Ryder Hesjedal was not a pre-race favorite to win the 2012 Giro dItalia. But he did. Twelve months later, the 32-year-old Canadian is not expected to repeat that extraordinary, break-through victory in the worlds second biggest bike race. This time, the bookmakers favor reigning Tour de France champion Brad Wiggins of Team Sky or former Vuelta a Espaa winner Vincenzo Nibali of Team Astana, while 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans of BMC Racing is considered the next best bet.
But after talking with Garmin-Sharps Hesjedal a few days ago, its clear he feels that hes right on target to defend his title in the seasons first Grand Tour, starting this Saturday in Naples. I feel better than I did at this point last year, Hesjedal told peloton magazine in a phone interview, so Im ready to get it started. Being in good form and feeling healthy is the best you can hope for going into a big race like this.
Asked whether he is calmer before this years Giro because he knows he has won it once, a relaxed Hesjedal said, For sure. When youve accomplished something like that you tend to have belief and satisfaction, but it also makes you even hungrier. I mean, Id love to experience that again. Its a nice position to be in.
Ive thoroughly enjoyed from day one being the Giro winner, and going through the rest of the season and into this seasonand working my way to get back there again. I wear the No. 1 bib, and give myself the best opportunity to try [to win it again].
Hesjedal hasnt changed much about his preparations for the Giro. He again wintered at his second home on the Hawaiian island of Maui, training there for more than three months before his return to Europe in late February. Because he didnt take time out to race in Januarys Tour Down Under, he has had fewer days of racing in his build-up to this years race: only 19 days against 29 days in 2012. (Wiggins has also raced just 19 days this year, compared with 28 for Nibali and 20 for Evans.)
Now in his 10th year as a road professional, Hesjedal knows what to expect from himself in the early season. This year, he focused on specific days of racing and helping his Garmin teammates, rather than seeking individual success. In his first race, the Volta a Catalunya, Hesjedal was most impressive on the fourth of seven stages, when he was the dynamo for a 180-kilometer-long breakaway over five mountain climbs that proved to be a springboard for teammate Dan Martins stage win (and ultimate overall victory).
Hesjedals second race was also in Spain, the rain- and cold-affected Tour of the Basque Country. On the third of six stages, he made an unexpected surge on the early slopes of the finish climb at Trapagaranon an ultra-steep grade that resembles some of the climbs hell be racing up in the Giro.
That [Basque Country move] was more to be in front than a real attack, Hesjedal said, and I opened a gap for some reason. [Preparing for the Giro] is all about putting in those big efforts, especially when you start racing that late in the season. You can train with a base as much as you want, but youve got to push yourself in the races at the beginning. So thats what Ive tried to do in Catalunya, Pays Basque and the Ardennes. Its been perfect preparation.
Following the Basque race, Hesjedal went to the three hilly, late-April classics in the Netherlands and Belgium. In the finale of the Amstel Gold Race, he bridged solo from the peloton to the breakaway over the penultimate climb, the Bemelenberg, but he reached the front just moments after race winner Roman Kreuziger had flown the coop. It was a fine effort from the Canadian, but his gamble didnt pay off.
Three days later, the Garmin team worked hard for Hesjedal and Martin at the Flche Wallonne, first of the two Ardennes classics, which ends with the ferociously steep climb known as the Mur de Huy. Flat tires almost ruined their plans. Hesjedal flatted right before the second-last time up the Mur. Dutch teammate Thomas Dekker gave him a wheel, and the Canadian then had to make a huge effort to get up the hill before Australian colleague Nathan Haas helped pace him back to the peloton. Thats when Martin punctured. He was given a wheel by American teammate Peter Stetina, and their other teammates helped pace him back to the lead group.
That classic ended with their German teammate Fabian Wegmann guiding Martin through the pack to give the Irishman a chance to ride strongly up the finishing climb. He took a fine fourth place, while Hesjedal was 19th, after being forced to make his uphill finishing effort a lap too soon. But perhaps more important in the context of the upcoming Giro was the no-panic, supportive attitude of the whole Garmin team.
Then came Lige-Bastogne-Lige, the oldest and hilliest of the major classics, with almost 14,000 feet of climbing in its 261.5 kilometers. The Garmin team worked well to help close down the breakaways by the start of the key Colonster climb, just inside 20 kilometers to go. We had a plan with Ryder to attack there, sports director Johnny Weltz said, and he certainly did.
The idea was to get away, Hesjedal confirmed. I knew it was going to be hard, and considerably harder near the top. On the first part of the 2.5-kilometer-long hill, Hesjedal followed an acceleration by Alberto Contador and four other strong climbers. But they werent gaining much on the peloton, where Martin was riding comfortably.
I was able to get across to the guys whod already moved Hesjedal continued. And once I was there no one was really cooperating. But I managed to ride them off the wheel to keep the real pressure on. I was trying to dictate the race and that was the only way to do it. I just kept the head down. There was 15 kilometers to go at that point.
Hesjedal gave it everything he had, maintaining a solid 20-second lead down a long, fast descent to the Meuse River at Lige, where the chasers were caught by the peloton. The Canadian was so strong that he was able to stay ahead all the way up the 1-kilometer, 10-pecent Cte de Saint-Nicolas before being caught by Colombias Carlos Betancur, Italys Michele Scarponi, Spains Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverdeand Martin.
I think people will say it was a good tactic, and this and that, Hesjedal said about his breaking away and teammate Martin joining him with an elite group of climbers. Its pretty straightforward, and everyone wants to be able to do that, but you have to have the legs.
Hesjedal not only had the legs, he also had the strength to continue his amazing effort, riding hard at the head of the six-man break for the next 4 kilometers. His effort allowed Martin to sit in the wheels until he took off up the finishing climb to catch a charging Rodriguez and then jump away from him at the crest of the climb to win his first major classic. A modest Hesjedal summed it up by saying: I was able to do what was needed. Dan was on top formand we ended up with the victory. Thats what makes it so special.
Martin will not be riding the Giro, so he didnt travel with Hesjedal to last weeks Tour de Romandie in Switzerland. As last year, the Canadian used the Swiss stage race as training and pulled out before the end. Its good riding here, he said. I felt really good on the bike. For the uphill time trial, I chose my TT bike to get some more time on the bike for the Giro. Two days after that effort in Lige, it was good to do 15 minutes at high threshold and feel comfortable. Getting race speed in the legs and not doing too much is the best result for me.
Now comes the Giro, starting this weekend with a short circuit race in Naples and a 17.4-kilometer team time trial on the island of Ischia. This could produce an encouraging result for Hesjedal because his team has been outstanding in the Giros team time trials over the past few years. In 2008, the Canadian helped power the then Slipstream squad to first place in the opening days TTT on another Italian island, Sicily, where his U.S. teammate Christian Vande Velde put on the leaders pink jersey. Last year, on stage 4 in Verona, Garmin again won the TTTwhich was the springboard for Hesjedal to don the maglia rosa for the first time three days later.
For the next two weeks at the 2012 Giro, Hesjedal and Katusha Teams Rodriguez traded the leaders jersey back and forth, until the critical stage 20 that finished atop the mighty Passo di Stelvio. There was only 17 seconds between race leader Rodriguez and Hesjedal gong into that stage, but a new twist was added when Thomas De Gendt of Belgium, 5:40 back in eighth place, joined a breakaway that took a five-minute lead before starting the Stelvio climb.
Garmins Vande Velde, who had been in the breakaway all day, then dropped back to help Hesjedal. Heres what Vande Velde said about that vital stage: Im glad I really pulled my punches until that day. That was the day I needed to be thereand I was. Everything worked out perfectly. I got myself in the breakaway, and I had the luxury of being four or five minutes ahead of everyone at the bottom of the Stelvio. So I had time to regroup, eat a lot of food, and drink a bunch of drinks, and I was completely ready by the time Ryders chase group came up to mewhen I started pulling.
There were still about 30 kilometers remaining, all uphill, including the 22.4-kilometer, 8-percent grind to the Stelvio summit. Garmins Stetina helped out at the foot of the climb, but it was the rested Vande Velde who led Hesjedals group for the next hour of uphill work to keep De Gendt within firing range. All those kinds of things [i.e., having time to regroup] add up, Vande Velde said, so I put everything into those 20 kilometers and by about 8K to go Id completely stopped pedaling.
With his teammate gone, Hesjedal didnt get any help from Rodriguez or the other leaders, so the Canadian had to make an enormous effort to cut De Gendts stage-winning gap to just over three minutes. And though Rodriguez sprinted away from him in the last half-kilometer, Hesjedal went into the final days 30-kilometer time trial with just a half-minute deficit on the Spaniarda margin he eclipsed to win the Giro by 16 seconds.
The Giros longest time trial will again have an important role in this years race. Being held on the second Saturday, May 11, the TT is 54.8 kilometers in length, with a technical opening section along the Adriatic coast and an uphill finish. Because of its importance, its the only stage that Hesjedal will look at in person before the race, knowing that this is the day when Olympic TT champion Wiggins is planning to create an unbeatable winning margin on the opposition.
Hesjedal also sees that TT as a chance to gain an advantage on climbers such as Nibali and Evans. I dont feel the time trial is the thing that some people might think. Im looking at it as an opportunity to putting time into other people. Thats the way Im looking at it. Im confident in my equipment and my abilities. Itll definitely give an indication of where things are, for sure.
Even though there are several new steep, technical climbs being introduced at this Giro, Hesjedal said he didnt need to see them beforehand. I didnt really do a reconnaissance of one stage last year, he said, but its good enough at the end of the day. If youve got the legs youve got the legs, if you dont you dont. By the time you get therethey all [the climbs] look the same as far as Im concerned.
We have the team, we have the intel, we have the directors, and everyones analyzing. I mean, we use Google, YouTube videos, pretty much everything out there these daysso were prepared. Everyone chooses their own approach, and thats what it is.
Now that he knows he can win the Giro, Hesjedal is confident his approach is best for him. Hell again have Stetina and Vande Velde to help him on the stiffest climbs, while the team has added American climber Tom Danielson to its roster this time, while those who were so invaluable in the classics, including Dekker and Haas, will give Garmin an even stronger look.
There will be some familiar climbs, such as the stage 15 finish on the summit of the Col du Galibier in the French Alps. Thats short and intense, Hesjedal said about the 149-kilometer stage. But the Giros always hard, and I think by that time in the race were not gonna be at our bestits a matter of who can do the most and make an impact.
The same can be said for stages 19 and 20 in the Dolomites, where the challenging Gvia, Stelvio and Tre Cime di Lavaredo climbs await, right before the Giro finish in Brescia on May 26. Wiggins, Nibali and Evans didn’t compete in last years Giro, which could be a disadvantage in a race that has far more steep climbs and gnarly summit finishes than the Tour de Francewhere they all raced in 2012.
Hesjedal says that competing in Italy has been in his blood ever since he made his debut there in 2005. He crashed out of that Giro on stage 13 and said afterward that it was his favorite event, despite his unfortunate crash. When asked whether he still likes the Giro as much as he did eight years ago, Hesjedal replied, For sure. I love the Giro, especially now that Ive won the race. I think its incredible. Just being a professional cyclist and knowing the history, and then the tradition and the passionand when youre there you know youre part of something special. I respect it very much, and it can make people, break people and make you a champion. And thats what its all about.
You can follow John at twitter.com @johnwilcockson