Tejay van Garderen’s jerseys decorate the walls of his garage in California. His wife Jessica has framed his white one from the Tour de France—where he won best young rider—his winner’s shirts from the Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge, and his American Olympic team kit. Few Americans have ever amassed such a collection. There is no trophy for what matters most to Tejay, though. He has won the respect of his teammates and rivals over the years, and he has been an incredible part of our team.
Now 32, Tejay’s time as a professional rider in the sport is about to come to a close. He has decided to retire after this year’s National Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee. Adding a stars-and-stripes shirt to his collection would be a fitting end to his career. In any case, he will be remembered as one of America’s greatest cyclists.
Tejay made his reputation in the peloton as a formidable competitor in races that rarely get much mass media attention in America. Yes, he won the white jersey and twice finished fifth at the Tour de France, but it was in races such as the Critérium du Dauphiné, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, Tour de Suisse, Paris-Nice, and Giro d’Italia where he really made his name. Those events might not feature very often in American papers, but in cycling’s European heartland they are prestigious races in their own right that are feared and respected by the men who race them.
“Some of the results I had, you had to know how to handle yourself as a real bike racer,” Tejay says, “be it with narrow roads, the weather, cross winds. I’m proud that I was able to be a complete cyclist.”
That he certainly was. Tejay insists that he is not a Hall of Famer, but very few Americans have ever been so consistently competitive in world-class cycling events.
“I can understand why a lot of people are probably going to be left wanting more,” he says, “because they saw the results I achieved at a really young age. I stayed consistent for a number of years at a high level, but I never really broke through to that next level. That’s what people wanted to see. I understand that. That’s okay for them to want because people like their winners.”
Tejay was more than a winner. He was a good teammate too. For the past three seasons, he has been an invaluable member of EF Education-NIPPO, both on the bike and off it. He earned some great results in his pink EF jersey, but he also contributed to many of the team’s successes, most notably Hugh Carthy’s overall podium finish at the 2020 Vuelta, where his GC experience was crucial.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with Hugh, and I think he has a really bright future,” Tejay says. “He knows if there’s ever any kind of question he has about time trialing, or just in general, he can always reach out, or call, or whatever. My door’s always open, and that goes to anyone on the team.”
Still, being a professional bike racer is a very tough business. Racing up and down alpine cols in the harshest conditions that nature can throw at you is one of the most physically and mentally challenging pursuits an athlete can do. Cycling is dangerous and all-consuming. To be competitive, riders have to ignore the risks and lead a highly disciplined existence. And there is so much uncertainty involved that there is never any guarantee of success. With a young family at home, Tejay has reached a point where he no longer feels he can do it well. He doesn’t want to take chances away from his teammates. He respects them as much as they respect him.
“The honest truth is that I don’t feel super effective as a bike racer anymore,” he says. “Once your ability starts to be less than it was, you have to find a way to make yourself effective. I was really motivated by the rise of Hugh Carthy, and I wanted to be able to mentor him and help him. I said, ‘Okay, I’m still a good climber. Maybe I can stay with him in the high mountains and give him support.’ I’m not skilled enough to be like those cobbled classics guys who are able to shepherd their leader through all the tricky sections. We have guys like Jens Keukeleire and Alberto Bettiol who are much more effective at that than I could ever be. But the truth is I wasn’t able to just climb into a group of the 20 best anymore, to be able to give a leader like Hugh support in the high mountains. So I was riding around thinking, well, what do I do? How am I effective in the race? And if I really took a good, honest look in the mirror, I said, “Well, if you have eight people to fill a roster, I could name eight people that would serve a purpose better than I could serve that purpose.”
Now, he is looking forward to riding his bike for fun and to stay healthy. He will be spending a lot more quality time with his wife and girls. He doesn’t have many regrets.
“I feel like it’s time. I’m okay. I’m ready,” he says. “I’m extremely proud of everything I accomplished in my career. I know personally how hard I worked to achieve what I’ve achieved, and I know what level I was able to hit. Results aside, I know that I got the best out of myself. I wish there were times that I had got to that level just a bit more often or more frequently. But, I know what level I was able to hit. I’m certainly happy with what I’ve done.”
Tejay’s racing career will be over after he has ridden his last National Championship on the 20th of June. We are very proud of everything that he has done in cycling. Tejay van Garderen is one of America’s all-time great bike racers. He is the real thing and an awesome teammate. More importantly, he is one of our great friends. Tejay, we can’t wait to see where life takes you next.