van Garderen remembered, and for no other reason than the desire to help a young American rider.

Van Garderen names Peter Stetina, a 24-year-old from Boulder, Colo., and Andrew Talansky, a 23-year-old from North Carolina, as other likely future grand tour contenders. Stetina was in the top 10 young riders in this year's Giro d'Italia, and Talansky finished second overall in the Tour de Romandie behind Tour favorite Bradley Wiggins of England. Neither American is racing in this year's Tour, but van Garderen is certain they will be among the U.S. riders competing for the yellow jersey in the years to come.

The Bozeman, Mont., native is seen as a contender for the Tour's white jersey for best rider under 26, after winning that jersey in this year's Paris-Nice race. Van Garderen is adamant that his only goal is to keep Evans in yellow. But with his proven climbing ability and impressive time trialing ability showcased during a runner-up finish behind four-time world champion Fabian Cancellara in last year's Tour of Switzerland, American cycling fans have every reason to keep an eye on the rider from Bozeman.