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.

Philippe Gilbert of Belgium, the reigning world titlist and van Garderen's teammate, views his colleague like many others in the sport — a young rider with physical talents and racing savvy beyond his years.

<CS8.5>"He is a good climber and good time trial rider who already has a lot of experience in the stage races, even though he is still at a young age," Gilbert said.<NO1> "He did a good result last year at the Tour de France and that was with him helping our leader.<NO></CS><NO1>

<CS8.6>"So when he gets his own chances in a grand tour (three-week race), I think you will see him have even more success. In the one-week races, he is always riding smart, watching the other teams' leaders and using his teammates to his best advantage."</CS><NO>

<NO1>Craig Lewis (Champion System) of South Carolina rode with van Garderen for two seasons beginning in 2010 on the HTC-Columbia and HTC-Highroad teams. He believes van Garderen has ideal talents for stage races like the Tour de France.

<NO><NO1>"He's the perfect combination of being prepared and having the talent. Most of us are lucky to just have one of those things<NO><NO1>," <NO><NO1>Lewis said.

Last season, van Garderen followed his fifth-place finish in the Tour de France <NO><NO1>with second overall at the USA Pro Challenge<NO><NO1>, where he earned his second individual pro stage win.

<NO>This year, van Garderen has had three top-five finishes in Europe, but his first stage-race overall title remains elusive<NO1> — a yet-to-be achieved accomplishment he's been asked about often<NO>.<CS8.6> "That's the purpose of what we are doing out here, to try to win," he said. "If there's an opportunity, you gotta take the opportunity to try to win. But I'm starting to learn if you want it too bad, it will never come.</CS><NO1>

"Sometimes, you have to loosen your grip a little bit and let it come naturally. It's not something that's weighing on my mind and keeping me up at night. I still sleep like a baby every night. But<NO><NO1> yeah, as long as I just do the work and stay relaxed and stay happy, I think it's going to come naturally.<NO>"

<NO1>Yvon Ledanois, a BMC assistant team director, echoes world titlist<NO><NO1>Gilbert<NO><NO1>, describing van Garderen as a young rider with a veteran rider's experience.

"Tejay is very good at measuring his efforts during a stage race," <NO><NO1>Ledanois said. "He knows when to converse and when to make a move. He has to improve in his climbing, especially for the hard accelerations when the pace is not so steady.

"In the time trial, he will only get stronger as he matures. He is already good in this discipline and will get better. Those are the strengths of a good racer for the grand tours. So he has a bright future ahead."

<NO>After the Tour de France (June 29-July 21), van Garderen is scheduled to return to Colorado for <NO1>He missed his first overall title last August in <NO>the USA Pro Challenge<NO1>, finishing second to Vande Velde by 21 seconds<NO>. The third-year event, he explained, is of equal importance as the Tour of California to top American riders whose careers are often centered in Europe.

"It takes a lot of pieces to fall into place and it takes a lot of patience," van Garderen said. "Sometimes, young riders don't really have that.

"It takes being calm in certain circumstances, especially when there's a lot of pressure and the stakes are really high. If you don't, you waste a lot of energy and every little bit you can save is energy you can use when it matters. And then it just takes learning and it takes experience."