SAN JOSE, Calif. — Tejay van Garderen’s season started with a strong podium result at Volta ao Algarve, a stage race that takes place in Portugal and often serves as a harbinger of the things to come.
It sure didn’t do that for the American cyclist.
Instead, he crashed into the back of a team car while working his way toward the front of the field at Paris-Nice. He crashed again on a training ride prior to Volta a Catalunya, and wound up racing with a broken rib that probably set back his recovery even further.
"It seemed," van Garderen said, "like it went from bad luck to bad luck."
His fortunes finally turned back Wednesday, when van Garderen laid down a cracking time trial at the Tour of California. His winning time of 40 minutes, 47 seconds over the 21.6 mile course in San Jose was seven seconds clear of BMC Racing teammate Patrick Bevin and good enough for the overall lead.
He not only made up his deficit on Egan Bernal, who assumed the race lead with his mountain-top win on Monday, but van Garderen put 23 seconds into the Team Sky rider with three stages to go.
"Time will tell," he said. "If I lose the race by one second, I’m going to wish I eked out another second here. But I’m ahead of any time bonuses, so as long as I stick to the wheel (of my rivals) I’ll be safe in that regard, and Bernal has shown he’s going uphill really well."
Van Garderen’s lead should be safe on Friday’s fifth stage, a flat 110-mile trek from Stockton to Elk Grove that should be decided in a sprint. But the crucial test will be the following day, when the peloton tackles a long, brutal stage that ends with a hard climb in Lake Tahoe.
Bernal will no doubt attack. So will Daniel Martinez, who is just 37 seconds off the overall lead, and a host of other climbers with aspirations of snatching away van Garderen’s yellow jersey.
"Tahoe is going to be a big test of the strength of the team, and I think we have one of — if not the — strongest teams here," van Garderen said. "They’ll be able to control it and when we get to the upper slopes of the climb, I’m going to have to stick to the climbers.
"I’m no scrub when it comes to altitude," he added, "so I think I should be able to handle that."
The day was sweet for van Garderen for other reasons.
The 2013 Tour of California was his first major stage-race victory, and one that propelled him into the upper echelon of the European peloton. His return after five years away gave him a rare opportunity to race in front of family and friends in the U.S., and especially his two young children.
Then there’s the fact that Bevin gave BMC an impressive 1-2 finish.
"Yeah, to go 1-2 is a good ride for any team," the New Zealander said, "and given this team’s performance in the time trials, it’s nice to get the result. And it’s nice to have Tejay in the jersey, and with what’s ahead we’ll try to keep him in the overall lead."
Tao Geoghegan Hart finished third on the, giving Team Sky another card to play in the general classification. Bernal may be 23 seconds back of van Garderen, but Geoghegan Hart is 52 seconds back in fourth overall — and clearly has the legs to race with the contenders.
"I had no idea how I was going to do going into this," Geoghegan Hart said. "I couldn’t really hear what the director said (in my earpiece) after the time split because it was a really fast downhill, but it sounded like a single number instead of a lot of words, so I took that as a good sign."