Young riders bring excitement to Tour

By The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — Along with Bradley Wiggins becoming the first British winner of the Tour de France, the youngest riders injected the 99th edition of the Tour with plenty of excitement.

American Tejay van Garderen, 23, and Peter Sagan of Slovakia, 22, dominated the competition for the white and green jerseys.

The 22-year-old Thibaut Pinot of France finished 10th, raising French hopes that a rider was capable of ending a nearly three-decade drought.

Van Garderen ended his second Tour in fifth place to win the white jersey, given to the best rider 25 or younger. It was the best finish by an American in the Tour since Lance Armstrong was third in 2009.

The cyclist from Bozeman, Mont., captured the jersey in the race’s opening prologue and surrendered it only for two stages, to 25-year-old Rein Taaramae of Estonia.

In his first Tour last year, van Garderen became the only US rider to wear the polka-dot jersey given to the race’s best mountain climber.

A fifth-place finish in last year’s Tour of California also caught the eye of BMC Racing, the team of 2011 yellow jersey winner Cadel Evans. BMC hired the young American for the 2012 season to help shepherd Evans in the mountains, blocking the wind and fetching water bottles.

In the end, the protege outshone the master, not only in the mountains but in each of the race’s three time trials.

Demonstrating the combination of mountain climbing and time trialing prowess that marks a potential Tour champion, van Garderen built his victory with dominating performances against the clock. He lost only 10 seconds to four-time world champion Fabian Cancellara in the opening prologue in Liege, Belgium, and finished 9 seconds behind Cancellara in the 25-mile time trial on July 9.

While the humble and polite van Garderen denied there was any “passing of the torch” between himself and Evans, he overtook Evans just before the half-way mark on Saturday in a symbolic moment, eventually finishing 3:20 faster than his team leader.

Van Garderen has set his sights on the Tour’s top rung, but probably not next year.

“That’s what I hope, that I can go for the white jersey one more year, and in a couple years maybe I’ll be on a higher step,” van Garderen said.

Sagan won the sprinters’ competition in similarly dominating fashion, capturing the green jersey in the second stage and never giving it up. He finished with a 141-point margin over the next rider, Andre Greipel, a 30-year-old German nicknamed “The Gorilla.”

Sagan did it in style, celebrating each of his three stage wins with finish-line salutes that included an Incredible Hulk-style muscle flex and a “Run Forest Run!” tribute to Forest Gump.

Along the way Sagan consistently beat some of the best sprinters, including world champion Mark Cavendish, the 2011 green jersey winner. He’s the youngest to win the jersey since Belgium’s Willy Planckaert in 1966.

“I’m happy to finish on the Champs-Elysees, I was second and it was the world champion who beat me,” Sagan said. “I surprised myself.”

Five stage wins and two riders in the top 10 made the 2012 Tour one of best in recent years for French riders. Pinot’s maiden Tour was highlighted by victory in Stage 8, a mountainous route in his native Jura mountains.