SANTA ROSA, California — Always close to the front but never first at the end, Tejay van Garderen would often wear himself out wondering if he could swap the white jersey that goes to the best young rider for the yellow one that goes to the winner.
Eight days through all of California's climates erased those doubts.
Van Garderen guided the BMC Racing Team with a command that suggests he could be American cycling's next big star, winning the Tour of California on Sunday for his first professional stage race title.
"It's actually a big relief," he said. "I've been close on a number of occasions. I was actually starting to get worried that maybe I just didn't have what it took to win a stage race."
Van Garderen stayed out of trouble and cruised through the smooth and scenic final stage from San Francisco to Santa Rosa without incident to lead the team to a victory in front of its home fans, edging Australia's Michael Rogers for the overall title by 1:47. Colombian Janier Acevedo was third, 3:26 behind van Garderen.
Van Garderen completed the eight-day, 727.8-mile race that has evolved into North America's most prominent cycling event in 29 hours, 43 minutes. He held the overall lead the final three days.
"I've known for years that I'm capable of a ride like that," he said. "Finally for it all to fall in place, it's really special."
With a formidable field and a taxing terrain, van Garderen showed an all-around style that will make him a strong contender in this summer's Tour de France.
He stayed within striking distance in the desert heat, powered through coastal crosswinds to grab the yellow jersey in a grueling fifth stage from Santa Barbara to Avila Beach, and dominated the hilly and technical time trial that followed in San Jose. Finally, he maneuvered up Mount Diablo behind his teammates to maintain the overall lead that set the stage for a mostly ceremonial and celebratory finale in this cycling-loving city where the BMC Racing Team is headquartered.
"I think it just showed that I was able to deliver under pressure," van Garderen said.
Peter Sagan sprinted out of the tunnel in the final half-mile to win the 80.7-mile final stage in 3 hours, 4 minutes, 7 seconds. Daniel Schorn was second and Tyler Farrar third.
Sagan dedicated his win — his second this year and record 10th in the event — to Alex Shepherd, an 11-year-old from Oregon with a brain tumor who waited for his favorite cyclist at the finish line.
"Special day," said Sagan, who won the green jersey for the race's top sprinter.
The memorable week for van Garderen ended with a postcard-like morning ride along the bay in San Francisco's trendy Marina District, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and pedaling beside the sprouting spring vines in Sonoma wine country. He crossed the finish line with an ear-to-ear grin in front of a cheering crowd that squeezed into Santa Rosa's quaint downtown.
Van Garderen shared in the moment by kissing his daughter, Rylan, who was born in Colorado on April 7 — when he arrived from France just about an hour before his wife, Jessica, delivered the newborn three weeks early.
Van Garderen, who finished fifth in the Tour de France last year for the highest place by an American, is ready to aim even higher. The 24-year-old, often playing second-fiddle to teammate and 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, said he hopes to be in the top three when cycling's crown jewel ends in Paris on July 21.
Asked how far he was from competing for the sport's most prestigious title, he quipped: "Well, what's it, six weeks?"
"It's not just about the next month or two months or six months. It's about the next 10 years," BMC Racing Team manager Jim Ochowicz said.
At least for a day, van Garderen wanted to savor his proudest professional moment.
He won the white jersey for best young rider in the 2011 Tour of California and was second at the USA Pro Challenge and fourth in Paris-Nice last year. But he had never raised the overall trophy in a pro stage race.
Raised in Bozeman, Montana, van Garderen now lives in Boulder, Colorado He looked right at home in the Tour of California, which provided him and the BMC Racing Team a special shot to celebrate in Santa Rosa, where the 8-year-old event had passed through previously but never ended before.
For the first time in the race's history, the route went north instead of south.
Van Garderen's breakthrough performance will still leave him wanting more. After all, about half of the world's best riders weren't competing in the race — including teammate Evans, who's at the Giro d'Italia.
But van Garderen said the race helped hone his leadership skills. Once intimidated to tell more veteran and decorated cyclists what he expects of them, he proved to himself — and his teammates — that he could do it in a marquee event.
"I think I'm getting better at it. I'm getting more comfortable in that role," he said. "This week the team showed that not only are they OK with me filling that role, but that's what they expect from me. They want me to do that and they're more encouraged by me."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: http://www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP