PLUMELEC, France (REUTERS/AFP) - Tejay van Garderen emerged as a credible Tour de France contender after a treacherous first week, yet the American refused to get carried away ahead of two gruelling weeks in the mountains.
Van Garderen is second overall and trails overall leader Chris Froome by 12 seconds after his BMC Racing team beat the Briton's Sky team by one second in the ninth stage, a 28-km time trial on Sunday.
Said Van Garderen, who was fifth in the Tour in 2012 and 2014: "The team in the first week has been incredible, we passed every test with flying colours, it gives me the morale for the mountains, it gives the team a lot of morale,"
With an experienced team around him, Van Garderen survived bunch-splitting winds, cobbled sectors and escaped multiple crashes.
"Everything is clicking, it's all about momentum and we've gained a lot of momentum this first week," he added.
Froome, the Kenyan-born Briton who won the Tour in 2013, has singled him out as his main rival, but Van Garderen remained cautious.
"That's tall order. First the Pyrenees are going to be the test, who's going to be fit enough to win the Tour and the Alps will show who's going to have the stamina to make it to the end," the 26-year-old Van Garderen said.
He was beaten by Froome in the Criterium du Dauphine last month but the Briton failed to gain a lot of time in the final climbs.
"I think I'm pretty close to Froome, we're really going to know that in the first week (in the mountains) to see who really has the depth," he said. "The Tour is a marathon, we're not close to the end."
Meanwhile, defending champion Vincenzo Nibali has struggled in this year's race. His Astana team finished fifth on Sunday's team timetrial, giving up 34sec to Froome's Sky squad.
The result left the Italian 13th overall at 2min 22sec from yellow jersey wearer Froome ahead of Monday's rest day and Tuesday's first mountain stage.
Said Froome: "I certainly didn't expect it if I'm completely honest, I thought he was going to be the one guy from the main contenders who would gain time in this first phase of the race.
"I've got to admit I am surprised he's lost so much time already."
On his main rival Van Garderen, he noted: "Tejay, I've said from the beginning of the race is definitely someone to look out for given also at the Dauphine he was up there in the climbs, so we can expect something similar here."
It was not such great news for the other contenders as Alberto Contador's Tinkoff-Saxo finished fourth and he fell to 1min 03sec behind Froome, although he climbed to fifth overall.
Nairo Quintana's Movistar were third on the stage at just 4sec and the Colombian climber only gave up three seconds to Froome as he moved up to ninth at 1min 59sec.
But with a healthy lead on the rest of his 'fantastic four' rivals, Froome said he is now in a position where he need only defend his advantage.
"Other rivals like Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana have lost substantial time already so the pressure is on them to be attacking as we go into the climbs," he noted.