Tejay van Garderen is no different than any professional cyclist. He welcomes the competitive obstacles inherent in the sport — steep mountain climbs, high-speed descents and pedaling for hours on windy, exposed country roads.
But van Garderen<NO1>, 24,<NO> is among several young American riders suddenly thrust against an intangible obstacle they don't appreciate and did not expect.
With other accomplished cyclists in their mid-20s — Taylor Phinney, Peter Stetina and Andrew Talansky, among others — van Garderen is in the awkward spotlight of pedaling to restore the reputation of a sport tarnished by the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs.
"I'd say we just keep doing what we are doing and hopefully the fans respond to that," said 24-year-old van Garderen, who rides for Santa Rosa-based BMC and is a favorite in the Tour of California. "Other than that, I really can't say what more we could do other than what we are already doing. And that is getting results and doing it in an honest way."
Drug use in cycling isn't new. But <NO1>long investigation and<NO> <NO1>eventual <NO>the January admission by Lance Armstrong that he used illegal drugs during his seven-year Tour de France title run was the sport's most egregious setback — particularly for U.S. riders. Armstrong's consecutive titles (1999-2005) were nullified and he was banned for life.
Nearly a dozen of Armstrong's former teammates, several of whom will join van Garderen in the Tour of California<NO1> field<NO>, also confessed to doping. They served reduced six-month bans for testifying against Armstrong and were eligible to compete this season on March 1.
A fourth-year pro, van Garderen finished fifth and fourth overall in the Tour of California the past two years. His role as favorite this year is based on his breakthrough in last year's Tour de France, where he finished fifth and won the best young rider designation.
When team leader Cadel Evans of Australia, the 2011 Tour de France titlist, faltered via illness, van Garderen emerged. He finished the three-week race as the highest-placing American and joined Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten as the only U.S riders to claim the "maillot blanc" (white jersey), a designation given the top rider in the event age 25 or younger.
<CS8.6>"I'd certainly call myself one of the favorites," van Garderen said of the Tour of California. "But I wouldn't say the favorite. It is going to be a strong field. Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie (both Garmin-Sharp) always go well at California.<NO1><NO>"</CS>
Van Garderen was born in Tacoma, Wash., but spent his youth in Bozeman, Mont. When he was 10, his father noticed Tejay's cycling skills blossoming quickly. Two years later, with his tall, thin and strong frame still developing, van Garderen won the first of 10 junior national titles. He turned pro in 2010.
He rapidly excelled, finishing second overall at the Tour of Turkey and third in the Crit?ium du Dauphin? an early season French stage race.
The following season, van Garderen was runner-up overall at the Volta ao Algarve in Spain and third overall in the inaugural weeklong USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. He also claimed his first pro win in 2011 in the individual time trial at the Tour of Utah.
While many pro cyclists develop as climbing or sprinting specialists, van Garderen's overall talents emerged early. He's 6-foot-1 and about 150 pounds, ideal for long time trials yet lanky for climbing mountains.