A taste of what might have been. Tejay van Garderen showed he is one of the strongest riders in this year’s Tour and hinted at what could have been a podium place in Paris with an impressive performance on the final mountain stage of this year’s race.

Driving the pace at times in order to distance a dropped Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) plus other rivals, he finished in the chase group behind race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).

Best young rider Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) accelerated just before the line, closing down on Rafal Majka (Tinkoff Saxo), who had jumped away inside the final 200 metres. They finished one minute 10 and one minute 12 seconds behind Nibali, respectively, while Jean Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) and van Garderen were a further three seconds behind Majka, netting fourth and fifth.

“It went well. It was really hard from the beginning. A break got away and Astana obviously wanted the stage so they pulled straight away,” the satisfied American said just after crossing the line.

“It was kind of a lumpy day. Over the Tourmalet the pace was hard. Then I just had it in my mind that, ‘this is the last mountain before the end of the Tour, so if you’re going to do something, you have to do it today.’”

Van Garderen had a bad day on Tuesday, his tank appearing empty after the previous day’s rest day. His BMC Racing Team president Jim Ochowicz suggested to CyclingTips that a lack of fuel was probably the issue; van Garderen said the same after Thursday’s stage.

“Yeah, that day was frustrating. It was just a hunger flat, I bonked,” he said. “It is just a stupid junior mistake. Just not eating enough on the rest day. That is definitely something I will avoid on the future. It really is a pity, but I am still young, I have plenty of Tours left.”

Van Garderen had looked in contention for a podium place until that point, but lost considerable time in finishing 37th, three minutes 36 seconds behind Nibali, Pinot, Peraud and Valverde.

He conceded a little more time yesterday, but it was clear that his form was on the way back up again. His recovery looked complete today, and his surges at the front of the group were evocative of how he had ridden earlier in the race.

Ideally, van Garderen would have gained time on his other rivals prior to Saturday’s time trial. He said that proved difficult to do. “When I was setting a hard tempo, I would look back and Pinot always looked pretty easy on my wheel,” he said.

“He has shown many times this Tour that he is more explosive than me. So I couldn’t really get a gap and couldn’t really grind him off my wheel with a tempo because he is too strong. But I was happy with today.”

The stage saw van Garderen remain sixth overall. Three stages remain and while Friday’s race to Bergerac is not expected to change the standings, Saturday’s time trial could certainly prompt changes.

He is a strong time trialist, but does have a lot of ground to make up to those ahead of him. Nibali is 11 minutes 34 seconds ahead and is well out of reach; Pinot is four minutes 24 seconds up, Peraud and Valverde are four minutes 11 and four minutes 9 seconds in front respectively and Bardet is two minutes 7 seconds ahead.

The podium looks unlikely, but van Garderen said that he believes he can take time out of at least one of those ahead.

“Whether or not I can gain enough time to move ahead, that remains to be seen,” he said. “But it is a long time trial, it suits me and I am going to give it 100 percent.”

If van Garderen can overtake one of those ahead of him, he will set himself up for a fifth place finish in Paris. He achieved the same result two years ago but this time round has looked much more like a contender. Bad day aside, he appeared on course for a podium finish, and possibly the runner-up slot.

Had he not lost 3 minutes 36 seconds on Tuesday, he’d only be 48 seconds adrift of current second-placed rider Pinot, and closer again to Peraud and Valverde.

Those gaps would all have been within reach in the time trial. On that basis, the 2014 Tour is encouraging for his future aspiration of winning the race.