By Austin Murphy
July 20, 2012
American Tejay van Garderen (right), with BMC team leader Cadel Evans, is in the running to win the white jersey for the best young rider.

Flashback to last Tuesday's Team Sky rest day press conference: Despite the insistence of one Sky spokesman that "you ask everyone on the team questions, not just Brad," all but two of the 20-or-so queries were directed at Wiggins.

The other Sky guys were probably unhappy with the situation. But none did a worse job disguising his displeasure, his boredom, his desire to be anywhere else in the world, than Mark Cavendish, who tends to wear his heart on his sleeve, and whose frustration has, at times, seemed palpable at this Tour. The best sprinter in a generation, the Manx Missile has spent much of the last 2 ½ weeks in his silo. With the yellow jersey to defend -- Bradley Wiggins will most likely wrap this race up on Sunday -- Team Sky couldn't be bothered to set Cavendish up for sprint finishes.

The freak who'd taken 20 Tour stages in the past four years has but a single victory in this race -- and that was way back in Stage 2. Since then he'd been marking time as one of Wiggins's manservants, riding tempo, fetching water bottles, even ushering his liege up the early stages of a recent climb. But on Friday into Brive-la-Gaillarde, with Wiggins in the mood to dole out some payback, the Sky guys got on front to chase down the breakaway. Wiggo himself escorted the Missile to within 300 meters of the finish, as if to say, "Thanks, Cav."

Cavendish obliterated his opponents in the sprint, in the process serving up a concise rebuttal to suggestions that his relatively quiet Tour boded ill for his Olympic chances (The men's road race is one week from today).

One of the subplots of this Tour is the extent to which talented riders have been forced to hide their lamp under a bushel, for the good of the team. Chris Froome was in danger of rupturing a vertebrae in his neck, because he so frequently jerked his neck around at Wiggins in the closing kilometers of yesterday's mountain finish. While the two were communicating, Froome was showing that world that, had he so chosen in the moment, he could have dropped his boss.

Another cyclist riding for the good of the team is Tejay van Garderen, the 23-year-old from Bozeman, Mont., whose emergence has been one of the biggest surprises of this Tour. Coming in, van Garderen's only job coming in was to pace team leader and defending Tour champion Cadel Evans up the climbs, ride tempo in front of him, bring him water, keep him out of the wind.

But something unexpected and a little embarrassing happened as the race unfolded. After beating his boss in the first two time trials, van Garderen also appeared to be clearly stronger in the mountains, having to tap the brakes every so often to avoid pulling away from the 35-year-old Aussie. With Evans losing ground to the leaders on the Alp called La Toussuire in Stage 11, van Garderen stayed beside his captain, helping to stanch the bleeding.

When Evans cracked again on the Peyresourde in Stage 16, team management had seen enough. Director John Lelangue instructed Amael Moinard and Marcus Burghardt to pace him back, or, failing that, ride alongside him looking suitably downcast. Conspicuously not falling back from the yellow jersey group was van Garderen, who couldn't quite hold Wiggins' wheel -- he finished 58 adrift of the Brit -- but crossed the line nearly four minutes ahead of Evans. The Aussie definitively lost the Tour that day. On the bright side for BMC, van Garderen tightened his grasp on the maillot blanc, awarded to the Tour's best young rider.

Asked before Stage 17 if he'd surprised himself with his strength in this Grand Boucle, van Garderen allowed, "Yeah, definitely." In two previous grand tours -- he rode the Vuelta a Espana two years ago and last year's Tour de France -- "your body starts giving out in the third week." This time, the opposite is happening. With many of his elders in the peloton limping towards Paris, TVG still has pop in his legs. After moving from seventh to sixth in the general classification after Stage 16 (leapfrogging Evans in the process), he bumped up to No. 5 after dropping Spain's Haimar Zubeldia in the Tour's final mountain stage. While he's got no realistic shot at the podium, van Garderen could move up to fourth if he stomps Saturday's 53.5km time trial. (He trails Jurgen van den Broeck by 2:37.)

Regardless, he is poised to post the best finish by an American since Lance Armstrong took third in 2009.

His emergence, and the success of other young Americans like Taylor Phinney and Andrew Talansky, represent a changing of the guard in USA cycling. With graybeard Levi Leipheimer (38) and Chris Horner (40) fighting gamely but in vain to crack the top 10; with 39-year-old George Hincapie contesting his 17th and final Tour; with their former teammate, Armstrong, in a pitched battle with USADA to save his reputation, van Garderen and his peers represent the bright future of American road racing. Like Phinney, his BMC teammate who led the Giro d'Italia for four days last May, he's been an outspoken in his opposition to doping. Unlike Phinney, a prologue and time trial specialist who will wear the yellow jersey in this race but will struggle to win it, TVG could be just a couple years away from trading white for yellow. He's that good. He can climb, he can time trial. He can win this thing.

"It's new blood, and it's good blood," agrees BMC manager Jim Ochowicz (whose metaphor, while heartfelt, was somewhat maladroit, considering this sport's history with illicit transfusions). "They're really good, high-character kids."

As he holds his own with the best riders in the world, the sinewy grimpeurs swinging around the switchbacks with impossible speed and ease, van Garderen looks like he is exactly where he belongs. Yet he's still young enough that his supreme confidence was cut with a measure of wonderment. Standing outside the bus before Stage 17, he talked about growing up in Montana, watching and admiring the biggest names in the sport. Next thing you know, he said, "You're out there, looking around, and you're riding right with 'em." Or, more accurately, riding away from them.

It's probably not accurate to call van Garderen the future of American road racing. Following his performance at this Tour, it's fair to say the future has arrived.

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