- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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SQUAW VALLEY, Calif. -- Tejay Van Garderen is more than ready for his screen test. This is what he said into the camera when it cut to him in a casual, fast-paced promotional video about his HTC-Highroad team:
"I don't do modest. I expect to actually win something this year."
His tone was self-assured rather than cocksure. Then, he laughed.
The utterance might seem unremarkable for an elite athlete, except that Van Garderen is just 22 -- an age when many cyclists are still paying their dues, mastering their craft and avoiding public declarations that might be hard to live up to.
Instead, Van Garderen has been elevated to the role of team leader for powerhouse HTC in the Tour of California. He asked for it, expectations and all, and furthermore has made it clear he will race to win. If he were a shortstop, he'd want the ball hit straight at him at least once an inning.
"At a certain point, if you want to be the best, you're going to have to take on more responsibility," Van Garderen said in an interview earlier this week. "I'm lacking a big win, but in the last two years, I've been top five in four different stage races. That merits at least a chance to lead a team in a race like this.
"Some people like to take the pressure off themselves, but I do better when it's the other way around, because I'm held accountable. If you never take that risk, you don't know how good you're going to be."
Van Garderen admits it is "a bit unusual" for a rider his age to occupy this position for this caliber of a team in this situation. Aside from the Tour de France, the eight-day stage race in California (shortened when Sunday's Stage 1 was wiped out by snow) is the most important of the season for HTC, whose administrative offices and bike supplier (Specialized) are both based there.
But Van Garderen doesn't subscribe to conventional wisdom. He prefers to acquire and rely on his own.
"My wife and I would tell him four or five reasons why he couldn't do something, and he would come up with a perfectly logical reason why he should," said his father, Marcel, an architect in Fort Collins, Colo., who was born in the Netherlands and came to the United States when he was 20. "We were always joking around that he would make a good lawyer."
There were always bikes of one kind or another around the Van Garderens' home when Tejay was a wiry little kid growing up in Bozeman, Mont. Marcel was an amateur rider who once aspired to turn pro, and still competes at the Masters level. The family rode mountain bikes on the weekends, and Marcel noticed how much his second son liked to race from the time he was 4 or 5 years old, "but how seriously do you take that?" the father said.
He took more notice when 10-year-old Tejay began pestering him to ride a road bike that one of Marcel's former teammates -- who happened to be short -- had left behind in their shed. Marcel tinkered to try to make it boy-sized, installing shorter crank arms (for pedals) and lowering the seat.
"He was tenacious," Marcel said. "He would go over to look at it every month and see if it fit."
When it did, just barely, he immediately set about trying to keep up with much older boys and men. His father tried, in vain, to make him understand that he needed to mature more before it was a fair fight, but Tejay refused to accept that age should make a difference. Montana is a big state with a small population, and word soon spread about the gung-ho kid with the deadly serious game face.
Van Garderen won his first junior championship when he was 12 and kept winning. Worried he might burn out, his parents tried to interest him in other sports, but nothing really held Tejay's attention except for riding. Marcel wrote his training programs until he was 15, when the coach-father dynamic began to feel like a constraint, then put him in the hands of longtime USA Cycling coach and administrator Jim Miller. Like Van Garderen's parents before him, Miller found Tejay extremely coachable -- as long as he explained what was behind his advice. "He definitely has his own brain,'' Miller said.
In a fortuitous coincidence, Van Garderen came under Miller's wing not long before USA Cycling decided to ramp up its national team developmental program in Belgium under manager Noel Dejonckheere, increasing race days and entering more difficult events to build endurance and tactical savvy. Van Garderen first went to Europe as a 17-year-old in 2005 alongside other burgeoning American talents like Bjorn Selander and Peter Stetina.
"Tejay made the quickest adaptation to it and made the most gains," Miller said. Yet it wasn't a completely linear process. At 19, late in his first cold, wet Belgian spring as a U-23 rider, Van Garderen told Miller he was planning to come home for a break.
"At 17 and 18, he was on the podium in every junior stage race we raced," Miller said. "Then, all of a sudden, he was in bigger, badder, longer, faster races against 22-year-olds. It was hard for him to be a low man on the totem pole.
"I told him, 'If this is what you want to do, and this is who you want to be, you need to be in Europe.' Twenty-four hours later, he called me and said, 'Change my return ticket to October.'"
Meanwhile, Dejonckheere studied Van Garderen and quickly came to a conclusion: "He needed bigger races." The Belgian, who now works for the BMC team, knew Van Garderen had natural gifts in climbing and time trialing; his one weakness was bike-handling skills, which are best honed in pack situations on the road. He made sure Van Garderen raced on courses that forced him to learn the art of surviving crosswinds and the science of conserving energy in the flats.
He also encouraged Van Garderen to sign with the developmental team run by Rabobank, the Dutch Pro Tour team that is one of the sport's oldest and most established organizations. In 2008 and 2009, Van Garderen split his time between Rabobank and the U.S. national team. In his spare time, he took Dutch language lessons from Marcel's aunt.
Precocious as he might seem, "I definitely didn't take any shortcuts in my developmental years," Van Garderen said. "I could've joined an American team and raced 30 days a year and done a bunch of crits [criteriums] and gotten paid $30,000, which at my age is a good amount of money. Instead, I went to the national team because I wanted to race in Europe and I went to Rabobank because it was the best developmental team in the world.
"It was a hard choice. You race 80 days a year, hard races, not making any money. I was doing tough races against Pro Tour teams and you can't get that experience anywhere else."
That foundation helped Van Garderen make a virtually seamless transition to the professional ranks with HTC. His breakthrough performance came at the Criterium du Dauphine, the strenuous early-June Tour de France lead-up race in the Alps, where his strong time trial results helped elevate him to third place overall.
In late August, he started his first three-week Grand Tour -- "He wanted to get one under his belt so it was out of the way," Miller said -- as a support rider for Peter Velits and played a critical role in the Slovakian rider's unexpected third-place finish. In March, Van Garderen worked to keep Germany's Tony Martin out of trouble and on track for his eventual victory at Paris-Nice.
Even with impressive results of his own and credibility as a super-domestique, there's still another leap to be made as a team leader and Van Garderen understands he'll have a learning curve. What takes the stress out of that, he said, is "Guys like Danny Pate and Bernhard Eisel and Bert Grabsch. They've been doing this so long; they're calm, they do their job and they do it without having to be asked. I think the most I'm going to have to ask of anyone is to go get a bottle. I'm not going to have to bark any orders."
As for the men Van Garderen aims to beat here, a couple of whom are more than a decade older, "If they don't take me seriously, that's their mistake," he said.
Designating him as leader for the Tour of California made sense both because of where Van Garderen is in his evolution and how the race fits into the team's plans. Both Velits and Martin are slated to ride the Tour de France, so neither wanted to subject themselves to a particularly punishing edition of the Giro d'Italia nor peak for a race in mid-May. (Martin is using this time as a training block, while Velits is riding for Van Garderen here.) HTC director Rolf Aldag sees all upside to Van Garderen's stated ambitions.
"We had long, long talks saying, 'Let's plan on the next logical step,'" Aldag said. "He said, 'Look, my next logical step is to win some bike races. I haven't done that yet.' Riding [for the overall] doesn't mean he has to win, but he'll get the support. That pressure comes from him, not from us."
Eisel said he has "absolute trust" in Van Garderen because of his athletic discipline and innate confidence -- faith Aldag shares. "We give him a lot of freedom, because he does the right things," the director said.
Miller said he doesn't worry that Van Garderen will overtrain despite his fierce drive. "When he works hard, he works hard, and when he rests, he rests hard," said Miller, who is still Van Garderen's personal coach. "He generally knows where the line is and stops."
Van Garderen, who lives in Lucca, Italy, has largely flown under the radar in the U.S. That should change with his billing in California -- and possibly a start in the Tour de France. He wants to be selected, but he's also pragmatic about it.
"I'm not racing [California] to gain a spot at the Tour," he said. "I could place 10th here and make the [Tour] team, or I could finish higher and not make it. It depends on what kind of team they want to field."
Van Garderen often grins as if he has some knowledge the rest of the world isn't privy to. Perhaps it's because he's pulled off the rare coup of making his youth nearly irrelevant. With that done, he can approach this race not as an audition but an opportunity for confirmation.
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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