Tejay van Garderen’s past experiences as a team leader will have taught him plenty about the nuances of his current role as a directeur sportif. The evidence has been in the American’s work this week for EF Education-EasyPost at the Tour Colombia, where Richard Carapaz claimed victory atop the Alto del Vino on stage 5.
The bread and butter of Van Garderen’s new trade is tactical instruction. When Carapaz looked to be offering yellow jersey Rodrigo Contreras (Nu Colombia) a free ride to the top of the Alto del Vino on Saturday, Van Garderen immediately reached for his radio.
“We didn’t have a lot of information and the TV was going in and out,” Van Garderen explained as a line of race traffic snaked slowly past the EF team van beyond the finish. “But at one point, I saw Richard was pulling with the yellow jersey on his wheel and I had to yell at him and say, ‘No, no, no, no.’”
The more subtle part of the game is psychological. Carapaz’s performances on the opening days here in Colombia suggested that he was the favourite for the key stage to the Alto del Vino, but the Olympic champion wasn’t entirely keen to claim the mantle of outright leadership for himself beforehand.
That was partially due to the presence of men like Rigoberto Urán and Esteban Chaves in the EF line-up, but Carapaz must also have been influenced by how his debut season with EF had been so blighted by ill fortune. There was the tacit sense that he didn’t want to lead until he had earned the right to do so. Van Garderen understood where the Ecuadorian was coming from.
“He missed some training with some illness coming into this race, so we started with the idea he would help the team, but then we saw him on stage 2, and we said, ok, he’s very strong,” Van Garderen explained.
“But we also had the sense that he was happy not taking the pressure, so we kind of said, ok, let’s shift the focus onto the other guys. Internally we knew how strong he was, but we didn’t want to say that to anybody, because we wanted to keep him happy, keep him low stress, low pressure.”
“He’s a pretty tranquillo guy, I don’t think he feels external pressure. But I think the fact that we were putting the attention on other guys was making him happy, and in meetings, he started saying, ‘I could do this, I can work for you, I can try this.’ So I think having that mentality helped to loosen him up and really perform today.”
So it proved. EF Education-EasyPost had Carapaz, Urán, Chaves and Jefferson Cepeda in the front group as it was whittled down on the 30km haul to the finish, and they began attacking in turn on the upper slopes. Carapaz made his first move with 12.5km to go, and he looked comfortable all the way to the top, eventually pressing clear in the last 5km to claim the stage, 13 seconds clear of compatriot Jonathan Caicedo (Petrolike).
“We knew he’d be good today,” Van Garderen said. “This good, we did not expect, but we’ll take it.”
Alto del Vino
When Carapaz eventually broke Contreras’ resistance, it looked as though he would take the yellow jersey to boot, but the Colombian limited the damage to retain the maillot amarillo of race leader by 17 seconds ahead of Sunday’s finale to Bogotá.
For the time being at least, Carapaz will have to make do with the pink jersey of best foreigner at the Tour Colombia, even if there was nothing alien to him about the roads or conditions this week. He hails from Ecuadorian cycling’s heartland in Carchi province on the Colombian border, and he spent much of his junior and under-23 career racing on this side of the frontier.
His teammate Chaves grew up riding up and down the Alto del Vino, of course, but Carapaz had been up the climb plenty of times himself during his formative years as a rider, and that knowledge worked to his advantage in the finale.
“It’s a very tough climb, and it’s almost one hour of climbing in the end,” Carapaz said when he took a seat in the press tent afterwards. “I knew it well. I raced here a lot as an amateur, and it was important for me to know it beforehand. Coming into the climb, I knew exactly how hard it was. That gave me motivation, too, because I knew the key points to make the difference and that helped me.”
“Chaves was the home favourite, he knows the climb well and he was very motivated for today, but it was clear that the four of us – Rigo, Chaves, Cepeda and me – were going well. It was a big help for us to outnumber the others in the finale, and we were able to make the difference.”
Carapaz fell short of divesting Contreras of the yellow jersey, with Van Garderen confessing afterwards that he had expected the GC to be a battle between WorldTour riders at this race. Sunday’s final stage features the 3,000m high ascent of the Alto Patios ahead of the drop into Bogotá, however, leaving scope for late drama.
“We haven’t spoken about it yet,” Carapaz said. “But if the chance arises, we’ll take it.”
This time in the pre-race briefing, the EF hierarchy will be clear.