Tejay van Garderen was third overall in the Tour de France a year ago, just a handful of stages between him and a podium place in Paris, when he pulled to the side of the road and climbed into his team car.
A respiratory infection he had been fighting for days had forced him out of the race.
It was a bitter disappointment for van Garderen, who has twice finished fifth in cycling’s marquee race, but also for American fans waiting for someone to step into the void left by Lance Armstrong.
Perhaps this is the year that finally happens.
Van Garderen will join four other Americans on the start line Saturday in Mont-Saint-Michel, all of them with enough ability to stir things up. In fact, van Garderen and Richie Porte were picked as co-leaders of the BMC Racing Team, which means the 27-year-old from Tacoma, Washington, will have plenty of support.
“I’ve already raced the Tour de France a couple of times with most of these guys, so I couldn’t be happier to line up with them once again,” van Garderen said. “I’m in great shape. I’m really motivated.”
Van Garderen withdrew his name from consideration for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, citing concerns about the Zika virus, with his wife due to give birth in October. That means the Tour is his sole priority.
As if there was any doubt, given the way last year shook out.
He’ll be joined at the Tour by teammate Brent Bookwalter, who will be part of the two-man U.S. squad in Rio. Cannondale Pro Cycling also has two Americans in Lawson Craddock and Alex Howes, despite Andrew Talansky skipping the race because of family concerns and a chronic sinus infection. Peter Stetina rounds out the American contingent for Trek-Segafredo. Stetina, who suffered career-threatening injuries in a crash at Pais-Vasco last year, may have the best feel-good story in the peloton.
The five American riders are two more than a year ago, when the fewest in nearly two decades made it to the start, but still represent a modest total – there were 10 just five years ago.
For various reasons, several of America’s brightest stars are joining Talansky on the sideline.
Taylor Phinney was not part of BMC’s roster, his sights set instead on the Rio Olympics, where he has a chance to medal in the time trial. Tyler Farrar, a stage winner in 2011, was passed over by his Dimension Data team, and Ben King was skipped over by Cannondale despite his strong performance in California.
Still, those on the start list for the Tour have enough ability to make good on their aspirations.
Van Garderen is a legitimate podium threat, especially after his recent stage win in the Tour de Suisse. Bookwalter has a puncher’s chance to win from a breakaway. Stetina will focus on helping Dutch teammate Bauke Mollema in the hills but proved at the Tour of California that he can surprise on any uphill stage.
Craddock, a bright-eyed Texan, and Howes, who like Stetina grew up in the cycling hotbed near Boulder, Colorado, are intriguing youngsters who believe they have something to prove.
“With it being my first Tour it’s hard to place certain expectations on myself,” Craddock said. “Just lining up on the start line of the Tour is a dream come true, so if I were able to wear a jersey there, then I think my mind would just explode. That being said, I’m a born and bred bike racer, and I line up to every race I do with dreams of winning. I’m not just going to the Tour to be pack fodder.”
Not just pack fodder? Sure doesn’t sound like a Tour rookie.
Jonathan Vaughters, who founded the U.S.-based Cannondale team, said French veteran Pierre Rolland will be the pivot-point of his squad. But he didn’t dismiss the 24-year-old Craddock or the 28-year-old Howes from trying to animate the race, especially given their charmingly cavalier attitudes.
“The anticipation of this race is huge,” Craddock said. “I imagine the few days leading up to the start I’ll have a few more nerves than normal, but at the end of the day, it’s just another bike race. The neutral flag goes down on the first stage, I’m sure those nerves will be replaced with pure adrenaline.”