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America's best Tour de France rider is ready to challenge cycling's Big Four

Tejay Van Garderen is America's latest great cycling hope. He's feeling as good as he ever has as he prepares to take on cycling's Big Four at the Tour de France.

The United States' best chance at producing a 2015 Tour de France winner isn't riding for country. At least, that's not Tejay Van Garderen's first concern. He's looking out for himself first, as a Tour favorite and leader of the BMC Racing team, with everything left to prove.

"I am very tight with a lot of the American riders in the peloton but we always kind of joke that when you get to the Tour you're not there to make friends," Van Garderen says. "I'm not going to expect a helping hand from them. And vice versa, if they ask me to help them out I'm going to be like, 'This is the Tour, I'm sorry.'"

Van Garderen is entering his second year as BMC's general classification pony. Having shouldered the weight of expectation once already, he should feel less pressure this year, but he still has to contend with the stigma of being one of the Tour's best-known also-rans. Van Garderen has finished fifth in the GC twice -- including last year, after favorites Chris Froome and Alberto Contador crashed out early -- and well out of contention in his other two rides, establishing a pattern that cements his status as "sub-elite."

This year's Tour features a Big Four of Froome, Contador, 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali and Colombian man/mountain goat Nairo Quintana. Van Garderen understands his place in the second tier. No one has named him a five-star favorite, and that's as it should be.

"All four of them have won a Grand Tour, and stages, and they've definitely proven themselves to be a class above," Van Garderen says. "I've beaten them on a few occasions, and I've definitely been competitive with them, but to be competitive with them over three weeks, that's quite a different story.

"So no, I'm not offended to not be mentioned with them."

But to not be mentioned as a favorite doesn't spell Van Garderen's fate. Nibali, for example, had an undistinguished 2014 before dominating last year's Tour. Van Garderen is riding into the Grand Départ with as much momentum as any non-Big Four rider, finishing in second place by just 10 seconds to Froome at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.

Van Garderen isn't battling any physical ailments like those that plagued his season before last year's opening stages in England. He'll be prepared for the challenges that lie ahead, unlike, say, during his 2013 ride when he finished 45th after winning the white jersey as the Tour's best young rider the year prior.

At 26, Van Garderen is entering the age range of many past Tour de France winners. Whether he has the stuff, this is his time to shake up cycling's hegemony if he's ever going to do it. Forgive him if he isn't necessarily playing nice, but this race is too important. The pressure isn't gone, it has just been redistributed.

"It's always like if one race doesn't go well, they say 'Well, at least it's not the Tour. You'll get all this stuff figured out before the Tour,'" Van Garderen says. "At the Tour there is really no fallback anymore. It's like you need to have learned all the lessons, done all the homework, because now is the important one.

"The pressure, when it comes to July, it never gets less or easier. You just learn how to manage it."

Each of Van Garderen's four Tours has taught him something new. Finally, he may be ready to show the Tour something it hasn't seen before.

Van Garderen spoke with SB Nation about preparing for his fifth Tour de France, his issues with the 2015 route, "bonking" during last year's ride through the Pyrenees and how to handle a bike on cobblestones (it's not easy).

How are you getting your mind set now?

Most of the heavy lifting done. Now it's just kind of relax as much as I can, stay healthy, enjoy the last few days with the wife and daughter before I ship off for nearly a month.

From the start, it's going through the usual circus of media requests, and just getting with the team, do a little recon of some of the earlier stages, the prologue and the cobblestone day. Then it's game on.

What makes the Tour de France different, as a Grand Tour, from even other Grand Tours? Why is it considered special?

It's just the biggest race. People come from all over the world to see the Tour de France. Even if you're not a fan of cycling, you know what the Tour de France is. It's kind of the same as if you're not a fan of football, you know what the Super Bowl is, or if you're not a fan of baseball you can still appreciate the World Series. It's just the pinnacle of the year, the pinnacle of the sport. It can make or break a career. It's where the stakes are the highest.

Has the spectacle worn off on you? This is your fifth Tour de France.

It was definitely quite a shock to see it for the first time, so maybe I don't have that initial sense of "wow." But definitely when I compare it to the other races throughout the year, once you get to the start line and you see the circus and you see the big parade and everything that goes into it, you are a little bit like, 'Whoa, OK this is for real now.'

Last year year you went into the race a little sick, a little injured -- you had that hip injury. How do you feel now going into the race? Do you feel more confident?

Yeah definitely. We're bringing a super strong team. I feel really healthy compared to last year. This year compared to last year, I just definitely feel a little more relaxed. I felt like I was in good form, and I got confirmation of that from the recent race -- I did the Critérium du Dauphiné. Now it's just a matter of avoiding the bad luck that can happen in the first week of the Tour. A lot of pitfalls before you even get to the high mountains where a race is decided.

So if we can avoid all that, I think we're on track for a really good showing.

You mention pitfalls -- there's the cobbles in Stage 4. Do you have a game plan for that? Just attack?

BMC is pretty deep with their kind of "Classic" specialists. We're bringing Greg Van Avermaet to the Tour, he was third this year in Paris-Roubaix and he has also been on the podium in the Tour de Flanders and a bunch of other cobblestone races. A lot of his support crew that he brings with him to those races, they'll all be there to kind of guide me through those cobbles. So we have a lot of guys with a lot of experience in that area. And it definitely helps to be able to follow the wheel and get kinda sheltered and protected by these guys.

How well have you typically done on cobbles?

I don't usually pick out the races that have cobbles in them, so it's a bit of an unfamiliar territory for me. Usually for the GC, or general classification, riders, cobblestones aren't typically their forte. But that's not to say I don't like them. I think I can do well on them, but a lot of it is a matter of luck. There's a lot of punctures, a lot of crashes, a lot of just crazy stuff that can happen on them that you have really no control over. So you can really be the No. 1 cobblestone rider in the world and stuff can still happen.

You just gotta kinda go out there, fight hard and hope for the best, really.

What are your impressions of the 2015 course?

I gotta say I'm a little bit disappointed with the organizers for excluding a long individual time trial. That's kind of an important aspect of the race that they just kind of overlooked. Other than that, I think it's a very fair course. You have some hectic first stages, so you're going to have to be skilled in crosswind and cobbles and a lot of that. And there's a team time trial -- which, BMC, we're the world champions in that discipline, so that should be to our advantage.

And then the mountain stages, they're hard just like every year. So I kind of know what to expect. I've done some recon. Overall, it's really just about consistency and can you hold up well over three weeks. I like it. I like the challenge.

Do you prefer Pyrenees climbing or Alps climbing? What's your favorite stage?

I get asked that question a lot. The Alps are hard and the Pyrenees are hard. Everyone seems to say that the Pyrenees are steeper, and I tend to disagree because I've ridden plenty of climbs in the Alps, like the Joux Plane or Alpe d'Huez, that are way steeper. And there are some climbs in the Pyrenees that are pretty forgiving.

Overall I think the Alps have more beautiful scenery, but I think the answer is -- I prefer the Alps because they're at higher altitude. So when you get up to that high altitude -- I live in Colorado, so I'm probably a bit more adapted to the altitude than most people, so it's easier for me to handle that. In the Pyrenees, the pace is a little bit higher because people have more oxygen. So yeah, I'd say I prefer the Alps.

How much can you actually game plan for a Gran Tour, or the Tour de France? Do you really sit down and say, "This is where we want to be, and when," for each stage?

You can do a little bit of that. You can kind of build scenarios, like 'what do we do in case of ..." But so many things are out of your control. There's 200 other riders out there, and 18 different teams -- or 20-something different teams, actually. And you never know what their plan is. So you try to anticipate what other people are going to do, but if you go in with a set plan of "this is where we're going to be this day, this day and this day" then you're kind of setting yourself up for failure, because there are so many variables and so many audibles that you just basically have to be prepared for every scenario. So we give a rough guideline of what our goals are and what we hope to accomplish and what we set out to do, but you kind of have to plan for different scenarios.

Does it ever feel overwhelming? One of the craziest things is not just how on top of you fans are, but media as well the moment you're getting off a course after riding 180 kilometers. Can you carve out any personal space?

It's definitely very different from other sports in that we're completely exposed out there. The fans, they can reach out and touch us, and that's actually been a pretty big problem in the past. There's now public service announcements going out all over France about, "respect our efforts, give us room, keep your dogs on a leash," that kind of stuff. Whereas in other sports, they're out on the field and you're behind a wall or up in the stadium, and you might get a random guy running out, but he's quickly tackled by security and sent to jail, or kicked out. We don't really have that luxury.

And the same like, after a basketball team or someone lose, after they lose they get to go into their locker room, decompress, talk to each other. When we cross the line we're immediately swarmed and they get our immediate reaction, which is sometimes not very filtered. So it can be tough to manage that. You always have to kind of be on guard and watch what you say. It's a tricky situation, but that's the nature of the sport.

I was wondering about that, in part, because you had that one bad day in the Pyrenees last year. You bounced back well, but how did you manage the immediate aftermath of that? How hard was it to keep a face on?

Yeah, it was like a punch in the face. I wasn't expecting to have that. I had been riding so strong and so consistent for the entire Tour leading up to that, even after all I'd been through with the crashes and the sickness and everything like that. So I wasn't expecting that to happen on the day. It was just a shock. It was just a big surprise. I was kind of speechless in the media because I was almost in disbelief. I was just like, "Did that really just happen?"

It was a pretty big mistake on my part, I just didn't eat enough throughout the day. I was just low on blood sugar. I was bonking. That was a pretty costly mistake. I definitely fueled up really well that night and came back just fine.

Going back to the fans -- what was one of your scariest experiences on the course?

When the race started in Great Britain last year, there were crowds of up to three million viewers. It was insane, I had never seen crowds like that. And every 100 meters or so, a fan would be leaning into the road, facing backwards, trying to take a selfie. When you have three million people trying to do that -- the roads are already narrow, and they get a lot narrower. I got knocked by a couple of fans, and I was just like, "Oh God." It was amazing to see how many people came out to support us, but it was pretty scary to ride through that wave of people.

It seems like the issue is only getting more dangerous. Have you noticed people on their cell phones more and more as you ride by?

Yeah, absolutely. And the problem is -- they should put a disclaimer on the phone the same way they do in the car when you're looking through the lens: "Objects through the lens are closer than they appear" -- because people are standing there looking at the phone and they are completely captivated by getting this shot that they don't even realize they're in the way. As soon as they pull their phone down they don't realize that we're right there ready to hit them.

It can get dangerous. It would be nice if they could just put up 200 kilometers worth of barricades on every road, but that's just not a possibility. I think for the last three kilometers of every stage we're kind of in the safety net of having the barricades, but up until then we're out there and we're exposed, and we hope that people have common sense when they're out there but that's often times not the case.

What's your regimen like? How tailored is your diet? Is it scientific?

We have nutritionists on the team and doctors on the team who monitor our weight and make sure we're not losing too much weight throughout the Tour. Monitor hydration. Sometimes they even check our urine content just to see like, "OK, it's too diluted so you need to take more sodium, or it's too concentrated so you need to take more fluid," or just whatever.

That's why we have PowerBar as our nutrition supplier because they have all these products for different times. They have their drink mix, which is full of electrolytes and some carbs, and all these different products that you take throughout the day. We're out on our bike for anywhere from four to six hours, sometimes more, so you need to have a variety things. We have the bars for maybe early on in the stage when things are a little more relaxed, then we have the gels for when it's a bit more crunch time and you don't really need something in your stomach, just quick sugar, pure sugar, energy.

That was kind of the mistake I had made. We had all these things in place but I was coming from a rest day and I was tired, I was napping all day and I wasn't eating properly, I didn't fuel enough the day before. I was just kind of running through a deficit. Lesson learned. For sure we're lucky to have PowerBar as our nutrition supplier, so we can always make sure we're up on all the current science, and we have all of these tools available to us.

Who else on the American side do you think can have a strong ride?

As far as the general classification goes, the only other rider who can fit that mold is Andrew Talansky. He hasn't had the best season so far -- he was 10th at the Dauphiné, won time trial nationals, but other than he's been kind of quiet this year. Maybe he's just following his gradual build-up to July. Hopefully he'll hit form in time to have a good showing. We'll see.

And then Tyler Farrar, he's won stages in the Tour and some of the bunch sprints, so as far as the sprinting side or hunting for stage wins, he could also be a guy to watch.

I was curious about your thoughts on Talansky. He had a really strong start to the Tour last year before crashing out. Have you seen guys jump up in the Tour de France before? Guys who were quiet before thriving on the biggest stage?

Yeah, I mean you look at Nibali last year, he basically had nothing for results all year and then he wins the Tour. It's definitely possible. You look at all the Tours that Lance did, he just followed a gradual, gradual buildup throughout the whole year, maybe knock on the door here and there, show some good form, have a good ride, but he didn't really hit true form until the start of the Tour. So yeah, anything is possible. You can't really read too much into early season results, because once you get to the start of the Tour it's a different ball game.

What stands out as your favorite moment of the Tour de France, or proudest moment of the Tour de France?

Winning the white jersey in 2012, that was -- I still think about that even wondering how that happened, because we came in with the defending champion in Cadel Evans and my task there was to help him defend his title, and it just kind of worked out that he was kind of faltering and I was riding really strong. It was kind of dumb luck, really, that I ended up winning the white jersey.

So I was up there on the podium in Paris thinking, "Wow, this is amazing," and I have no idea even how it happened. So that stands out in my mind as definitely a very proud moment.