Bozeman-born cyclist is among America’s strongest riders
By Ryan Dorn Explorebigsky.com Contributor
On a hazy 2010 summer day in southeast France, cycling legend Alberto Contador waited on his bike at the starting line of the 4.8-mile prologue of the Critérium du Dauphiné. He adjusted in his seat, licked his lips, made the sign of the cross, and set off racing to try to catch Tejay van Garderen.
After a blistering pace, Contador beat van Garderen by only two seconds. Tejay’s near win in one of cycling’s biggest stage races helped confirm something many who are close to him have known for years. This Bozeman kid is for real.
Tejay had his eye on a bicycle long before he was big enough to fit on one. His father, Marcel, has raced for more than three decades. As a young man he moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands to pursue a cycling career. Tejay watched his dad spend hours every week on an indoor trainer during cold Montana winters.
At age six, Tejay wanted to start riding, but his kids’ bike was too small to fit on the indoor trainer. A friend of Marcel’s had left a small adult road bike at their home, and Marcel told his son when he could fit on it, he could ride it.
“He would go out there every month and see if it fit him yet. It took a couple years, but he was tenacious,” Marcel said. Finally, by age eight, Tejay rode his first racing road bike.
Bozeman was a good place for an aspiring cyclist to grow up, Tejays says.
“There’s not a huge cycling community there, which I think was actually better because everyone knew everyone by first and last name.”
Like the bike, success didn’t come as early as Tejay would have hoped. He started racing when he was nine, but because there weren’t many kids his age racing, he competed against other beginners, most in their 20s and 30s.
“Sometimes they would stick me with adults, and here I was a 90-pound 9-year-old that could barely fit [on a small road bike],” Tejay recalls. He would stay with the pack for about 15 miles and then fall behind, riding the rest of the race by himself.
Marcel would comfort him to no avail. “Tejay would tell me, ‘it doesn’t matter how old the other racers are, I want to beat them.’ He’s always had that tenacity.”
Tejay insists it was still fun, no matter how bad he lost. “I loved the atmosphere of cycling. There were a couple years where I measured my success by how long could I last before getting dropped.”
Marcel and Tejay trained on Bridger Canyon Road, Churchill Road, Springhill Road to Dry Creek Road, and rode in Tuesday night group rides, which Marcel organized for about nine years.
Tejay’s racing made great strides in the next few years. Marcel mapped out a time trial course that was similar to the course at nationals the year before. The first Saturday Tejay was two minutes slower than the kid who’d won the previous year. The next Saturday he raced the same course and took a minute off his time. The third week, he dropped enough time that he would have won.
When Tejay was 10 he wanted to test his abilities against the best riders of his age group. His first year at Nationals in Cincinnati was overwhelming, with banners, team buses and crowds. He took fourth, but wasn’t happy with his performance. The following year in Pennsylvania he competed in all three categories, the road race, time trial and criterium.
“He slaughtered everybody [in the criterium],” Marcel said. “I told him I would let him know when to attack. When I did he went ballistic. There were only two kids he didn’t lap. He was on fire. After that I don’t think there were any races he didn’t get top five in.”
Bozeman custom bicycle frame builder Carl Strong says Tejay’s winning was a result of discipline, even at a young age.
“A lot of kids get interested in girls or cars, and pretty soon they forget about bikes. Or when competition gets stiff and they go from winning everything to not winning anymore, they get frustrated and quit. I think with Tejay, he’s never been distracted. His commitment has stayed 100 percent.”
Even in middle school and high school, Tejay continued his training, putting aside everything for cycling. One winter Marcel told him that since Nationals were in August, he shouldn’t start his training until April. He encouraged Tejay to take up other sports and hang out with friends so he wouldn’t burn out. Marcel wanted his son to fall in love with cycling for life.
Tejay decided since he wasn’t going to train until April, he’d just ride whenever he felt like it. “But he was on that damn trainer everyday,” Marcel says. “So I said, ‘OK, this isn’t working.” Marcel wrote a training schedule for 15 or 20 minutes a day. “That was the only way to reduce his time on the bike at such a young age.”
“I was a cycling super fan,” Tejay said, admitting to the intensity that came along with his training. “I would follow the training plan, and I did my intervals and recorded my heart rate to try to live like a pro, because I thought being a pro was the coolest thing. I guess it was discipline, but it was more like living a fantasy.”
Soon he earned a sponsorship from Strong, who gave Tejay a new bike or frame every year.
“He’s a good kid,” Strong says. “When he was 13 he was more professional than most professionals are. He would send us his results at the end of the season along with a video of some of his races, and his national championship jerseys. Even last year he sent me a couple jerseys as a thank you.”
As a result of his 10 Junior National titles, Tejay picked up sponsorship when he was 19 from development team Rabobank Continental, one of the best in the world. This allowed him to move to his father’s native Netherlands to train and race for two years. That, Marcel says, was where Tejay honed his technique. He rode in strong winds regularly and learned to navigate narrow, winding European roads.
In 2010, at age 21, Tejay moved to team HTC-Columbia, which had been the most successful team the previous year. He placed second in the Tour of Turkey and helped his team leader Michael Rogers win the Tour of California. Then came Tejay’s rise out of the shadows on the Critérium du Dauphiné in France, where he took third overall after the near victory over Alberto Contador. Tejay finished the year helping HTC-Columbia win the team time trial in the first stage of the Vuelta a España.
Tejay started out 2011 with second place finishes in stages at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal and the Tour of Switzerland. His accomplishments with a new team, along with a fifth place in the Tour of California, got him the nod he’d been waiting for: a chance to ride in the Tour de France.
During the eighth stage, Tejay won enough points to earn the King of the Mountain Jersey, the first American to do so in the history of the Tour de France. He finished in 82nd place, third best on his team. Later that season he earned third in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge near his new home in Colorado, and won the third stage of the Tour of Utah.
Years of hard work and good results didn’t go unnoticed, and last year the BMC Racing Team, one of the world’s strongest, signed Tejay to a three-year deal. George Hincapie, legendary U.S. cyclist and a rider for BMC, said he tried to persuade Tejay to sign with his team earlier in 2011.
“He has a lot of talent,” Hincapie said by email. “He’s one of the biggest American talents to come out in a while. People are going to be watching and talking about him.”
Being on a strong team allowed Tejay to be leader of the Paris-Nice in March 2012, where he took fifth and wore the Best Young Riders jersey at every stage. In August he hopes to be on the podium at the Tour of Colorado. Next up, he will compete in his first Olympics, less than a week after the Tour de France.
“It would definitely be a huge honor to represent the U.S. in the Olympics,” Tejay said. “It’s not the biggest thing in cycling, but it’s something that people who aren’t cycling fans recognize.”
For now, Tejay’s biggest responsibility is to help his new teammate Cadel Evans, winner of the Tour de France in 2011, win again.
“I’m focused on trying to take it step by step,” Tejay said. “I don’t want to push my development too hard, or too fast because I’m still young. Right now my focus is on one-week stage races. When it comes to the big tours, I’ll be there to help Cadel Evans. With the time trialing kilometers of the Tour de France, I think we have an even stronger team this year. I don’t think there’s any reason why he shouldn’t get the yellow jersey again.”
And Tejay’s got his eye on the yellow leader’s jersey, too. “I’m hoping in two to three years time that I’ll be ready to step into that role myself.”
With so much success and growth each year of his pro career, the spotlight of that yellow jersey may be focused on Tejay sooner than anyone thinks.
Writer Ryan Dorn fulfills his curiosity about everything in life through being a freelance writer and photographer. Climbing, skiing, soccer, and eating chocolate take up most of his time. He’s originally from Bozeman but currently lives in Seattle with his lovely wife. This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine. Read more here.
Tour de Bozeman
The Tour de Bozeman, Montana’s premier cycling event, is returning to Bozeman for its fourth consecutive year, and for 2012 will consist of three stages, July 7-8.
The event will kick off with the Battle for Battle Ridge, a 70-mile road race spanning Jackson Creek, Bridger Canyon and the Shields Valley. The race starts at 9 a.m. from the Bridger Bowl access road and finishes at Ross Peak Ranch Subdivision north of Bohart Cross Country Ski Area. A 15 kilometer time trial race will begin that evening 6 p.m. in Gallatin Gateway.
Sunday’s criterium event at Beall Park is sure to draw a crowd. Five separate categories will race the loop around the park between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., in addition to two kid’s races over the noon hour.