ASPEN — Tejay van Garderen returns to the USA Pro Challenge as the defending champion and the top American finisher in this year's Tour de France, but he says he's not feeling any added pressure as the man many call the heavy favorite.
"To be honest, I don't feel like it's much different," van Garderen said Sunday in his hometown of Aspen, where the tour begins Monday with an Aspen-Snowmass circuit. " Last year, I think I came in as a heavy favorite. I came in not playing coy at all. I said very clearly: 'I'm here to win. That's the goal. It's going to be hard, but that's the mind-set I'm in — I want to win.' I put a target on my back. It was more in the mind-set of 'Bring it on.' This year I think it's no different."
Van Garderen, who celebrated his 26th birthday last week, has been on the podium all three previous Pro Challenge tours. He finished third in 2011, behind Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde, and finished a close second to Vande Velde in 2012. Now he is the defending champ and intends to race like it.
"There's no playing coy," van Garderen said. "Everyone knows I'm motivated. Everyone knows I want to win. I think everyone will be racing against me, so I'm going to have to lean very heavily on my team. Hopefully my legs respond and I can take the crown again."
Those legs took a beating at the Tour de France, where he finished fifth for the second time. Van Garderen said it was the hardest Tour de France he has done.
"Every time I've done the Tour, there have been at least two or three days when it's a flat stage, it's not windy, there's a breakaway, there's a chase, there's a sprint, you get through it and nothing much happens," van Garderen said. "That did not happen this year. Stage 1 (in England), there were massive crowds, big climbs, narrow roads, a big crash at the finish. Stage 2 was insanely hard. Stage 3 there was full gas rain for the last 3K.
"Then we head over to France, where we're met by cobbles, more crashes and crosswind, more and more rain. There was so much rain in that race, and that just makes the racing so much harder, because everyone's nervous about crashing, everyone wants to stay at the front, you spend more nervous energy, you spend more energy staying warm. There were more summit finishes than in the other tours I've done. Every day we were looking for that one easy day, and it never came. Every day was just epic."
Van Garderen has marked himself as one of the great American hopes in the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong scandal. In 2012, he finished fifth in the Tour de France and became the third American to win the best young rider classification, the others being Greg LeMond (1984) and Andy Hampsten (1986). But last year, van Garderen finished 45th in the Tour before winning here.
"I think American cycling looks really healthy right now with guys like Joe Dombrowski, Andrew Talansky, Taylor Phinney," van Garderen said. "We have a lot to cheer for, so I wouldn't say that's a burden I'm taking on my own. Sometimes I feel like it's unfair how quickly they want me to progress, because I think they were spoiled for seven years. They see I was fifth in the Tour a few years ago, they were like, 'Great, we're going to have another American champion,' and then I have a bad year, then I'm fifth again, I get, 'Come on, when are you going to really break through?' I'm trying to give myself time and not get caught up in the pressure of it and try to progress at my own pace.
"I want to win the Tour one day, and I really want to give that to the American public. But I have to do that on my own time."
Van Garderen, who attended Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, is married to Jessica Phillips, an Aspen native and former pro cyclist. They moved to Aspen after their daughter, Rylan, was born 16 months ago to be near his in-laws.
"It's pretty cool starting in my hometown," van Garderen said. "(Sunday) morning I went on a training ride with my boys. We did a lap and a half of the circuit, and my house is just right off the circuit. We rolled into my house, and Jessica had lunch waiting for us. Me and my team were playing with my dog and my little girl. It was a lot of fun. It's really cool to be here."
John Meyer: 303-954-1616, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/johnmeyer
Updated Aug. 18 at 8:44 a.m. The following corrected information has been added to this article: Because of an editing error, the article incorrectly referred to Tejay van Garderen's podium finishes at the USA Pro Challenge. He has finished on the overall podium at all three of the Pro Challenge races.