SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- There's a reason cycling maintains a kids' table for riders under 25 years old, fitting the top finisher in a big event with a white jersey of honor that is both a distinction and a blank slate waiting to be filled in.
Some athletes in other sports are entering or into their prime at that age. Road cyclists can and do win races in their early 20s, but prevailing in a weeklong event, or one of the three-week crucibles called Grand Tours, is the exception rather than the rule. Completing the package with tactical craft, psychological pacing and leadership ability takes years.
Tejay van Garderen has been the Next Big American Stage Racer for so long now that it's easy to forget he's 24 and still age-eligible to wear the Best Young Rider's white jersey. He has a big collection of them. Bridging across to the status of Best Rider has been more difficult, and that is why relief was written all over his face Sunday when he slipped into yellow on the final podium of this Tour of California.
The win required a full toolbox of skills from van Garderen and his BMC team. He took over the lead unexpectedly in Stage 5 with an alert jump into a breakaway after a crosswinds-induced split in the peloton, a move that wouldn't have been possible if he and two teammates hadn't been where they belonged, riding near the front of the group. He consolidated by winning the time trial the next day. He played it smart on the climb up Mt. Diablo, where he was well-protected by domestiques and unthreatened by other overall contenders, and didn't yield to the temptation of throttling up for a gallant but ultimately useless effort to win the stage. Third place was the better part of wisdom that day.
A new stature settled visibly on van Garderen's rectangular shoulders as he stood before the finish line crowd Sunday cradling his six-week-old baby daughter Rylan. The white jersey went to a fresh-faced 21-year-old Texan named Lawson Craddock. Sitting near him on the dais in the post-race press conference, van Garderen suddenly looked considerably more seasoned, an understudy no longer. He pointed out that his legs have more mileage than his age would imply. He raced for Rabobank's developmental team as a teenager and has been in a professional environment for close to a decade.
"Everything just finally came together," van Garderen told reporters. "I've known for years that I'm capable of a ride like this, but finally for it all to fall into place is really special."
Patience, with himself, might have been the last ingredient van Garderen lacked -- "How to stay calm, how to deliver under pressure, how not to lose sleep," he enumerated.
Two years ago, riding for HTC-High Road, van Garderen came into this race declaring he could win, and got a come-uppance instead. He has been a fixture in the top 10 in important races, including an impressive fifth and that ubiquitous white jersey in last year's Tour de France, where he rode in support of defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia. But van Garderen's frustrations continued in races where he was the designated leader, notably at the 2012 USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. Van Garderen wept the day veteran Christian Vande Velde stripped him of the overall lead when they raced the clock on the final day in Denver last year.
Van Garderen would later say he had wanted it too badly. "I've been close on a number of occasions, and I was actually starting to get worried that I just didn't have what it took to win a stage race," he said Sunday. "Now I've proven that I can ... I think can go into every race now a little bit less stressed. Sometimes if you loosen your grip a little bit, it'll just come naturally."
One thing he'll have to try not to stress over -- since it's almost entirely out of his control -- is the open question of how BMC's leadership might shake out at the Tour de France. Evans, who didn't target the Giro d'Italia, nonetheless finds himself in second place two-thirds of the way through the race. Van Garderen has finished in the top four of every significant race he has started this season.
"There's a lot to think about before we get to the point where we're going to name either Tejay or Cadel as team leader," said BMC general manager Jim Ochowicz, who will travel to Italy to see the end of the Giro. "Cadel has obviously earned the right to be the team leader. We'll stick with that at the moment. ... The plan for him coming to the Giro was the Tour de France, so that's still the plan. That's still the idea. He's still our leader."
A younger, more impetuous van Garderen might have tried to stake a claim, but when queried this weekend, he kept the message collective and focused on the opposition: the dynamic, if volatile, Team Sky tandem of defending champion Bradley Wiggins and leadership heir apparent Chris Froome, whose respective roles are a work in progress.
"It's amazing that Cadel's getting back in his old form and is riding strong at the Giro," Van Garderen said atop Mt. Diablo, with a sweeping panorama of the Bay Area as a backdrop, after he had all but clinched the win Saturday. "As far as tactics go for the Tour, I think it's incredible that we're going to have two guys that are strong and capable of being up there, because it's going to take two guys to knock [Team] Sky off of their top step."