Following a breakthrough 2009 season, highlighted by a mountaintop stage victory in the Vuelta a España, it’s no surprise that Ryder Hesjedal is hungry for more.
What is somewhat surprising is the race where he says he has some unfinished business – the Monte Paschi Eroica across the dusty dirt roads of Tuscany, where he’s finished 10th two years in a row.
The tall Canadian has twice figured in the late-race decisive moves on the strade bianche, a kind of Italian-style Roubaix across gravel roads that remind him of the logging roads he uses for training on Vancouver Island in Canada.
“I have my mind on Eroica, I’ve been trying to get my head around that one,” Hesjedal told VeloNews. “I’ve been close in two tries – that would be a beautiful victory. I love that race.”
Eroica, March 6, will be the first early season goal as Hesjedal motors into his third year with Garmin-Transitions as he builds on the momentum that comes with a breakthrough Vuelta stage victory last September.
That mountaintop grand tour stage victory only confirms in Hesjedal’s mind that he’s on track for even bigger things.
“I am very excited to see where we can pick up this season,” Hesjedal said during a break in the team’s training camp in Calpe last week. “I feel stronger than I did going into last season. I just want to continue to create opportunities for myself.”
“Opportunities” means being at the sharp end of the action, and the ex-mountain biker quietly nipped at the edge of big-time success since joining Garmin-Transitions in 2008.
In his first season with the team, Hesjedal posted top-10 rides at Eroica and Tirreno-Adriatico along with participating in the team’s stunning team time trial victory at the Giro d’Italia that secured him a spot in the 2008 Tour de France.
Last year, Hesjedal’s consistency and determination paid off. He was in front groups sprinting for the podium at such classics as Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Clásica San Sebástian before carrying strong form into the Vuelta.
Hesjedal snuck into the winning breakaway in stage 12 and delivered what would be the second of Garmin’s three stage victories in the Vuelta.
It was huge for Garmin and an important confirmation for Hesjedal.
“You’re always working hard, but until it happens, you never know. It’s all about confidence. Sometimes it seems so far away and you accept that it might never happen. I know a lot of great riders who have never won a stage in a Grand Tour,” he said. “It’s much sweeter when it does finally happen. You’ll easily commit that much more time again just to taste success again.”
The Vuelta stage victory was no small matter. Not only was it the first Vuelta stage win by a Canadian, but local authorities, taking a page from Alpe d’Huez, are also naming the first switchback on the torturous Velefique climb in Hesjedal’s honor.
“To win a breakaway is difficult; there are a lot of guys chasing a pretty small piece of the pie,” he said. “Most guys out here have been doing it for the majority of their lives, it comes to a point when you’ve been chasing something for 15 years, you’re not getting close to it, so it’s important when it finally happens.”
Bumpy road to success
More importantly, it was also a personal victory of sorts for Hesjedal, whose road to the elite was sometimes as bumpy as the mountain bike trails he used to race on.
After the 2004 Olympics – where he punctured and did not finish the mountain bike race – Hesjedal committed to racing on the road full-time. Promising results with Rabobank’s U23 team landed him a gig at U.S. Postal Service, then a team completely obsessed with Lance Armstrong’s march to Tour history.
He moved to Phonak in 2006 for more chances to race in bigger events, and he quickly posted promising results in the Volta a Catalunya and the Dauphiné Libéré before the team disintegrated following the controversial disqualification of Floyd Landis at the Tour that year.
Burned out and frustrated by the European scene, Hesjedal made a strategic retreat in 2007, racing in the U.S. with HealthNet with hopes of putting the disillusionment behind him.
When Jonathan Vaughters came calling with a chance to ride for the emerging Garmin team, it was just the opportunity he was waiting for.
“I just lucky in a way and fortunate that it’s come together so well, I am in good place with this team,” he says. “A lot of guys took not necessarily a risk, but there was no guarantees when were signing up for Slipstream in 2007. To be part of that and commit to that, I am very happy, I feel like I’ve established myself in this organization. You want that in any profession. It feels great to be with the core guys that it started with, and the team is improving every year, it’s exciting to have been there from the start.”
In 2008, Hesjedal quickly proved he could be counted on for solid individual results as well as team work.
In that year’s Tour, Hesjedal was riding in what proved to be the winning move in stage 16 across the formidable Bonette climb. When a slightly faltering Christian Vande Velde was gapped off the back of the lead GC group, Hesjedal sat up – and actually came to a complete stop on the side of the Bonnet climb – to help pace Vande Velde up the final 5km of the climb to keep alive the team’s podium hopes.
It was performances like that that Hesjedal say were just as important that his breakout 2009 season capped by the Vuelta win.
“2008 was very big in a lot of different ways. Things that I had been chasing for a long time came together for me,” he said. “I did fine-tune my results a little bit last year. These last two years I am where I always thought I could be. I am the most comfortable I’ve ever been on a team. I feel like I’ve shown myself and the team is confident in my abilities. Puts me at ease with peers and guys I look up to, guys like Millar, Vande Velde and Zabriskie, they know they can rely on me, that’s rewarding and satisfying. I am in a great place in my career right now.”
Aiming for more
At 29, Hesjedal is just reaching the peak of his potential.
For 2010, Hesjedal is putting an early season emphasis on the hilly spring classics before reloading for the Tour de France, with a likely detour through the Tour of California in May.
After Eroica, Liège is the other big European race that drives his ambition. Last year, he was quietly 11th, part of the chasing group behind winner Andy Schleck and runner-up Joaquim Rodríguez sprinting for third. He also realizes that Liège is in a league of its own.
“If there was ever race to win and pick yourself, Liège in my mind is one of the hardest and my grueling races in the world,” he said. “If you can raise your hands in that race, that’s something very special.”
His fifth-place last year in the post-Tour Clásica in Spain has piqued his interest in the one-day races that come in the second half of the season. After watching teammate Tyler Farrar win Vattenfall Cyclassics in August, Hesjedal knows there’s an opportunity for success in such races as Plouay and the two, new one-day ProTour races slated for Canada in September.
While taking aim for classics and sneaking into breakaways are Hesjedal’s forte, he realizes his priority in the Tour is to help out teammate and GC captain Christian Vande Velde.
He’s also hoping that one day the stars will align and he will get the green light to go for a stage victory. With his responsibilities to the team coming first, Hesjedal knows that would mean being in the right move in the right situation.
“I’d like to get myself in a scenario to go for a stage in the Tour. That is a big goal,” he says. “Like in 2008, if Christian wasn’t in trouble, I would have been running up the road looking for a result. Having a rider up the road in a stage like, in a big mountain stage late in the Tour, that is also part of the strategy. You can give support when it’s needed and, if things are going well, I am going to go for it. I will be looking for that opportunity the first chance I get.”
So far, Hesjedal has shown uncanny ability to create his own opportunities.
Ryder Hesjedal’s tentative 2010 racing schedule
• Volta ao Algarve
• Volta a Catalunya
• Vuelta al País Vasco
• Flèche Wallonne
• Tour of California
• Tour de Suisse
• Tour de France
• Clásica San Sebástian
• Vuelta a España or Tour of Missouri/Canadian one-days
• World Championships